History of Your House

Step 2: The Architectural History of Your House – Exterior

House Overview: Stand back and take a good look at your house. What architectural details do you notice?  

Look at the: 

Door (the most common update to a property)

Door frame



Roof line


Type of building materials used

Look for any outbuildings or sections that may once have been outbuildings but are presently attached. 

How does your house sit on the land: on a hill, flat lot, or slope? 

How far from the road is the house? 

Survey your site:

1. Are there outbuildings? Outbuildings served many purposes, such as a dairy, pig sty or outhouse. Outbuildings can provide clues to the occupation of the previous owners. 

  2. Look for: abandoned foundations or pathways; trash dumps; water sources; stone walls; plantings; man-made ridges or hollows. 

Survey the exterior of your house:

1. Asymmetry. Was your house built in sections, prevalent from the 1790’s-1820’s? Was your house built prior to 1889, when the US standard for a ‘foot’ was established? Asymmetry was in vogue from 1880-1900. 

2. Foundations. Different construction styles and materials or lines of demarcation indicate that your house was constructed in phases. Do you have a full basement or are there footings?

3. Chimneys. How many are there? How are they constructed? Where are they located?

4. Roof. What is the roof style: gable, hip, gambrel, mansard, shed, a mixture? Of what material is it made? This will give you a clue, but remember that roofing materials are frequently replaced. What is its pitch? Are there edge details, such as decorative face boards?

5. Walls. With what material is it sided? If wood, is it clapboard, shingle, board & batten?

6. Doors. Where are the doors placed? Are there transoms? Does the style of the door seem to match the frame? Remember that an easy way to update a house is to change the door. How are the doors constructed? Plank? Panel? Wide? Narrow?

7. Windows.

– Placement: Are they wide apart, indicating the use of shutters? Is there any shutter hardware? Are they grouped in twos or threes, or single? The grouping of windows occurred mostly after 1850. In early homes windows were often irregularly placed. 

  – What style is the sash? Casements swing out; if only the bottom moves it is single- hung, the top and bottom move in a double-hung window. 

– Are there dormers?

– Are the windows of a particular style? Palladian: three adjacent windows, center has a fanlight; eyebrow: under the eave, early 19th century; bay window: in vogue around 1840; paired windows: Italianate style (1850-1890); window trim: does it match the door trim, is it the same on all sides of the house:

8. Window panes.

– How many panes are in each window? Does the number differ from window to window? Do you have twelve over twelve; six over six; two over two; one over one? In general, the smaller and more numerous, the older the window.

– What do the panes look like? Is there a bump in the middle, ripples or bubbles? These indicate age and manufacturing method. What is their color? Do you have stained glass windows? 

 9. How many stories are there?

– Pre-Revolution: generally one and one-half stories for the common person; two full stories for the wealthy.

– Post-Revolution: two and one-half stories were common.

10. Are there wings or ells?

11. Do the windows match? Is the siding the same? How are the doors positioned? Could a back door once have been the front door?