Who Died in My House?

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Powell, Kimberly. "Who Died in My House?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/who-died-in-my-house-1422049. Powell, Kimberly. (2017, March 3). Who Died in My House? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-died-in-my-house-1422049 Powell, Kimberly. "Who Died in My House?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-died-in-my-house-1422049 (accessed September 26, 2017).

Have you ever wondered if someone has died in your house? Apparently many people have, especially if they live in an older home. Interestingly, this morbid curiosity has even given rise to web services such as DiedInHouse.com which promises, for $11.99, a report detailing "any records found stating that there was a death at the address." They utilize public records and databases, however, and state in their FAQs that their search covers "only a fraction of the deaths that have occurred in America" and that most of their data "is from the mid to late 1980s to present."

While death certificates usually record the address where the death occurred, most online online death databases do not index this information. Public property records can tell you about the owners of a particular house, but not others who may have lived there. So how can you really learn about the people who may have died in your house? And can you do it for free?

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Start with your favorite search engine

Did Someone Die in Your House?
Getty / Ralph Nau

You've likely already tried this simple step, but entering a street address into a search engine such as Google or DuckDuckGo may uncover interesting information about a particular property. Try entering the house number and street name in quotes—leaving off the final road/rd., lane/ln., street/st., etc. unless the street name is very common (e.g. park avenue). Add on the city name as well (e.g. "123 beauregard" lexington) to help narrow the results. If there are still too many results, you may also need to add the state and/or country name to your search.

If you have identified any of your home's former residents, then a search might also include their surname (e.g. "123 beauregard" lightsey).

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Dig into public property records

Deed books
Getty / Loretta Hostettler

A variety of public land and property records can be used to identify the former owners of your home, as well as the land it sits on. Most of these property records will be found at the municipal or county office responsible for creating and recording property records, although older records may also have been moved to a state archives or other repository. 

Tax Assessment Records:  Many counties have current property assessment records online (locate them through a search engine with [county name] and [state name] plus keywords such as assessor or assessment (e.g. pitt county nc assessor). If not online, then you'll find them computerized at the county assessor's office. Search by owner name or select the property parcel on a map to obtain the real property parcel number. This will provide information on the land and any current structures. In some counties this parcel number can also be used to retrieve historical tax information. In addition to identifying property owners, tax records can be used to estimate a building's construction date by comparing the assessed value of the property from one year to the next. If buildings aren't specifically mentioned, you can identify possible construction by noting the date of an assessment that increases out of proportion to other nearby properties.

Deeds: Recorded copies of various types of land deeds can be used to identify former land owners. If you're the home owner, your own deed will likely identify the prior owners, as well as reference the prior transaction in which those owners first acquired title to the property. If you are not the home's owner, then you can locate a copy of the deed by searching the grantee index at the local recorder's office for the name(s) of the current property owner(s). Most deeds you read should reference the immediate prior owners of the property (the ones selling the home to the new owners) and, usually, the deed book and page number of the previous deed. Learn how to research a chain of title and how to find deeds online.

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Consult census records and city directories

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in the 1940 census. Image: National Archives
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard living in Encino, California (1940 census). National Archives & Records Administration

Tracking down previous owners of your home is a great start, but only tells a part of the story. What about all of the other people who may have lived there? Children? Parents? Cousins? Even lodgers? This is where census records and city directories come into play.

The U.S. government took a census each decade beginning in 1790 and the resulting US census records through 1940 are open to the public and available online. State census records are also available for some states and time periods—generally taken about mid-way between each federal decennial census.

City directories, available for most urban areas and many towns, can be used to fill in gaps between available census enumerations. Search them by address (e.g. "4711 Hancock") to locate everyone who may have lived in or boarded at the residence.

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Locate death certificates

As you begin to identify the people who owned and lived in your home, the next step is to learn how and where each of them died. The best source for this type of information is usually the death certificate which will identify both the residence as well as the place of death, along with the cause of death. Many death databases and indexes can be accessed online—generally indexed by surname and year of death. You'll have to look at the actual death certificate, however, to learn whether the individual actually died in the home.

Some death certificates and other death records can be found online in digitized format, while others will require a request through the appropriate state or local vital records office.

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Expand your search to historical newspapers

Explore online, digitized historical newspapers from across the US
Getty / Sherman

Billions of digitized pages from historical newspapers can be accessed online—a great source for obituaries, as well as news items, local gossip and other items that might mention the people and events connected with your home. Search for the names of owners and other residents you have previously identified in your research, as well as the house number and street name as a phrase (e.g. "4711 poplar").