Buying a Property

How to discover the history of your home

· 7 min read

Have you ever wondered what secrets your house might hold? Perhaps you are looking to buy a property, but you would like to know the history? Many people may not be aware, but there are numerous ways in which you can find out the history of a property. So, where do you start?


Have you ever wondered what secrets your house might hold? Perhaps you are looking to buy a property, but you would like to know the history? Many people may not be aware, but there are numerous ways in which you can find out the history of a property. So, where do you start?

How can I trace the history of my house? 

There are many ways in which you can trace the history of your house. Most services are free, but some do charge a fee for more in-depth information.

Visual clues

You will find that many older properties will provide visual clues as to their history. Upon completion of the property, there may have been a plaque added or a date carved into the walls. We also know that numerous properties have changed use over the years. Very often the details of the previous use, for example as a shop or church, may still be visible within the structure. This can provide a starting point for your research.

Local history

The Internet has had a significant impact on our daily lives, as well as businesses. It has also given local history groups a means by which to showcase their information and gather more details. Something as simple as talking to the elders of your community, those families with a long history in the area, can provide details not often available elsewhere.

We often expect all historical information to be online today. However, when you bear in mind the hundreds of years of manual documentation available, this will take some time. Your local library, council offices and history groups can very often be a fountain of knowledge.

Census

The first UK census was conducted in 1801 and gave a snapshot of the country at that time. The data collected has been changed and adapted over the years. It is now possible to gather data on those living in a particular property, including:

  • Family information
  • Occupation
  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Religion

While recent census trends and general data are made available, online and off-line, relatively quickly, the actual census records are time-barred. As a consequence, the full records only become open to the general public 100 years after the census date. So, for example, in 2022 the complete records of the 1921 Census will be available in the public domain. 

As a census happens every ten years, you would need to incorporate other research options to fill in the gaps. However, there is no doubt it is a handy starting point when looking at the history of properties and land.

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Wills and probates

We can only imagine the varied history and chequered past of many properties in the UK. When researching a property, you may come across individual and family names. You may find it particularly interesting to cross-reference these with wills and probates, which are in the public domain. This can provide information such as the transfer of property, wealth of an individual/family and family connections.

Listed buildings

While many of us associate listed buildings with huge historical properties, this is not always the case. Numerous different types of property in the UK have received listed building status, for various reasons. If your property is a listed building, the National Heritage List for England website could prove extremely useful. The site provides an overview of the date of construction and significant features of listed properties in England.

Inland Revenue Valuation Office

Between 1910 and 1915 the UK government created the Inland Revenue Valuation Office (since renamed the Valuation Office Agency). This office is in charge of surveying land and property across the UK. Historical data going back to the turn-of-the-century will reveal details about individual properties, including:

  • Value
  • Use (residential, commercial, other)
  • Area covered by property
  • Number of rooms (in some cases individual room use)
  • Owners and occupiers
  • Tenancy details

Incorporating information from the Valuation Office Agency with census data can be extremely useful. It not only helps to create a picture of a property but also the local community and working/social trends.

Reasons to research the history of a property

At first glance, it may not be evident as to why information about the history of a property may be useful. However, there are many scenarios where additional information can be vital.

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Securing finance

Whether purchasing a home on a new development or an existing property, the history of the area can prove vital. For example, we have seen some confusion regarding areas of historic mining. In some cases, this has prevented individuals from securing mortgage finance or selling their property. Even if the concerns are eventually proved unfounded, that added degree of risk could be the difference between securing a mortgage/selling your property. If a potential buyer is unable to secure finance, then you would be limited to cash buyers. This could significantly impact the sale price!

Insuring a property

As with any financial transaction, when looking to insure a property, the risk/reward ratio is front and centre. Issues such as local subsidence, the emergence of old mining shafts and sinkholes could impact other properties in the area. Unless directly affecting the property you are looking to buy or sell this is not necessarily something which would come up in any surveyors report. Even if there was a marginal risk to the property, you can be sure this would reflect in your insurance premiums.

Property preservation

While various databases show listed properties across the UK, properties of local significance are not always covered in as much detail. If you believe the property you are looking at purchasing has a significant local history, you may find there are restrictions on the changes you can make. This might impact your hopes and plans for the future, as well as the sell on value. Failure to investigate such issues could lead to significant additional expenditure going forward.

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Useful websites

There are many websites available, offering free and paid services, holding current and historical data on properties (and local communities) across the UK. It's essential to appreciate not only the specifics of an individual property but also the community and history. This will enable you to paint a picture of life in the area and the changing trends. 

Below we have listed several websites you may find useful for research purposes:

The benefits of knowing the history of your home

Many people believe researching a property's history is a pastime for those with time on their hands. This is not necessarily the case. Knowing the history of a property you are looking to buy could open your eyes to numerous issues such as securing finance, sell on values and insurance. While various property reports and disclosures are a legal obligation when buying or selling a property, they may not give the overall picture. If there are grey areas, such as historic mineshafts in the area, these may not be covered but could impact the value of a property further down the line.

Mark Benson
Mark Benson
Mark has over 10 years’ experience specialising in writing around property, finance, and investment subjects. Mark has been published on a variety of popular websites covering these topics and others.
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