Sunday, August 10, 2008

Zillow as a Genealogy Tool is a pretty cool free real estate website. Type in any U.S. address and you will receive information about the house - even if the house is not up for sale. This info includes public information such as:

  • the year the house was built,
  • how many bedrooms and bathrooms,
  • square footage,
  • taxes,
  • lot size,
  • the approximate house value as of today,
  • the name of the neighborhood,
  • a Microsoft Virtual Earth aerial photo and, if available, a Google street view photo.
Once you find a house you are interested in, click on the address link or "more home info" to get more details. I find the information available at Zillow really helps me understand a little bit more what life have been like for my ancestors and makes the family story more interesting.

Here is how I have been using Zillow in my genealogy search:

Beginning with the 1880 U.S. census, the address for each enumerated family is listed. I've been entering each ancestral address into Zillow to see if these family homes still exist. Most of my searching was in the city of Philadelphia, but other city locations should have similar results.

Keep in mind that addresses (both street names and house numbers) did change over time. Be sure to check to see if the address has remained the same today before you search Zillow. Steve Morse's Street Name Changes lists some information on street changes for many cities. .

In many cases, my ancestor's houses still exist and I am able to get a real glimpse into their lives. There is a lot of information of the Zillow Overview page.

  • The square footage and number of bedrooms. This has been the most interesting thing for me. It gave me perspective about things I had really never thought much about before and adds a new dimension to my family history story. Most of my families had a large number of children and a small amount of bedrooms. Where did they all sleep? How did they all fit around the dinner table?

    It's hard to imagine a family that consists of a mother, father, and 11 children living in a small house only 16 feet wide with just 2 bedrooms. Yet one of my families did so, and doing so was probably pretty common. I learned there were 11 children from the census. I learned the row house in Philadelphia where they lived was 16 feet wide with 2 bedrooms from Zillow.

    Another of my ancestral families lived with another family in one house (two adult sisters with their spouses, children and their mother). Each family consisting of mother, father, and 6 children, plus the mother. Seventeen people lived in a small Philadelphia row home that had 3 bedrooms. Again, I learned the number of people in the house from the census, and the number of bedrooms and square footage of the house from Zillow. It is hard for me to imagine how so many people could live in such a small space.

  • The year the house was built. The oldest ancestral still-standing house I have found so far in Philly was built in 1850, but I found many other old family homes as well. Sadly for me, I found many times there was a new house built at an address decades after my ancestors lived there. The old family home was no longer there.

  • The current estimated value of the house today. I don't think that this has any relationship to the value of the house years ago, even inflation adjusted. Some of the old houses I looked at were now in revitalized areas of the city, and some were in areas that had become rundown. Some are now listed as condos. Each change would considerably change the value of the house. Still, it is interesting to compare the value of the house listed on the old census to the value of the house today.

  • The neighborhood. I don't know about other cities, but in Philadelphia, the name of the neighborhood is very important, yet for the most part, not listed on the census. Even if the family house no longer exists, I can learn the neighborhood name from Zillow.

  • Birds eye view and Street View Photo. The birds eye view is a satellite photo from Microsoft Virtual Earth, and the Street View is from Google. If Street View is available, you can click back and forth between the 2 views. As the name suggests, Street View is an interactive photograph taken in front of the house from the street. It's as though I had asked a friend to take a photo of the house for me.

Check out the all links on the top left column to learn more about the house - Overview - Photos - Home Info - Home Q&A - Bird's Eye View & Map.

If the family house no longer exists, it is still possible to glean info from Zillow.

  • I can still take a birds-eye look at the neighborhood via Microsoft Virtual Earth. In many cases, the old neighborhood remains (although my ancestor's house is gone), but I can get a feel from the other houses what my ancestor's house may have looked like. I can also click on a neighboring house to obtain that home's public info to see if that house was in existence when my ancestor lived there and extrapolate what my ancestor's house may have been like.

  • In some cases, all the old homes in the neighborhood were razed to make way for newer housing so, in that case, sadly there wasn't much to learn from Zillow. However, I did learn the neighborhood name, and could add to my family story that the house was razed for new housing.


Kathryn Doyle said...

Great idea, Kathi. I've used Zillow but never thought about using it for genealogy. And welcome to Facebook Genea-Bloggers!

Randy Seaver said...

Excellent tip, Kathi. Thanks!


wendy said...

it's nice to find ancestral homes - but kind of creepy when I see my own house on there! I'd like to know who's driving down my street taking pictures!

Kathi said...

It's Google. They are driving up and down streets around the world with a special 360 degree camera mounted on the top of a car.

Mel said...

You have made my day! I have been researching E. 25th Street in Oakland. I have photos from google, but was confused as to whether some houses might have been rebuilt.

One of the houses that I wasn't sure about is listed and it says it was built in 1906! So, this is the original house. Yeah!