As Zillow changed the way people shop for houses, David Decker and Amanda Zielike want to change the way people remember them.
In February, the Twin Cities couple launched HouseNovel, a website that aims to tell the story of every house in the country, making it what they hope will become the largest history project in the United States.
“We really wanted to go beyond the data points, and really shine a light on the moments that really make a house a home,” Zielike said.
At a time when real estate websites have become a national obsession, Zielike and Decker want to create a digital gathering spot for people who treasure old house photos and floor plans, but also a place for people to share stories about the places they’ve lived.
“Looking at homes online has become a big part of people’s everyday lives, whether they are in the market or not,” said Decker. “But you never get the whole story about a house that way.”
Today, nearly all homebuyers start their hunt online. Few take the time to learn about the history of a house while they shop, Decker and Zielike said.
That’s in part because so few people know how to harvest that information, which is stockpiled at historical societies, history centers and in libraries across the country, said Kelly Fischer, the outreach and education coordinator for Twin Cities-based Rethos, a Twin Cities nonprofit that’s dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings.
“There’s an inherent value in a home that goes beyond brick and mortar and wood,” she said. “If there are feelings attached and emotions attached and stories attached to a given home I think it becomes more difficult to make the case that because it’s old we should plow it and put in an apartment building or whatever it is.”
Fischer said that as house makeover shows proliferate and social media sites tout the latest and greatest amenities and home styles, it’s more important than ever to focus on preserving the history of each home. She hopes that by highlighting the past, fewer houses will get torn down.
“Consumerism, and the idea that new is better, has been picking up very quickly and social media has escalated that in a lot of ways,” Fischer said. “People are wanting the newer and better thing and this tool [HouseNovel] might cross the path of the many, many people who just assume that newer is better.”
Decker and Zielike say that while HouseNovel is modeled after the most popular real estate websites, it’s unique in that is completely interactive and designed to be updated by anyone who registers.
After typing in an address, neighborhood or ZIP code, the site launches a map with blue dots, each of which is a link to an individual house profile. Instead of price and listing data, the site includes links to photos, property descriptions and other historical information.
The focus of each property profile is a “Story Timeline” that lets users upload their own pictures, information and personal experience via an “Add story” and “I lived here” prompt.
The site is constantly being updated. It now includes more than 16,000 individual home profiles including more than 10,000 in the Twin Cities.
Decker and Zielike were inspired to build the site during a visit with Decker’s mom, who lived in a 1900s farm house in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul for three decades. The house had been extensively remodeled, and inspired by the Victorian-era houses where she grew up in San Francisco, Decker’s mom painted it orange.
“During the whole construction process they did a good job of documenting what was going on,” said Decker. “She just truly loved that home.”
In 2011, in the midst of the financial crisis, Decker’s mom lost the house to foreclosure. It was torn down and replaced with a new one, leaving her only with the memories and boxes of old photos.
After reminiscing about the house and lamenting that the owners of the new one would have no idea what was there before their house was built, Decker and Zielike felt a gnawing sense of dread that memories would be lost.
“All of those fond memories just went back into a cardboard box and back down to the basement and back into storage,” Zielike said.
Decker and Zielike were already deeply interested in historic buildings and both worked for commercial real estate firms. For a while, Zielike maintained a blog devoted to the many abandoned buildings she saw.
Neither had the technical expertise to build the site, so they hired a Los Angeles design firm to build and maintain it. Since launching it in February, they’ve done several updates and are building partnerships with like-minded organizations and researchers they hope will upload information to the site.
They’re also appealing to part-time house historians like Stefan Songstad, who has researched the histories of more than 100 houses in the Twin Cities through articles, classified ads and other bits of information. He finds some clues in digitized newspaper archives that were donated to the Minnesota Historical Society.
“It’s fun for me to see how values have changed, and understand how things were and to see how things have changed over time,” he said. “It makes me sad if history disappears. I’m a sucker for trying to understand how things were.”
The stories he discovers aren’t always worth retelling. He recently discovered that an unsolved murder took place in a house he’s been researching and is still debating whether to pin the article to the home’s timeline on HouseNovel.
Still, he thinks there’s value in preserving the history of a home. He’s particularly interested in mid-century modern houses, including the one his family bought in Minnetonka.
“I think it’s definitely worthwhile to understand the history of the home, including the way it was built and the materials that went into it,” he said. “For me, that’s worth knowing because I’m not so swayed by trends. Our kitchen is still from the ’70s. We’re not so quick to change everything.”
Decker and Zielike said that so far the project has been mostly self-funded, but they plan to monetize the site by selling advertising. Their ultimate goal, though, is to prevent more homes from becoming demolished.
“We are obsessed with saving old buildings,” Zielike said. “If someone can use our platform to feel enough of a connection to a home to prevent a teardown, we have succeeded.”