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How to find the history of your home

Is your Philadelphia home a piece of history? With a little bit of digging you can discover its previous (or original) inhabitants.

The magic number: 1854

The first step in the research process is finding out the year your home was built. Easy enough, as it’s generally listed on your deed.

Take special note if your home was built prior to 1854 as this is the year the City of Philadelphia changed their record keeping protocol.

  • Homes built prior to 1854 will be organized by township, borough or district.
  • Homes built after 1854 will be listed according to numbered wards.

While ward boundaries have been adjusted over the years, you should be able to pinpoint your ward number at the Greater Philadelphia Geo History website.

Locate your home using a historical atlas

The Free Library of Philadelphia provides a wealth of maps, atlases and other resources in the City Archives, Maps and Government Records departments.

Use a current Sanborn Insurance Map as a guidepost to more easily locate your property on older maps. As Philadelphia city surveys have been published since 1860, any home built after that date should be easy to find. Older surveys can be found at the Philadelphia City Archives.

Analyzing historical atlases and surveys can provide a better picture of how the area surrounding your home has evolved over the years.

Documenting a record of past owners

Piecing together a list of past residents of your home is best done by working backwards. The Board of Revision of Taxes contains data on property transfer, as does the Philadox software program, which is available for public use at City Hall.

Locate the registry plan and plot numbers on the oldest deed in the Philadox database, which will usually go back to the late 1970s.

With these two numbers you can then search the microfiche archives, also located at City Hall, for older records.

Additional resources

Alternative routes for tracking the historical transfer of property include:

  • Will records at the Philadelphia Register of Wills.
  • Land grant or “patent” records for any land originally gifted by William Penn are available on microfilm at the City Archives.
  • Mortgage records can help fill in the gaps when there are long periods of time between a change in title.
  • Building permits from most of the 1900s can be found at the Central Electrical Section of the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
  • Historically significant homes may have architectural plans archived at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania or the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • Fire insurance records can be found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • Census records.

A work in progress

Chronicling the history of your home is not a weekend project. It may take months or even years to slowly piece together the puzzle.

Don’t rush. Enjoy the experience and treat the tracing of your property’s past as an ongoing hobby rather than a task.