House & property guide

Historical house and property research

Property records can be complex and confusing without conveyancing training. This guide provides details about records in our collection relating to historical house and property research and includes a list of other organisations that may hold relevant material.

Parish maps

Cancelled parish, county, town, environs, municipality and area maps

Parish maps can often provide the original owner of the land on which the house was built, the size of the original block, the date that it was granted by or purchased from the Crown.

The former Land and Property Management Authority undertook a project to convert parish, town and pastoral run maps to digital images through its Parish Map Preservation Project. Digitised copies of the maps are available on the NSW Land Registry Services Historical Lands Records Viewer.

See the County and Parish Maps Guide for more information.

See the NSW Land Registry Services website for further information about parish and historical maps.

Primary Applications

A Primary Application is made to convert land title from what is known as Old System title to registration under the provisions of the Real Property Acts (commonly referred to as Torrens Title).

Primary Application packets can contain:

  • the survey plan
  • correspondence, including Lands Department working papers and memos
  • reports from the Title Examiner's and the Survey Draftsman
    the draft Certificate of Title
  • caveats against the Application by adjoining owners or others claiming an interest in the land, and
  • deeds, possibly including mortgages, and other dealings with the land.

Even if a packet contains documents relating to a primary application in respect of land in which you interested, it may not contain all the documents referred to in the application, particularly if the land was the result of one or more subdivisions.

See the Primary Application Packets Guide for more information.

Primary Application Packets

Department of Valuer General

Prior to 1919 the valuing of land was undertaken by local councils. From about 1919 this was gradually taken over by the Valuer General, starting with Manly in 1919 and reaching Broken Hill in the 1980's. See the Land Valuation Guide for more information.

NRS 14466[13/7443-934], Canterbury [13/7563 (pt)-549] Fiche 2355-2475 [13/7550-557] Fiche 2505-2577
Valuation Cards
These cards provide information on the valuation of properties in the Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong urban areas and many other urban areas throughout the State. Most cards start in the 1920s.
The cards can contain title details, descriptions of land, locality and improvements such as buildings and fences, owners' names and changes of ownership. The back of the card has information on the valuation.
The cards are arranged alphabetically by valuation district (local government area) and then by wards or localities. Details are arranged by street name or valuation number.
NRS 14465[3/9603-12472 3/14383-789 3/16371-559 3/17479-623 3/17770-933 19/8587-884 19/9233-490 19/10790-11117 19/12718-928 19/13250-434 19/13450-14973 19/15935-16125]
Valuation rolls
Information contained in these rolls includes owner's name, address and occupation; lessee's name; address of property to be valued; nature of improvements; lot; area; value and remarks.
This series covers most areas of New South Wales. The rolls are arranged by valuation district and within that by wards or ridings and then alphabetically by street.
A detailed listing is available in the Reading Room..
NRS 14467[11/12011-13994 6/12450-55 10/41660-714 10/41312-30 6/11171-429]
Field books relating to property valuations (and cancelled Field book entries)
The Field books contain entries for property valuations which give the original and subsequent valuations of a particular property.
A detailed listing is available in the Reading Room.

Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board

Detail Sheets
The Detail Sheets are maps which provide information about buildings which existed at the time of survey. A survey was usually done in preparation for a sewer. Details of houses may include street name, house number and name, lot number, the outline of the ground floor and details of construction material.
See the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board Guide for more information.

For most of the related records listed here you will need the name of the owner in order to locate the records.

Probate packets
Probate packets can include details of property owned by the deceased. Land or building information may be found within the packets, either in the will itself or from 1880 in the Affidavit for Stamp Duty.
See the Probate Packets (Wills) Guide for more information about these records and how to find them.
Deceased Estate Files
These files can contain a detailed examination of a deceased person's estate and possessions. The files can show occupants, relatives, land and buildings owned at death and inheritors of the land. Information relating to house or property may include: place of residence, the final balance of the estate, a list of assets and their value at the date of death; certificates of Valuation of Property which indicate the exact location of land owned by the deceased and what improvements have been made; schedules of furniture and possessions.
See the Deceased Estates Guide for more information about these records and how to find them.
Inquest Records
If a death or fire occurred in a house information relating to the property may have been included in an inquest file. The files might list the address, description of the structure, value, amount of damage and circumstances of what happened.
See the Inquests/Coronial Records Guide for more information on these records and how to find them.
Insolvency Records
If the owner of the property was made insolvent or bankrupt there may be a file. This usually provides a list of assets including their value.
See the Bankruptcy/Insolvency Guide for more information on these records and how to find them.
Police Records
If a murder or crime occurred in a house or property NRS 10958, Police Gazettes 1862-c.1982 or related records may describe the house or property, as well as circumstances of the murder or crime. The police gazettes are indexed and can be searched by name of offender, house/property owners name, or location.
Police Gazettes 1862-1930 are available for searching on the Ancestry website. 
Government Property Record
If a house or property was part of a government structure e.g. railway gatehouse, school building or police station, there may be relevant maps and plans, photographs or files. Search our catalogue under the name of station or school for associated records.

Records relating to occupants

Census Records

The census collectors' books provide street number (if used), name of head of household, and the number of people in the household divided by age and sex. Individuals' names are available only for the 1841, 1891 and 1901 censuses. They are arranged by town or suburb. See our Census and Musters Guide for more information.

Electoral Rolls

Electoral rolls can be useful for establishing where a person lived over a period of time. See our Electoral Rolls Guide for more information. 

Sands Directory

The Sands Sydney Suburban and Country Directory 1858-1933 contains household and business information. It has been digitised by the City of Sydney Archives and is available for searching online.

Holdings of other organisations

NSW Land Registry Services

NSW Land Registry Services (formerly LPI and the Department of Lands) maintains current and historic title records in a number of public registers.

The largest register is the Torrens Title register, introduced in 1863. Torrens titles are protected by State Government Guarantee and contain information in relation to current ownership and encumbrances on the land such as mortgages, leases and easements. Records are primarily about the land and do not indicate if there was a house on the land.

The General Register of Deeds was the first land registry in NSW established on 16 November 1825 under the Registration of Deeds Act 1825. It contains common law (old system) deeds for land transactions and incorporates the register of Causes Writs and Orders, Bills of Sale, Register of Resumptions, Powers of Attorney and all other miscellaneous deeds registered by the NSW LRS and its predecessors. See the NSW LRS website for information about Historical Records Online, Old System Land Titles and Parish and Historical Maps.

Since March 2006 access is electronic for all items entered in the General Register of Deeds since November 1992. You can search historical parish maps, Old Form Torrens Title Registers and Plan Lodgement Books using the NSW LRS Online Portal to access the Historical Land Records Viewer.

NSW LRS has a number of searching guides available on its website:

Crown Plans are available for viewing in our reading room on the HLRV. Crown plans can be purchased, over the counter at NSW LRS or through NSW LRS authorised Information Brokers

Local Council Records

The local council is a good source of information about the building of houses in the area. Before the Local Government Act of 1919, people did not have to apply for permission to build a house.

Where to find council records

The majority of council records are held by the relevant council. You will need to contact the council to access the records.

For a list of the council records we hold check State Archives catalogue for the name of the council and then look for the list of Created Series or Controlled Series. Council records from regional areas in NSW are often held at Regional Archives Centres. Check the series detail page for Repository - this will show you where the records are held.

The publication Local government - local history: a guide to NSW local government minute books and rate records edited by Joy Hughes, is available in the reading room and may also be of assistance in identifying the location of council records.

Rate and Valuation Books

Rate books and local valuation records can provide valuable information. We hold some of these in the NSW State Archives Collection.

What's in a rate book

Rate books primarily provide information on rates such as amount of rates due, amounts paid, arrears and when rates were abandoned.

Rate books can also provide a variety of other information including the location of buildings and other townscape features; the names of owners and occupiers of homes and businesses and evidence of former land use practices. The amount of detail provided can vary considerably from year to year.

How to use rate books

The books are divided into wards and within each ward the streets are listed alphabetically. Be aware that some streets have changed names and some have been renumbered. Knowing the estate name, lot and section number of a property is useful when using the rate and valuation records.

Development and Building Applications

Development and Building Applications provide the most basic evidence of property development within an area. We do not hold these in the NSW State Archives Collection. Before the Local Government Act of 1919, people did not have to apply for permission to build a house. Development and Building Applications mostly date from the 1920s.

In varying degrees of detail, these documents generally contain written design specifications as well as maps and plans relating to proposed property developments, including demolitions. They can contain applications for buildings, garages, fences, alterations and additions to structures.

Local studies collections

The local studies section of the local public library might also hold photographs, drawings, local history books and oral histories. Local newspapers and magazines might also include stories about the house or former residents.

Further Reading

Baskerville, Bruce, Historical research for heritage, Parramatta, NSW: NSW Heritage Office, 2000

Hughes, Joy N (ed.), Local government - local history: a guide to NSW local government minute books and rate records, Sydney, Royal Australian Historical Society, 1990

Irving, Robert, How old is my house, Royal Australian Historical Society technical information service leaflet no. 17, Sydney, Royal Australian Historical Society, 1988

Knight, Janet, 'Pieces in the puzzle', Vital Signs Magazine issue 4, March 2003, p. 10

Liston, Carol, Researching old buildings, Royal Australian Historical Society technical information service leaflet no. 4, Royal Australian Historical Society, 1986

Sagazio, Celestina (ed.), The National Trust research manual: trace the history of your house or other places Broadway, NSW, Halstead Press, 2004