Research House History through Mechanic’s Liens

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Mechanic’s liens can be a useful tool in researching the history of your house. What is a mechanic’s lien? It is a security interest in the title of a piece of property for the benefit of those who have supplied labor or materials that improve the property. Mechanic’s liens have been in existence in the United States since the 1700s, offering protection to contractors and subcontractors in the event of non-payment on services or materials rendered. If your previous property owners owed money due to work performed on the land or building, then a mechanic’s lien may have been filed.

Where can you find out about mechanic’s liens? Start with an Internet search of mechanic’s lien records along with the name of the city the property is located in. For example, a search of “mechanics lien records st. louis” resulted in the information that local lien records are at the Recorder of Deeds office, and also that the Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative has digitized liens filed in the St. Louis court system from April 24, 1824 to December 31, 1875. Perhaps your city or state also has records available online.

What might you find in a mechanic’s lien? The petition for lien may include the statement of the lien, a description of the property, the account of work done, and the affidavit of the plaintiff (the person filing the lien). You should also see a notification to the owner and an account statement listing the materials and/or labor provided. So the lien may not only give you the name of a previous homeowner, but also a description of work that was being done on the house or building. It is worth doing a search to see if you can find a mechanic’s lien on your property.

What if Your House History Appeared on the House?

The house build by my Schwein ancestors in Steinweiler, Germany.

Schwein house

Having just returned from a two week genealogical research trip to Germany and Switzerland, I was amazed at the writing that appears on the old houses in the villages I visited. At first I did not understand what they meant. But then I visited the town of Steinweiler, Germany, where my five times great-grandfather Vitus Schwein lived. Some local historians took me to see the house that was owned by the Schwein family. The historians pointed out to me that the writing on the house not only identified Ulrich Schwein as the owner of the house when it was built in 1717, but the other symbol indicated that he was a blacksmith. As luck would have it while we were photographing the front of the house, the owner returned home from work. After my guides explained to him who I was and why I was in town, he invited us to come inside. What a thrill! To cross the same threshold that my ancestors had crossed centuries ago was an unexpected surprise, and one that still gives me goosebumps.

The current owners are renovating the house, so we were only able to see the courtyard area and the living area immediately inside the front door. The owner pointed out to us that the beams in the ceiling are original to the house, but the others had been replaced over the years. I was amazed that even the beams were still in place. Think of the craftsmanship that has enabled this house to endure all these years.

 

Schwein 1

Ulrich Schwein

Schwein 4

originally the animal feeding area

Schwein 6

courtyard, facing the street

Schwein 7

courtyard

Schwein 8

dining area

Schwein 9

entry area

Schwein 10

kitchen

Schwein 11

original beams

As I looked at these houses and the dates and symbols etched onto them, I couldn’t help but think about all the steps we need to take back in the United States to try and determine when our house or the house of an ancestor was built. How nice would it be if the history was just written on the house itself?

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Researching House History through Probate Records

If you have been looking through deeds for your homeowners and are stuck, it could be because ownership of the property transferred by inheritance rather than by sale. Probate records, which are court proceedings to pass a deceased person’s property to the heirs, fall under the jurisdiction of the states. The records are normally located in the county clerk’s office where the deceased person last resided. Within the probate records you might find out who the heirs to the property were, and sometimes an inventory of the items within the household is shown.

A search on Google will help you identify if the probate records for the year you are researching are online, or at the very least offer suggestions on where to locate the records for the county you are researching. You may just find that the homeowner died and left the house and property to someone in the family.