Researching House History in Columbus

Frequently Asked Questions

In a perfect world, each new homeowner would be presented with a detailed history of their house, complete with photographs taken every few years. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, but with time and patience and a will to research, the mysteries of a building’s past can make themselves known. There are many sources to consult and many avenues of research to attempt, although each one may not produce useful information for each house.

Many variables come into play including the age and location of the house. It is important to be patient and thorough, to check every lead, and to keep a written record of every piece of information you find and where you find it. Some resources may appear complicated or difficult to use at first. Be sure to make use of the most important resource of all: staff who are familiar with the resources, can explain their use, and can suggest the best method for using them.

How old is my house?

Franklin County Auditor Records
A good source with which to begin your research is the website for the Franklin County Auditor. Property may be searched by parcel ID, current owner’s name, or street address. The summary information includes a space for “Year Built.” Dates prior to 1920 are often guesses and are often wrong. Other information available includes recent transfers of ownership, improvements made to the property, and a recent photograph of the property.

City Directories
For properties older than 1920 and that were located within the corporation limits of Columbus, the Columbus City Directories are an important source. This annual directory lists residents of the city, the address at which they lived, and often the occupation at which they worked. The Main Library at 96 S. Grant Avenue, houses city directories back to 1841. Residents are listed in alphabetical order. Beginning in 1911, the directory included a section listing houses by street address. It is important to remember that this directory only lists the occupant of the property, not necessarily the owner of the property.

The Main Library also houses various historic real estate and insurance maps which show the outlines of buildings on property and so can assist in dating houses. The most familiar is the Sanborn Insurance Map which is available for Columbus for the years 1887, 1891, 1901, 1921 and 1921-51. These maps are available online as well as at the Main Library on microfilm for all years and in hard copy for 1921-1951.

Other historic maps at the Main Library that show building outlines and/or property ownership include:
Caldwell’s Atlas of Franklin Co. and of the city of Columbus, Ohio : from actual surveys (1872)
Baist’s Real Estate Atlas Surveys of Columbus and Vicinity Ohio (1899, 1910, 1920)
Modie & Kilmer’s Folio Atlas of Franklin County (1910)
Plat Book of Columbus and Vicinity, Franklin Co., Ohio, published by Franklin Survey Co. (1937)

Who owned and lived in my house?

City Directories
As mentioned previously, the Columbus City Directories, dating back to 1841 and housed at the Main Library, are an annual record of a house’s occupants and may provide clues to ownership. A search by address is available beginning with the 1911 directory.

Title Deeds
The source for determining property ownership is a title deed. Deeds are located in the office of the Franklin County Recorder, 373 S. High Street, 18th floor. This office houses books of deeds dating back to 1803. Deeds may be searched with indexes of Grantors (sellers) or Grantees (buyers). Each is divided in chronological periods, such as 1803-1888, 1889-1903, 1904-1913, etc. Many deeds have been scanned and are accessible on the County Recorder’s website. Deeds record the transfer of ownership, but not the type of development made to the property. There are clues within the records though, that may hint at construction and development. A large increase in the purchase price of a property within a short time span may reflect the construction of a building. Also, an easement granted to a gas or electric company may suggest a recent addition to the property.

Tax Appraisal Records
Tax Appraisal Records are indexed by property Parcel Number and are housed in the office of the Franklin County Auditor, 373 S. High Street, 20th floor. The records begin around 1920 and show the sequence of owners, tax revisions, and taxable improvements. A scanned Tax “Assessment List” dating back to 1920 can be found for most properties on the Franklin County Auditor’s website by clicking “Transfer History” and then “View Prior History.”

The Ohio Historical Society, houses Tax Duplicates, 1806-1810, 1816-1838, 1868, 1902-1907, 1914-1919, for Franklin County. These records contain lists of taxes assessed against real property within the county showing property owner, range, township and section, acreage, parcel number, value of property, tax, and whether delinquent. They also contain a record of special assessments showing nature of public improvement and amount of assessment and record of exempted real property.

Census Records
The United States government takes a census of the population every ten years. The census showing individual names is released to the public after 72 years so the most recent census of names available is the 1940 census. These records show the names, ages, and other information of each individual within a household, and since enumerators often traveled up and down a street collecting information, you can compare who was living in your house with others in the neighborhood.

The census can be searched by surname. The Main Library houses all of the available U.S. census records for the state of Ohio on microfilm. Selected years are also available on two online databases to which the library subscribes. Ancestry Library Edition is available for use at all Columbus branch libraries. Heritage Quest is available at all Columbus branch libraries as well as from a remote computer. A valid Discovery Place library card will be necessary for accessing the database away from the library.

Where can I find an old photograph of my house?

Finding old pictures is always difficult because taking pictures of houses has never been a required government service. The Franklin County Auditor’s website shows a recent photograph of most properties.

The library maintains two databases that contain selected historic photographs and other information that may provide productive leads. Both the Digital Collections  and Central Ohio Buildings databases can be searched by address. If no matches are found, try broadening your search to only the street name in case the focus of the photograph is the building next to yours.

The other option is to contact previous owners or the children and descendants of previous owners who may have old pictures of your house.

What other records might be useful?

Columbus Street Location Database by Terry V. Sherburn (OH 917.7157 S551c 2002) is a valuable source of abstracted information on a multitude of Columbus houses. The book is presented in alphabetical order by street and then in numerical order by street address.?

How to complete the Ohio historic inventory by Stephen C. Gordon (OH 720.9771 G665h) contains very useful chapters on identifying Ohio architectural styles and building types.

List of electors registered in the City of Columbus (OH CE 1.20:) is an annual list of Columbus electors in alphabetical order under each precinct. The list includes the elector’s address. The Columbus Metropolitan Library owns volumes for the years 1887-1907 and 1924-1927.

Building Permits
The Department of Building and Zoning Services of the City of Columbus’ Department of Development houses building permit records. These date back to about 1920 and may show when additions or improvements were made to a house as well as when a structure, such as a garage, may have been torn down.

For Franklin County properties that are not located in Columbus, check with the municipality or township in which the property is located or with the Ohio Department of Commerce, Bureau of Construction Compliance, at 614-644-2622.

Searching your property address or the names of previous owners may reveal news stories about your property. Obituaries may also list the names of descendants.

The Columbus Dispatch Electronic Editions is an online database containing full text articles from July 1985 to the present.

The Columbus News Index indexes news articles of local interest from 1960 – 1997, and obituaries from 1934 – 1997.

The Science, Business & News Division of the Main Library houses the full run of available historic Columbus newspapers on microfilm as well as an index to the Ohio State Journal newspaper for the years 1913-1940 on microfilm.

The Local History & Genealogy Division of the Main Library maintains the “Columbus and Ohio Information File,” a collection of file cards indexing various topics and people related to Columbus and Ohio history. If a previous owner of your house was noteworthy in some way, he or she may appear in the index.

Many genealogy resources may be useful in researching a previous home owner. The availability and location of death and estate records vary by year, and cemetery records and obituaries may be difficult to locate, so consult library staff for your best search strategy.