House Research 101
Did you know that you can research the history of your house or apartment from your very own couch? Read on for a step-by-step guide to internet-based home research. (Download a helpful HOUSE RESEARCH WORKSHEET here, first, to keep track of your progress.)
If you have a computer and a curious mind, you’re ready!
Find your PIN and approximate age of your home.
Visit the Cook County Assessor’s page and enter your address.
You’ll find your PIN (parcel identification number) and age of your house.
Is your house 111 years old or older? If your house was built before 1909, it may have had a different street number originally. Find your old street number here.
Some street names have also changed over time. Look up changes here.
Download a historic map of your neighborhood! The Chicago Public Library has a new searchable fire insurance map database.
Click on "Enter your address" and see what’s available for your area. (NOTE: You will need a Chicago Public Library Card to login.)
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Company published maps of cities starting in the 1880s, which were periodically updated through 1949. You can use them to learn:
What your neighborhood looked like, including businesses/industry
Compare maps to see changes/additions over time
When you open a map link, click on “page 0” FIRST to see which map sheet you need to click on to view your block. You can download a hi-res JPG or PDF (click the output map button for this option) of the map pages you want to keep and/or print.
If you don’t see the map you’re looking for in the CPL’s new database, you can try to find it here.
Before you do, be sure to identify the date and volume you need using CPL’s old Chicago Sanborn Maps index.
Click through the photos below for reference. The first image is Page 0 from the 1948 Sanborn Map, and the second image is 7436 S Euclid Ave (Michelle Obama’s childhood home!) on Page 11.
Ok, cool, but what does it all mean? Study a Sanborn Map legend. Be sure to scroll all the way down to the residential section for the most helpful information.
Now for an example: 7436 S Euclid Ave (Michelle Obama’s childhood home) was a private residential building occupied by not more than two families because we see the letter D (dwelling). The red color indicates solid brick construction. The open back porch is yellow, meaning it was wood frame; the dashed line indicates that it was open. The “Fr. Gables” means there were frame gable dormers. The 1½ B, located in the upper right hand corner, means there was one full story with an occupied attic, over a basement. The small x indicates that there are window openings; the black dot indicates composition shingles. The number 8 indicates the wall thickness as 8 inches. On the front of the building, there is a one-story enclosed frame porch (solid line, yellow color), one story in height (1), with a composition roof (black dot). The garage is indicted by the A (for auto), and is a one story frame building with composition shingles.
Locate your building permit to discover the architect, builder, owner, etc.
UIC recently digitized their collection of microfilm, which covers building permits from 1872-1954. Their website has step-by-step instructions on how to tackle the two-step process.
(Once we’re on the other side of COVID-19, you can also go in-person to the Chicago History Museum Research Center.)
If your home was built after June 1954, you must file FOI request with the city to obtain your permit.
Note: If your house is in a National Register district—like one of our 14 Bungalow Historic Districts—this info is in the nomination!
Check to see if you’re in a NR historic district with the City of Chicago Zoning and Land Use Map.
Links to Bungalow Historic District NR nominations, which are stored at the National Archives and mostly digitized:
Portage Park, email CBA
Brainerd, email CBA
Hermosa, email CBA
Gage Park, email CBA
These nominations list the architect, builder, owner, etc. for contributing buildings within the district. (They DO NOT include blueprints for buildings—sorry but it’s next to impossible to find original blueprints, as great as that would be.) Nominations also include a local history of the neighborhood that is worth the read!
Note: There are a slew of non-bungalow districts and landmarks, too!
Trace your deed to learn who has owned your home as well as its legal history.
For older deeds, once it’s safe, go to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds Downtown Chicago Office. You need your PIN. It’s a long process, but it gives you leads for further research!
Identify occupants of your home through U.S. Census records and city directories.
These government-sponsored population records are organized by household and taken every 10 years and are available through 1940. Find details about your home’s occupants, including their name, age, sex, occupation, place of birth, marital status and household (spouse, kids, in-laws…)
Ancestry.com (paid subscription required after a free trial) is the easiest way to look up records, but there are other places, too.
If you’ve been researching and still don’t have a name of a historic occupant, try a reverse city directory (aka criss-cross directory). The earliest one is from 1928/1929. You can look up an address and it lists the occupant! Click on the correcting letter for street name and scroll until you find your street number.
Click through the photos below for a step-by-step guide to this process:
Here’s a good resource for finding other city directories: https://chicagogenealogy.com/find-chicago-city-directories.html
Learn more about who lived there with newspaper searches. But be ready for surprises, good and bad! Use your CPL log-in to search local newspapers for your address and former inhabitants!
Go to Chicago Public Library's newspapers on microfilm for online resources.
Newspapers.com Illinois Collection has many other newspapers from Chicago and around the state.
Click through the photos below for an example of how to search newspaper records for 2423 W Coyle Ave:
Tips: use quotations around the address and try different versions, including the historic address. For example, to search 4837 North Kenmore Avenue try ALL the following searches: “4837 N Kenmore”; “4837Kenmore”; “2072 N Kenmore”; 2072 Kenmore”
Try nearest intersections, too. For example, “Lawrence and Kenmore”.
Search the names of known previous occupants to learn even more.
Click through the photos below for examples of newspaper articles found for 4837 N Kenmore Ave:
But wait, I was looking for old photos of my house. Where are those??
It can be next to impossible to find old photos (as well as blueprints) of your home, but here are a few places to try:
You might also have luck contacting a previous owner or their descendants. They may have photos of the house (interior or exterior) in their photo albums. You can find them through ancestry.com if you learn the name of a previous owner or occupant.
Sometimes newspaper articles have images... but beware, often it's for all the wrong reasons.
Check with your local historical society or neighborhood Facebook page, if you have one. Sometimes people will donate/share old photos of the area.
Just can’t get enough? Here are two more resources to explore, for the fun of it:
Did we miss something? Please share your hot research tips in the comments below. Need help with your research? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance. Learn something interesting about your bungalow? Email us with discoveries!