The One Thing You Need to Know About Dating an Old House

Brownstones and limestones on Jefferson Avenue in Bed Stuy. Photo by Cate Corcoran

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    How can you know the age of your house or apartment building? Here’s the one rule you should be sure to follow in New York City.

    Don’t. Trust. The city’s. Tax records.

    Most people — from real estate agents to curious residents — will believe that a building’s tax records state the year it was built. But 99 times out of 100, that number is just plain wrong.

    Your Carroll Gardens brownstone with marble mantels was not built in 1936. Sorry.

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    Inside a Clinton Hill mansion, circa 1876. Photo by Swann Galleries

    The city’s number is just an estimate. Sometimes it dates from a 20th-century alteration or other change. Your best bet is to just ignore it.

    Fortunately, there are any number of more reliable ways to gauge the age of your home. We suggest you start with these:

    • Architectural style. Do you suspect just by looking that the house is older than the 1920s? Fireplaces are a clue, as are high ceilings, old staircases, stoops and — in row-house areas — an extra-wide lot.
    • Old newspapers. If you’re in Brooklyn, check the online archive of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to see if your address appears earlier than the year given by the city. Type in the full address in quotation marks.
    • Old maps. Search for old fire insurance maps in the New York Public Library’s image database to see when your building appears.
    • Directories. See if an old city directory lists your address and its human inhabitants. The Brooklyn Public Library has a few you can search online.

    Whatever you do, don’t stop with the city tax records.

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    Stained glass on Hancock Street. Photo by Cate Corcoran

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