Researching your family tree has long been a popular pursuit, but for anyone with a curiosity about the past, conducting research into your house may also provide a satisfying hunt through history. Whether it's unlocking the secrets of your home – who lived there, what it was used for, any dastardly deeds or dramatic events that went on under its roof – or understanding more about its design and structure, really getting to know the building you live in can be a fascinating journey.
It's a hobby that's growing in popularity too: the internet is awash with helpful sites, providing or explaining how to find resources from old maps, to census records and architectural surveys. Dr Ian Friel, a professional house history compiler, suggests that people are "much more aware" now of the possibilities of research, citing family history television programmes as sparking people's interest. This has spread to our homes. He says: "People look at a house and want to know how it has changed, about the structure, and the people who've lived there. You might think people would be a bit creeped out about finding out who'd lived in their house before them, but that doesn't seem to be the case."
Friel used to work in a museum in Littlehampton, and it was noticing that people often asked about the history of buildings, rather than their ancestors, that gave him the inspiration to start compiling house histories.
But like researching family trees, digging up dirt on a house can be a time-consuming task: be prepared to spend hours trawling through old records, books and websites. While some amateur historians will enjoy nothing more than poring over parish registers, for those who don't have the time or inclination, paying someone else to do the research is becoming an increasingly popular choice. While Friel says that he'd "never want to take away the fun of people doing it for themselves", he does warn that researching your own home's history could take many months.
Dr Nick Barratt, director of the genealogical research company behind the television show Who Do You Think You Are? also offers house detective packages, where he spends three days researching your home's past, culminating in a bound (or electronic) report and a CD of images.
Barratt has been conducting house histories for 15 years, but says "it's becoming a much stronger and more popular line of work – particularly since the recession. People are commissioning house histories for commercial reasons: a bit of history and story makes it much easier to sell, it attracts a certain buyer."
But he also agrees that there is a growing interest in personal heritage: "We're re-engaging with the past to tell us something about the present. It's a bottom-up approach to history."
Barratt has unearthed some fascinating things as a house detective. One property in Cullercoats, a north-eastern coastal village, turned out to have been the home of Thomas Armstrong, an HM customs officer – who in the mid-1700s also turned his hand to smuggling. The cliff-top house was actually built over a cave system, allowing Armstrong to deal in goods from the very smugglers he was meant to be catching.
And Barratt believes that another property he investigated once held Jack the Ripper. It was part of a block of flats that had previously been the Friern Barnet lunatic asylum in Middlesex – where Aaron Kosminski, a ripper suspect, was incarcerated. A taste for the macabre is sometimes what prompts house histories: "We get people looking into hauntings too," explains Barratt.
Sue Austen, 50, who lives with her husband Steve Coombes in Herne Bay, a village on the Kent coast, was also drawn to the tales buildings tell. "Houses are full of stories; my job is to find the story," she says. One half of the team behind mii House Books, a new company which produces hardback house histories, she carries out the research while professional photographer Carol Fulton snaps a house and its grounds plus any interesting period details. Words and images are brought together in their glossy coffee-table volumes.
Austen also suggests that the fascination with house histories is due to the explosion of interest in family history. "But people are also more generally thinking about their environment and their homes – like all those property programmes," she adds. "People think of their house as an extension of themselves now."
If that's the case, Austen's first house history was an extension of herself: she made a book of her Georgian home as a surprise present for her husband. "I managed to find early plans, discovering what rooms were first used for, which staircases and doors had been moved around – how the house was used at different times in its life story," she says. The book details not only the history and many occupants of her seafront house, but also includes details of the town's development as a holiday resort, the terrible storms that struck in 1897 and 1948, and the fluctuating reputation of the terrace's sometime watering hole, the Dolphin Hotel.
Austen explains that the books make a "very personal" gift: "My husband loved it. We'd lived in the house for 10 years; we'd sweated blood and tears renovating it – a lot of heart and soul had gone into it. People do get attached to their homes. You do feel a sense of belonging, and this is all the more poignant for knowing the history."
Entering the archives
If you fancy getting dusty in the archives, or just don't want to shell out for an expensive private researcher, a DIY approach can reap rewards:
* The National Archives site ( nationalarchives.gov.uk) details available resources, from useful books to online records, as well as listing what materials they hold that might prompt a visit further down the line.
* The interactive house history desk at Nick Barratt's website, hiddenhousehistory.co.uk, has a step-by-step guide to researching your home and useful links and tips.
* Visit mycouncil.direct.gov.uk to find your council's website –most have web pages or downloadable leaflets with information on local archives and records.
* Bricks and Brass ( bricksand brass.co.uk) has hints on how to date your house by its design and style.
* The website Old Maps features Ordnance Survey maps dating back to the 1800s ( old-maps.co.uk).
* If you decide you do want to immortalise your research in an affordable house book, try designing your own at blurb.com .