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Those Who Came Before: Researching your Old House's History
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Just what is involved in getting together a detailed report about the chain of title to your property, back to when the building was probably constructed, and data on the families and ancestors of past owners.
So youve just purchased The Old Ferguson Place in some quaint New England town. Its had the prerequisite number of 19th and early 20th century ells and breeze-ways tacked onto it, but in the midst of it all, you can see that big, center-chimney that reveals a 200 year old Federal house.

But who were the Fergusons? Were they the builders of the original 1803 structure or just a prominent family with

Early oil painting of the Samuel Wallis house showing the original facade of this eighteenth century homestead.
a storied tenure during the late 19th century? You decide to become a sleuth and spend some time rattling around the musty hall of records in your local county seat or Town Clerks Office.

Being new to this, you might very well waste a month of lunch-hours barking up the wrong treeor you could hire someone like Harvey Schmidt. He is an independent real estate title examiner with over 20 years experience, specializing in searching titles to old/historic properties in Worcester Countyany time from 1731 forward.

I started doing old title searches as Christmas presents for neighbors in the mid 1980s, notes Schmidt, Then a number of young couples began moving into the neighborhood and fixing up old houses. They appreciated their buildings historical aspects, and were enthusiastic to discover the history of their homes. And I loved doing it.

Schmidt provides clients with a listing of all the prior owners of their house along with copies of all the prior deeds and relevant probate documents including any wills and estate inventories. This includes a detailed report about the chain of title to your property, back to when the building was probably constructed, and data on the families and ancestors of past owners.

Along with my documentation and report, I provide whatever genealogical information about prior owners I can

Later view of the facade with Victorian era two-over-two windows, double door and a wrap around porch.
locate, which is normally quite extensive for early owners. I use both the Massachusetts vital records and on-line genealogical services.

One of Schmidts more memorable projectsbecause of the vagueness of the early deed descriptionswas researching the 1780s Samuel Wallis House in Douglas, MA, It was rather complicated to sort out. One reason was that the indexes to land records before 1890 in Worcester County show very little information. Interpreting the handwriting in old deeds was another challengeit usually isbut Im quite good at it. He also recalls the ca. 1750 John Wilder House in Petersham, MA, the 1762 Rice/Sibley House in Grafton, and the pre-1814 Otis Fay House in Westborough as a few of his more interesting searches.


Estimating the possible construction date of a house from land records is difficult, but Schmidt employs his experience to glean hidden details from the documents. If its an 1803 deed for a fairly small lot, and the consideration (price) is $500, chances are theres a building on the property. Conversely, if its 17 acres and $200, its usually a farm tract without notable structures. Also, if theres a record of the sale but no subsequent mortgage, it may also be just land, as I seldom see a mortgage on property without a building. This

The 1780 Samuel Wallis house in 2007 the two-over-two window sash replaced with twelve-over-twelve sash and the Victorian era door and porch removed.
gives me a clue about when the first structures may have appeared on the property. Its not a foolproof method, but it can be helpful

Additionally, Schmidt will provide an interesting visual aid: I have software that can produce an extremely accurate plot of a complete real estate description from any deed (i.e., one that shows distances and bearings for all bounds)very useful and interesting if your parcel of land evolved out of a larger, well-defined tract many years ago.
Schmidt charges an hourly rate of $60, and bills only for time spent researching and report writing. The typical report starts at $240 and goes up, but he will adhere to your predetermined budget.

There is a potential tax benefit to utilizing Schmidts services as well; if you hire him and then donate a copy of his report to any charitable institution (historical society or commission, etc.), you will then be able to deduct the entire cost of the bill from your federal income tax.

Occasionally, Schmidt makes discoveries that revise commonly held beliefs: Sometimes Ill find out that a building was built years before the owner its named for, or that it wasnt even theirs in the first place. For example, the Bigelow Tavern in West Boylston, MA was supposedly built around 1790 by Deacon Amariah Bigelow; turns out that he never owned it, it belonged to his cousin Joseph.


For more information, please contact:
Harvey H. Schmidt
978-263-3662
harvey.schmidt@comcast.net
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Our staff features writer, Dan Cooper has been working on old houses for over 20 years, and also writes for Old House Interiors, Period Homes, Cottages and Bungalows amongst other magazines on the subject of architecure, antiques and design.