Y., house with her husband, Jack, did a deed trace on the property.Working with the town historian, she learned that her 2.7 acres had been part of a farm established by one John Sutton in the early 1700s and that a structure existed on the land in the 1730s.

Anyone who undertakes it will need to be equal parts architectural historian, oral historian, research librarian and genealogist.

The first step in compiling a house history is to identify the era in which the structure was built.

With the help of an architecture book or two, most home owners can discern a core style—even among a century or two of renovations and additions—by examining the silhouette of the house and its layout, as well as the style of the windows, doors, and other features.

A mansard roof, for example, may be of the Second Empire style of the late 19th-century, while a hip roof might indicate a Queen Anne house built a decade later.

The original house may have gone up earlier and received a stylistic facelift, or it may have been built later, after the style waned.

"In the provinces," says Massengale, "styles hung on longer." The date of a house's style can be supported—or contradicted—by construction details, since the frame of a house is unlikely to have been altered since the time the house was built (except in parts damaged by fire or changed with an addition).

If you are not inclined to dismantle your house, a tour of the neighborhood to scope out similar homes can suggest the original blueprint lying within altered walls.

Understanding how any home got from there to here requires careful observation.

Massengale and Gengo maintained that the milled boards used in the frame came into use too late for even the center part of the house, assumed by the Schondorfs to be the 18th-century core, to have been built then.