I suppose the answer to this question is a big “it all depends”, but I figure I’ll give it a shot unless anyone else has some information.
I live in and rent a house which is essentially converted to a “two-flat” setup (upstairs apartment, downstairs apartment). The building is rather old, and at one point I’d asked for the year the building was constructed so that I could apply for renter’s insurance. I essentially got a runaround after an initial estimate of 1910. It’s really hard to tell how old it is due to years of (not the best) repairs and upgrades, and siding put on the house who knows how long ago. It also has an old farmhouse-style cellar entry (side sloping doors over stairs down, on the exterior). Due to the current state of affairs at the place we rent from (very long story), I suspect further efforts to find out from them would rank really, really low on their priority list and they may not even be sure themselves.
I decided to see what I could find out online, since I live far from the county building where I could look up this info. The county recorder’s office didn’t have anything scanned in and online for it; their online records don’t go back that far yet. After more Googling for ideas, I figured the property tax assessor’s office might have that information, and hit their website. I got a report on the tax assessment on the property last year, and the year of construction was given as being in the late 1800s; I don’t recall the exact year at the moment.
So, would this sort of thing be accurate at all, or do I need to go visit the recorder’s office?
For renter’s insurance, “circa 1900” is probably good enough.
If you really want to dig through the records, be prepared to spend hours at it. A few years ago, I got curious about a house I was living in, and in San Francisco, at least, a lot of the early records are based on when a house was connected to the sewer system.
Something else that might get in the way is destruction of records. In San Francisco, it’s iffy that you’ll find anything from before 1906 as the earthquake and fires destroyed pretty much all of the city’s records. In Cook County, anything before 1871 may have been lost to fire.
In the case of San Francisco, the water and sewer records were in a building that didn’t get destroyed by fire, so that’s why they’re used.
Is there an original commode in the house? Look under the lid for a stamped date of manufacture. Mine was 1921 later confirmed. It should put you within a year or two.
Around here (Tulsa) the Assessor’s year of construction is usually pretty reliable as far back as the 1980s. Prior to that, they’re frequently guessing. I recall an apartment complex I worked on where the assessor had it listed as 1968 or some such, but I could easily demonstrate that it was constructed in 1974 thanks to deed records, the date when the plat was filed, and information from HUD (it was originally a HUD project). My experience in other parts of my region of the country has been similar. Going that far back (early 20th century), I wouldn’t put any serious reliance on the year reported by the assessor’s office. They’re probably in the general ballpark, but if you want to definitively say exactly what year it was constructed, the assessor is usually not reliable when we’re talking that far back in history. But as you’ve already acknowledged, YMMV depending on the specific county in question.
That being said, for your purposes that number is almost certainly close enough. More importantly, you’ve at least got a source, reliable or not. If they ask you “what year was it built” you can say “according to the Cook County Assessor, it was built in 1910” and you’re providing a factually true statement.
The toilet lid trick is good too if you’re reasonably certain it’s original. I also used that one to confirm the age of the apartment complex I mentioned earlier.
I checked the lid of the tank - it says 1994 so no joy there. And it’s not Cook County so that’s kind of bad - it’s after the Fire but I suspect non-Cook County suburban county governments would be a little less organized, perhaps, than the one for the Big City during that time.
I guess I’m kind of worried that if I tell the insurance company “oh yeah, I’m living in this farmhouse built in 1889” (or whatever the date was) they’re going to give me a high rate. Still, it’s the most documentation I have at this point, and I have the car’s insurance with them so we’d get a discount.
Thanks for the advice. If I don’t hear anything else definite on the subject I think we’ll probably go ahead and document our most important stuff, then apply for the insurance.