Brent Stevens appreciates history. That’s one reason he and his wife, Vicki, purchased an 1840s-era home in Constantine, Mich., in 1999. Subsequent research turned up something that made their home even more endearing — probably more valuable too.
“We got the abstract (part of the title search connected to a house’s sale) that said, here are all the people who have owned it, and we tried to do as much research as possible on each of these individuals,” Stevens says. One of the former owners lived nearby, and Stevens spoke with him. “He lived there in the ’20s, and told me about an underground tunnel in the house that went to a barn close to the St. Joe River.
He talked about storing furniture in the (since walled over) tunnel, about playing in it. And he was told it was part of the Underground Railroad.” Stevens is still doing research to confirm his home was indeed a stop for runaway slaves — the Underground Railroad did have stops in the area — and he has no intention of selling. But the story adds a layer of history to the property, and history does translate financially. “I’m a salesman,” Stevens says. “Probably the biggest reason people buy whatever they’re buying is there’s a story attached. People love stories. … This house has a tunnel, it’s from the Underground Railroad. They hear that and it gets them thinking about living in that space or whatever.”
Researching the history of your home can offer financial benefits, whether you uncover a historically significant fact, as Stevens did, or whether you’re just tracking the work that has been done on the property. The more you know, the better off you are. And the right fact can become a key selling point. “I create a house story whenever possible,” Arizona real estate agent Jennifer Sheedy told Realtor Magazine last year. “I find that a house with a story draws more traffic, moves more quickly and sells for more money.”
So if documenting your home’s history can pay off, how do you start? Sources of information. There are two ways to define a home’s “history.” There’s the truly historical, the “George Washington slept here” type, the sort of thing worth noting with a brass plaque. Then there’s the house’s unique history, the record of a home’s owners and occupants, its importance in the community, the changes it has undergone over time. Some homes come with their contributions to history already documented.
For others, you have to dig. Whether you’re searching for events of great historical import or just a list of previous owners, there are several sources of information. The local library and historical society are good places to start. City directories and old phone directories will tell you who lived at that address; census records (also available, for a price, through companies such as archives.com and ancestry.com) give a snapshot of the occupants’ lives; microfilm copies of old newspapers can also be searched; and libraries and historical preservation groups often have photo collections that can be explored. Another source of information is neighbors.
Stevens found out about the tunnel from the former owner. He also has a friend who, in seeking information on his 19th century home, advertised an open house and asked anyone with information to drop by. He had 18 couples show up, bringing photos and stories. “I talked to kids in town who had parties in the house when it was abandoned in the ’60s,” Stevens said of his research. “Another gentleman told me it had been used as an elevator — potatoes on one floor, corn on another, and wheat on another.” Once you know your house’s history and collect those kinds of stories, you’re off to a good start.
Nuts and bolts — and roofs.
How old is the roof? Who wired the attic? How extensive was that kitchen remodeling job? That’s where Buildfax comes in. Buildfax, in essence, does background checks on properties. It is the only national company that offers building permit data — it covers 63 percent of the country, including every city of more than 200,000 people — and through it homeowners, prospective homeowners, real estate professionals, lenders, insurance companies and others can document what work was done on a property, when and by whom, as long as there are permits on file.
“If you’re a short-term owner, say from 2005 to the present, you can go into our database and show that gazebo was done by a licensed contractor and not your cousin,” says Holly Tachovsky, Buildfax co-founder and president of the Austin, Texas-based company. “That’s meaningful to a buyer.” Adds Joe Emison, co-founder and vice president of research and development: “We know when a furnace was put in and by whom and if it has a maintenance contract. That’s not something that’s usually handed over in (sales) transactions.” For a home seller, a Buildfax report can back up claims and erase prospective buyers’ doubts. Yes, that roof really is only 6 years old. Conversely, a buyer can confirm that the $100,000 kitchen remodeling job mentioned in an ad really was a $100,000 job. Proof of work could also mean lower insurance rates, Tachovsky says.
Cost is about $40 for a single report; for $90, a client can get three months of access, perfect if you’re in the market for a new home and want to do some homework on possible properties.
Having your home listed on the National Register of Historic Places adds a certain panache that could translate to a higher resale value. Go to nps.gov/nr for how to get started. You can also have your home listed with local preservation groups, but their rules tend to be more restrictive than the National Register. Historic designation also can mean higher insurance rates because it costs more to rebuild an older home. On the other hand, you may be eligible for some tax breaks, depending on the rehab work you do. Put it all together. Once you’ve gathered your home’s history, assemble everything — documents, photos, receipts, diary entries — into some sort of book. In fact, make two books, one for you and one to leave with the house when you sell. If you find historically significant facts, make a third copy for your local historical society.
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune on June 18, 2010. This article from Tribune Company news outlets has been republished for additional education purposes. Please note that this editorial content was produced by Tribune news staff who are not employed by ForSaleByOwner.com or by Tribune Digital Marketplaces. This article is not affiliated with any links or products that appear on the on the same pages. Read more about our editorial policy.