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Researching the History of Your Home

Step One

Identifying the Style of Your Home

Every house can claim a connection to one or more styles of architecture. Begin your research by touring the inside and outside of your home as well as your neighborhood. Is there are predominant style of architecture or architectural features that stand out? How much has your home or your neighborhood been modified since construction? To learn more about styles of architecture and their features consult style and architecture guides such as A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia & Lee McAlester (Knopf, 1984), Old House Dictionary: An Illustrated Guide to American Domestic Architecture 1600-1940 by Steven J. Phillips (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1989) or American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Cyril M. Harris (W.W. Norton & Company, 1998).

Talking to the Neighbors or Previous Owners

People who live in your community or family members of previous owners may know a good deal about the house in which you live. They may even lead you to a person who once lived in the house prior to your occupying it. This can be a fun and easy way to learn more about your home. You should, however, approach what you discover with care. This type of documentation, often referred to as oral history, while fascinating is also often riddled with misinformation. This first step in fact finding should be corroborated later with written or primary sources (books, public records, maps, etc.).

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Step Two

Now that you have completed step one, it is time to begin researching primary sources of information. The following is a listing of some of the resources you might use:

Historic Registers

It is always a possibility that your house is listed on a local, State, or National Register of Historic Places. This means that your property is recognized as "historic" by local, state, or the federal government. If so, much of the information you seek may already be compiled in a designation report. The report will provide an architectural description, a history of the property and its ownership, a legal description, and the date of construction. Contact the City of Independence's Historic Preservation Division at (816)325-7419 to see if your Independence property has been officially designated as historic. To locate a property by county and state that is listed on the National Register go to Digitized applications of Jackson County, Missouri's National Register sites are available at Please note that while the State of Missouri does not have a State Register of Historic Places, many states do.

Recorder of Deeds

Most record searches will start with the Recorder of Deeds. This county official is charged with keeping track of who owns property. Your goal is to trace the "chain" of ownership, usually starting either with the most recent owner and working backward or with the first owner and working forward. To create a chain of ownership you will need a legal description of the property rather than the street address. A legal description might read, "Block 5, Lot 12, Jackson's Addition, City of Independence." This description can commonly be found on either the papers that were signed when the house was purchased or can be obtained from the local Building Department or the Jackson County Property Appraiser's Office.

Although the chain of ownership will tell you who owned the property (though the property may also be rented), it does not directly tell you anything about what was built on the property or who lived there. As such, the deed rarely mentions if a building was on the property. Nevertheless, the chain of ownership is a very useful starting point for researching an old house since, for the most part, the property owner lives in the house.

Visit the Jackson County Recorder of Deeds for information about documents recorded after 1970 on-line or contact Jackson County Recorder of Deeds Office for those prior to 1970 available on microfilm located at: the Truman Jackson County Courthouse, 112 West Lexington Avenue, Suite 30 on the Independence Square or call at (816)881-4400. 


A property abstract is a collection of legal documents which chronicles activities associated with a particular parcel of land. Generally included are references to deeds, mortgages, wills, probate records, court litigation, and tax sales. Typically, this is any essential legal documents that affect a property. The abstract will also show the names of all property owners and how long a particular holder owned it as well as showing the price the land was exchanged for when it changed owners. Rarely an abstract will mention capital improvements to the property. When available, property abstracts are considered good starting places for research on historical buildings. Many abstracts are either held by the original family who owned or built the property or they are passed down with the sale of the property. If this is not the case, check with the Jackson County Historical Society at or call Savannah Lore, Archivist at (816)252-7454 as a copy of the abstract from your property may have been donated.

City Building Department

For many "newer" houses a building permit may still exist giving the date of the house's construction and perhaps other miscellaneous details. Most jurisdictions require that building permits be obtained whenever a new house is erected or when major renovations are undertaken to an existing building. In addition to the permit itself, there is sometimes a file of inspector's reports and in rare cases the contractor's plans.

You should contact the City of Independence or the Jackson County Building Department to inquire if previously issued permits are available. There is considerable variation among jurisdictions regarding how far back records can be found. Most jurisdictions will have permits going back 20 to 30 years, while a few may have records dating back 40 to 50 years. It is very rare, however, to find building permits prior to 1950. The City of Independence Building Department, Permits Division can be reached at: (816)325-7401.

Property Assessor's Office

For "older" homes, which is certainly any home built before 1945 and often buildings erected before 1960, tax records may prove a clue as to when a building was constructed. Found in the Assessor's office, tax records do not directly indicate when a building was built. However, because a building will increase the property's value, a sudden increase in the tax paid usually indicates that construction has taken place. Tax rolls, however, must be used with caution. First, dates listed with tax rolls are only approximate. This is particularly true if the structure was built in an isolated area. It may have taken the assessor several years to re-value the property and thus increase the taxes. Like today's taxpayers, those in the past rarely called the assessor to announce the need to re-assess the property for the purpose of paying more tax. Second, the building that stands on a piece of property today may not be the one that was constructed when the taxes first increased. An older structure may have been torn down and replaced with a newer building. For online access visit


Fire Insurance Maps

Fire insurance maps, or Sanborn Maps, are one of the most productive sources of information about older buildings. These maps first appeared in the 1870s and continued up until the 1950s. They were created for insurance companies who wanted detailed information about buildings in a particular area in order to accurately assess fire insurance premiums.

A typical fire insurance map includes the street address, number of stories, and footprint of each building and structure in the area mapped. The original maps were also color coded to indicate the building material. Because fire insurance maps were made by a "for profit" corporation, they exist only for areas where the insurance company thought was a highest probability of sales. Thus, fire insurance maps typically exist for urban areas, although for the map's purpose "urban" included many small towns.

One of the greatest assets of these maps is their ability to document the changes a building or property went through over a period of decades. Researching a property from one decade's map to the next may show the addition or enclosure of a porch, the addition of a garage, or the construction of an outbuilding. Go to "Digital Sanborn Maps" on the Midwest Genealogy Center's web site at Please note: you must have a current Kansas City Public Library card or a Mid-Continent Public Library card to access these sites. For paper copies of the maps, you can contact the City's Preservation Division at (816)325-7419

Bird's-Eye View Maps

Another wonderful mapping resource is known as the "birds-eye views" map. This very accurate, published sketch is quite literally an aerial or "bird's eye" view of the community that can be found throughout the country. Bird's-eye views were usually created at the request of a town's business community for promotional purposes. The companies which contracted to make these views prided themselves in representing the town with great accuracy. Thus the bird's-eye view creates a fairly accurate snapshot of the buildings in a community as of the date of publication. The bird's eye view map of Independence dates back to the 1860s and is an excellent resource for dating early Civil War era buildings. Both the Jackson County Historical Society as well as the City of Independence Historic Preservation Division has reference copies for public use.

City/County Histories

There are several resources available for those researching Independence or Jackson County history. Such books include: History of Jackson County Missouri by W.Z. Hickman (Historical Publishing Company, 1920), Jackson County Pioneers by Pearl Wilcox (Jackson County Historical, 1975), and Independence & 20th Century Pioneers: The Years from 1900 to 1928 by Pearl Wilcox (Jackson County Historical Society, 1979). If you have determined that your property is affiliated with a City or County pioneer, one of these resources may lead to more definitive information concerning the history of your home or historic owners of your home. Contact the Jackson County Historical Society to make an appointment to review these and other city/county historical resources at or call Savannah Lore, Archivist at (816)252-7454.

City Surveys

Over the past few decades, surveying areas with a great concentration of older perhaps historic buildings has become commonplace. These surveys typically list both architectural as well as historical information about the property, its improvements, and its ownership including date of construction, architectural style, exterior modifications, etc. The City of Independence has several such surveys of areas of significance. Hard copies of these surveys can be accessed at City Hall located at: 111 E. Maple or by calling (816)325-7419. The most recent survey of the Truman Heritage District as well as the Independence Square can be accessed on-line at by entering the street name and number.

City Directories

Unlike phone books, city directories list only the names and addresses of residents and businesses within a community. Typically organized by street address, they offer information regarding names of either owners or renters of a residential or commercial property, and sometimes the vocations of those who lived/worked in a building in years past. Like fire insurance maps, directories were published by "for profit" organizations largely for commercial purposes. As with fire insurance maps they were published mainly for urban areas and revised as market demand dictated; annually in major metropolitan areas but irregularly in smaller, more rural communities. Independence City directories can be referenced by the address as far back as the 1930s and by property owner or resident beyond that.

For hard copies of the directories, you can go to the Mid-Continent Public Library's Genealogy Center located at: 3440 S. Lee's Summit Road, Independence, MO 64055, (816)252-7228 or check out their web site at for additional location information or contact the Jackson County Historical Society at: or call Savannah Lore, Archivist at (816)252-7454.

Plat Books

Plat books are maps that document property ownership. A typical plat book is published by county with a map printed for each township. Each township map is further subdivided to indicate who owns property. In some instances plat books will also include markings of where buildings/structures existed. A plat book is a convenient tool to determine ownership of a particular piece of land and, if one is particularly lucky, to ascertain if a building/structure happened to be standing somewhere on the land as of the date the book was published. To access plat books on-line go to

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Step Three

Other Resources

The most likely resources of information about your house are listed above. There are, however, a number of other sources that may help you learn more about your house and the people who lived in it. If you know the surname of those who previously lived in the house, genealogical research may help. For documentation on the exterior of the house, try family collections, newspaper articles, and historic photographs in libraries, archives, or local historical societies. If your property dates back to the late 19th century you may also wish to consult the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Jackson County, Missouri (Brink, McDonough, & Co., 1877-re-printed by the Jackson County Historical Society, 2007).

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