01 October 2015

Are There Permits or Drawings for Your House? Visit the Local Building Department

What would be the dream scenario in determining the early history, and the construction date, of your house? It would have to be finding the original floor plan drawings of the house, bearing the date and perhaps even the name of an architect who designed it. Finding a construction permit could bring similar information.  Nothing could be more definitive and indisputable than finding these documents or copies of them. For this reason alone, you should absolutely make a trip to your local building department one of the first tasks in your house history research.

Image courtesy of Abington Township.

However, before I get too far, let me dampen those expectations. Not TOO much, but just a bit. There is a very good possibility that you will not find plans of your house at the permit office if your house is, say, pre-WWII. Most likely building permits were either not required that far back, or the records simply do not survive from that time period. There are many other places you can check for surviving plans, and you may not find them at all, anywhere, but you should leave no reasonable stone un-turned. Other places you might check for your floor plans could include historical societies, libraries, or county/town archives. Athenaeums may have taken the documents of architects no longer in business into their own collections, so you may want to check these institutions as well. Also, consider the possibility that your home's design may have been taken from a pattern book or ordered from a mail-order catalog, as many, many vernacular house designs were.

But your local Building Department is where you should start. Even if they do not have an original construction permit or floor plans, permits and records from more recent alterations or work are likely on file. Unearth these records, and you are likely to learn new information for your house history, such as when an addition was built or when central air conditioning was installed. All you need to do is call and ask them what they have! Once you sift through the first round of information, other permit documents may be referenced that you can ask for as well. For instance, there are a few documents I received that list building permit numbers that were not in the packet I received. These are additional documents that you can request-- perhaps they were not correctly filed under the right home address. You may strike out on this second round of requests, but it never hurts to ask.

Permit Records for the Subject House

In my area, the local Township's building permits are handled through the Office of Code Enforcement. Again, finding out what they have for my house was as simple as giving this office a call, where a kind gentlemen took down my address and phone number, and alerted me that he would search the address and call me back. I was clear that I was interested in any and all documents on file. Since I happen to already know that the house number changed at some point (not a rare occurrence), I asked him to look for anything under that address as well. When he called me back less than an hour later: he gave a run-down on the haul. Although there was no pot of gold (or building plans), there was the following: an HVAC permit for a new boiler in 2014; a permit for putting up a fence in 2001; a plumbing permit for connection to the Township sewer line in 1952; and, finally, a permit for "enclosing a rear porch" in 1946 (on a microfilm slide). I was free to pick up a photocopy of all of these items from the office at my convenience. The microfilm I was allowed to borrow-- I subsequently scanned it, and turned the negative image into a positive using Photoshop.

While I was slightly disappointed that the earliest records on file were from when the house was about 20+ years old, there was still some really good information to digest here:

"Record of Sanitary Drainage and Plumbing Fixtures", with multiple permit and date entries, the earliest date being 25-July-1952.
Building Permit to "enclose rear porch", dated 11-April-1946.
The more recent boiler and fence documents are pretty straight-forward. The boiler installation date I already knew, but the date for the fence along the side of the backyard was new to me. Our previous owners, it is now clear, put this up upon buying the home in 2001, and their names are on the application. The dollar amount of these work items are also included. These types of recent information, although perhaps not the most interesting to us now in the present day, would certainly be of interest to any future owners, so they should certainly be included in any compilation or written narrative you leave for future generations.

Next week, onto further analysis of the permit documents with more decades behind them...

1 comment:

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