1 What era is it from?
As a brief guide: the 1500s are notable for Tudor half-timbered houses, while by the 1600s, buildings begin taking on fashionable references, exhibiting decorative features like quoins (cornerstones), door surrounds and keystones. The Plain Style arrives in the 1700s with tall sash windows and elegant flat-fronted brick or stone buildings, until the distinctive red-brick architecture of the Victorian era starts to take over in the 1800s, with features like bay windows dominating the country’s housing stock.
The 20th century opens with romantic styles such as Edwardian baroque neo-classicism and the Arts and Crafts movement, before the 1920s and 30s see a gradual move towards modernism, while the pared-down, sometimes brutal concrete facades of the major social housing projects begin to appear in British cities after the Second World War.
2 When was it built?
Look for date marks on chimney stacks and door frames, even bricks: these are common in older buildings pre-20th century. I would normally expect to see them at the base of a chimney stack, but there’s no particular trend — they could be anywhere — on the inside of the flue, or in the brickwork somewhere in the roof.
For more modern buildings, consider the context of town planning. Is your home pre- or post-Second World War? Was it part of a rebuilding of your city after the war? Or is it part of a new town? Also, ask your older neighbours. As we filmed Restoration Home, we picked up numerous tips from interested passers-by.
3 Was there an architect?
If you are really lucky and live in a genuinely historic, architect-designed house, you might find it mentioned in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England/Wales/Scotland series of books.
Britain is full of buildings that have had no involvement of an architect or designer, but derive from regional craft traditions that can be very sophisticated. Telltale signs of an architect include symmetry, columns, pilasters and other decorative features.
4 Who built it?
From the middle of the 18th century more pattern books and catalogues were produced for a builder to follow. “Off the peg” architecture became particularly popular in Victorian times when houses needed to be built at a tremendous rate. To find out more, start at your library, as local publications and archives can be useful here — local newspapers of the time may even carry advertisements for the houses in your street.
5 Who lived there before?
Your title deeds should give you some background, and without leaving home you can visit the National Archives. Go to www.nationalarchives. gov.uk/records and click on ‘Looking for a place’. You can search the census returns from 1841 to 1911 to find out who lived in your house before you — if it was standing in that period. For Scotland use www.nas.gov.uk and Northern Ireland www.proni.gov.uk.
Once you’ve made the most of your local library, seek out county record offices for electoral registers, parish registers and street directories. These archives are under threat because of funding cuts, but are usually staffed with knowledgeable personnel.