Find the Plans for Your Old House

Modern homes are virtually always built from detailed blueprints that serve as a roadmap for the building trade professionals who are laying foundations, erecting the structure, and finishing the home. No construction firm today can confidently build a home without this essential document. This was not always the case, however. In the early 1900s and before, builders rarely drew up the kind of detailed specifications found in modern blueprints. House construction was largely a matter of convention, using methods passed down by word of mouth. Written manuals and pattern books often contained the hazy instruction, “Build in the usual way.”

But for owners of older homes who are seeking to preserve or restore them in a historically accurate way, blueprints are an indispensable resource for remodeling and restoration work. It’s every home renovator’s dream: You lift a floorboard in the attic, or open a musty old trunk and voila—there are the original blueprints, with dimensions, specs, and elevation drawings, showing where every window and door was meant to be originally. The mysteries of your house are solved, and you have a roadmap for repairs and restoration.

Alas, this is a dream that is rarely fulfilled. For most of us, this is only a dream.

Remember that the house you’re living in today may have begun in a much different style. Don’t get off track looking for plans for a Greek Revival, when your home may have begun as a Federal style. To get started, explore a summary of Preservation Brief 35, “Understanding Old Buildings: The Process of Architectural Investigation.”

So, should you give up the hunt? Not yet! There are several people and places you can turn to for help finding original blueprints for your home:
Contact sales agents at your real estate office.
Visit neighbors with similar homes.
Consult local inspectors, assessors, and other building officials
Examine fire insurance maps for your neighborhood
Review local archives at the historical society—including historic plan books
Look for archived editions or local newspapers with real estate advertisements featuring simple floor plans.
Your first line of inquiry might be with your realtor. If your house was built in the past 50 years, the sales agents at your real estate office may be able to help you locate facts about its construction. Often they will know the local developers and be familiar with housing styles in your region.

Because realtors deal with many houses inside and out, they tend to know about which stock plans were used in their locality. Other names for stock plans include catalog plans, stock building plans, stock house plans, mail-order plans, and pattern book houses. Builders and developers would customize “off-the-shelf” stock plans, changing details to meet a client’s needs, although a customized stock plan is not a custom home. Your realtor is likely to know the difference. At times in American history when single-family housing was in great demand, using stock plans could save time and money—costs escalate with changes. Many stock plans began as customized building plans for an architect’s client, which is why you may see a modified Biltmore Mansion in your neighborhood. Quiz your realtor on the town’s history and not just house styles.