A Brief Guide to Dating Authentic Old Houses
Classic architecture goes in and out of style, but never completely goes away. Whether you’re on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive, or exploring a neighborhood to potentially purchasing a historic home, it’s sometimes easy to get confused about whether a home is actually old or if it’s just been built in a copycat historical style. When in doubt about a home’s age, use this handy guide to help you spot authentic old houses!
It’s easiest to tell the thickness of a home’s walls if you’re able to get inside, but even a guess can help you narrow down its age. The thicker the walls (especially in brick or stone homes), the more likely it is that the home dates back to the days before air conditioning and central heat.
Windows, if original, can be a great way to tell if a house is truly old. Before the late 19th century, it was difficult and expensive to produce large panes of glass, so older windows will have multiple small panes instead. If you can look through the glass, you’ll sometimes see waves and imperfections that show the window panes were blown by hand—another indication of age.
Building Materials and Techniques
One simple way to spot the real thing is to see whether a house is made from natural materials. This isn’t always possible, since manmade siding is often added on top of original wood siding or even brick. With brick homes, the pattern of the brick itself—the bond—can be a clue. Alternating wide and short ends of bricks is called Flemish bond, and is an older, more expensive technique than English bond (where whole rows of wide and short bricks alternate). Brick that looks worn, pitted, and not too uniform is probably handmade, an older technique than modern mass production.
Having chimneys at all can help identify an older home, but many modern homes also have fireplaces and classic brick chimneys. Look for extra thick or squat chimneys, sometimes with multiple “steps” for support. Paired chimneys—one on each side of the house—can also indicate multiple fireplaces with different flues, which are less common in newer structures.
Pay attention to where the house sits on its lot. Many older homes were built very close to roads, much closer than modern building codes allow. An unusual orientation on the lot may be a sign that the house was built before the nearby roads were straightened. Multiple outbuildings on the property can sometimes indicate age, since various home functions often used to be carried out in separate buildings.
Is the home perfectly symmetrical? Are all the lines perfectly straight? Before computer-level accuracy was possible, architects measured everything by hand, so things might not be 100% perfect in an older home. Historic homes were often added to over the years as well, so sections that don’t quite match up can be a good clue that it’s authentic.
While there are many other ways to date a home’s construction, this guide will help you begin to be able to decipher a replication from the real thing!
Hungry for more architectural history? Check out this blog.