I want to see the inside of my childhood home. Is this possible, now that other people live there?
March 6, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

I want to see the inside of my childhood home. Is this possible, now that other people live there?

The most special place in the world to me is the top-floor apartment where I spent my entire childhood (age 3-16). Since then, I've lived briefly with my parents in an actual house, then in a college dorm, and in various shared living situations (including my current one, which has been almost perfect for me and my housemate). But no place has ever come close to the home where I spent the best years of my life, and I don't think any place ever will.

As it happens, I've stayed in the same general area of the state. Once every couple years or so, I take a bus and visit the outside of the apartment building, and gaze for a minute at the bottlebrush tree in the back, our old family parking space, and the window of the room that used to be mine. I even go up and down the front stairs (they've been painted now). As I walk back toward the bus stop, I glance up and see our old bathroom window looking back at me.

One thing I've never been able to do is to see the inside of the apartment home that was mine for thirteen years. I know that other people live there now, and I know that I will never live there again. But I'd like to open the window of my old room and gaze down at the familiar world below, see if the kitchen floor is still flecked linoleum, and even look for my very young handprint on the linen-closet wall (it had stayed there, inexplicably, from its making to the day we left).

My question: is it possible to be allowed inside an occupied apartment to see what everything looks like today? Could I contact the landlady (I remember her name), or ask the current tenants? That last one seems a little weird. I'd only want to get inside by honest means, and wouldn't even consider anything dodgy. Should I just give the whole thing up?
posted by tamagogirl to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just be friendly and knock on the door! I grew up in an old house, and we had previous occupants who came in once and looked around. If memory serves, they knocked and let us know they were in town, asked if they could come back the next day just to look around their old home. They brought photos of the home from a previous era, which were kinda neat for us to look at, while also reassuring us that they were simply interested in nostalgia. Having a day or two notice allowed us to pick up our rooms and my mom to sweep the kitchen floor, that sort of thing.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:31 AM on March 6, 2011 [11 favorites]

The current tenants would be the people to contact since the landlady can only enter for maintenance or to soothe place to.new tenants. Send a letter. Maybe include some pics of you there as proof that you really lived there. Be prepared not to hear back.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:31 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

We once had someone come by to see if he might see inside our (rented) house, where he had grown up. We had no problem with it. We've also often visited places where we used to live, though I don't think I've ever actually knocked on doors or anything (didn't feel the need to). Personally, depending on the culture in your country/city and the general feel of the place, I don't see anything wrong with it. I don't see what good it would do to contact the landlady, except if you wanted to see inside between tenants or something like that. It's not such an unusual thing to want to do. Give it a go.
posted by rubbish bin night at 11:31 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

the only appropriate, non-dodgy thing you can do is ask the people who live there or wait until the apartment is vacant again.
posted by nadawi at 11:32 AM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Send a letter. You know the address. If they ignore it you're no worse off.
posted by demiurge at 11:33 AM on March 6, 2011

I've thought about this (but never did it), with an old house I grew up in from about age 2 to 5... my thinking was I'd send the occupants a letter including a photo of me and my siblings in our youth playing in the house so they'd know I wasn't some kook or trying to case the place.

But again, I never did it—it just still seemed weird unless I was writing a book or something. But if I ever hear the house is on the market, I'd go over for a look.
posted by blueberry at 11:33 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I say just go up and knock. I've been on this type of trip twice, once with my dad to visit his childhood home and once on my own to see mine. Try to look as un-creepy as possible (I think it helped that my dad brought me (a kid) along with him). The owners will obviously follow you as you walk through, but both times I got the sense that they enjoyed learning some history about the place. We did not get a weird reaction either time, the current occupants were very nice and welcoming.
posted by Bebo at 11:43 AM on March 6, 2011

Contact the current tenants. The photo is a good idea, to maybe make the current tenants feel at ease about letting a stranger into their home.

I've done this - unfortunately the lady who lived in our old house was literally walking out the door as we pulled in the driveway. But she told my sister and I to take our time checking out the yard and stuff. Which of course, meant we peeked in the windows :-) and noticed some major changes :-(

We had someone do this to the house we moved into from "the old house," and felt ok with having them look around.

But I'd go ahead and knock. Tell them you can come back at a better time if that's better for them if need be, or give them your contact info. But definitely give it a shot!
posted by raztaj at 11:49 AM on March 6, 2011


Some guys knocked on the door of one of my old apartments, said they used to live there, and asked whether they could pop in for five minutes. I was glad to show them the place, and I enjoyed hearing their stories about the place and watching them enthuse over the memories.

Granted, this was in a crunchy college town, where this kind of thing wasn't out of the ordinary. But it's totally worth a shot anywhere. The worst that can happen is that they'll say "no" (or ignore you).

Sending a letter would be better than knocking on the door—don't show up unannounced. Provide your email address and phone number, though, so they can contact you as quickly and painlessly as possible. I'd include something in the letter like "I'd be happy to tell you about the history of the place and answer any questions I can", so they feel like they're getting something out of the deal, and see that you're prepared to respect and appreciate their time.
posted by ixohoxi at 11:49 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would personally be charmed to learn about my home's past, but as charmed as I would be, that charm might not make up for the feeling of being put on the spot to have people in at that very moment.

Send a letter, maybe with pictures if you have them. This will also help dissipate any suspicion that you're some nutjob who's casing the place.
posted by corey flood at 11:53 AM on March 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

My parents and I went to the house my mom grew up in last summer. We just planned to take a look at the outside but, once we were there, we felt like we might as well just knock and see if the current owners would mind letting us see inside. As a matter of fact, they were delighted to and let us wander freely without even escorting us (my parents are in their sixties, so we probably didn't look like thugs or crooks). We even found the wall in the basement where my mom's parents marked the kid's heights on the wall as they were growing up....all the measurements still visible. This was on Long Island, NY, just for a frame of reference. I'm really glad we decided to knock. The worst that could happen is the current inhabitants will say no.
posted by otolith at 11:54 AM on March 6, 2011

A few years ago, I had people knock on my door and ask to see this house. They said they had grown up here and I believed them. But I did not let them in.

I wanted very much to be a nice guy. And I'm not a paranoid person in the least. But I live in a big city and the potential downside of having strangers in my house (when I was home alone, no less) was too great for me to let them in. I explained my predicament to them and they seemed to understand, although I'm sure they were a bit disappointed.

Point being, you should certainly ask. But understand that the answer might be no.
posted by veggieboy at 11:55 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing sending a letter to the tenants. I've known people to do that - showing up and knocking seems like bad form.
posted by SMPA at 11:56 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just knock on the door, explain to the current occupants that you grew up there and have fond memories of the place, and humbly ask if they would mind if you could take a few minutes to see your childhood home and especially the [particularly memorable room/closet/window.]

My mom has visited her childhood home, and my aunt managed to visit the tenement apartment in NYC where she spent her earliest years. Really, people are pretty nice about this.

Ask the occupants rather than the landlord. It's the occupants' home -- they're really the ones from whom you're asking the favor, and they're also more likely to say yes than a landlord. And I think that visiting in person is much less awkward than writing a letter and worrying about demonstrating credentials in advance.
posted by desuetude at 11:56 AM on March 6, 2011

(Oh, but if you have a picture or something from when you lived there, that'd be awesome to share with them.)
posted by desuetude at 11:58 AM on March 6, 2011

A guy who grew up in the house I was renting in grad school just stopped by and knocked. We happily walked him around the place and chatted for half an hour about old stories. Being able to go in will depend on the person who lives there now, but you might as well just knock.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 12:24 PM on March 6, 2011

Be prepared for some uprooting of your memories. I lived in a house from baby hood until 9 years old, and when I was a young adult we went back - I don't know how we got in because my parents arranged it - but the house was so different that it really jolted me. My warm yellow bedroom was a painted a harsh black and white, and when I looked out my bedroom window, the trees and bushes were different - pulled down, grown, trimmed, whatever. I was curious, and I wasn't going to turn down an opportunity to investigate - but I sort of wish I didn't have the memories of how much it had changed. My wonderful childhood bedroom was not my bedroom in my head any more.
posted by molasses at 12:36 PM on March 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

I would send a letter and include a picture so they don't think you just want to case the house to rob it later or something.
posted by elpea at 12:45 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Just be friendly and knock on the door!

I have done this. Fortunately for me, a single older lady lived there. I think she was hoping we'd correspond afterward.

The hideous/fun orange shag carpet of my youth was gone, but the layout was the same. The backyard was much, much smaller than I remembered. I regained a memory of my grandfather tending tomato plants in the side area outside. The house was cleaner than when we lived there. It was interesting.
posted by amtho at 1:04 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful answers. I was sure at least one person was going to write and say I was "crazy and stuck in the past" or something. I'm going to take the advice of everyone who said to send a friendly letter first, though. I'll scan two pictures with it, one of me as a kid sitting on the front steps, and one of me as a grown woman just so they know what I look like.

@molasses: I think some "uprooting of my memories" would be a good thing. It would confirm that things have indeed changed.

@amtho: Very interesting! My mom had planted sage plants in the side area outside the old apartment. Last time I checked, they were still growing there.
posted by tamagogirl at 1:07 PM on March 6, 2011

posted by Night_owl at 2:45 PM on March 6, 2011

We bought a 111-year-old house, and I keep waiting for an elderly couple to knock on our door to tell us about raising a family here. I hope they do, (1) because it would be totally adorable, and (2) because there's this weird wall in the kitchen, and I'd like to know what it looked like before the immediately-previous owners mucked it up!
posted by brozek at 3:04 PM on March 6, 2011

Our neighborhood is made up of single family homes that are all 100 years old. Yesterday, as we were standing out front talking to my next door neighbor, 2 little old ladies drove up in a 1965 Chrysler. They wanted to ask my neighbor if they could see the home they grey up in, the home their grandfather built. They spent the afternoon walking around the inside and outside, even pointing out things like the dent in the wall one them remembered being made with someone's tricycle. Absolutely charming.

2 little old ladies in a quiet neighborhood of single family homes isn't the same thing as a younger person in a big city of apartments, and the current occupants might be (appropriately) sketched out by someone casing their home. I would send a letter, maybe with a picture, and just ask politely, give them your phone number, and tell them if you don't hear from them, you understand and you won't keep asking.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:14 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Let us know how you get on! I always regretted not doing this with my childhood home, which has since been demolished.

I help other people do this as part of my local history group. We compile a packet of information, photos, and memories on each house in our neighborhood. If somebody contacts our group, we'll send them the information and, sometimes, contact details for the people who used to live there. I've never yet known people not to be charmed by this (although we do suggest that you don't just turn up on the doorstep without writing first).

Definitely send them a letter and photo and maybe talk a bit about what you remember about the house; hopefully your enthusiasm will be infectious.

And I would totally do this for anyone who contacted me (my house was built in 1927) as long as they wrote first. I don't open my front door and invite in strangers, even friendly, nonthreatening-looking ones. Besides, I might want to clean up a bit before your visit so you don't think I ruined your childhood home!
posted by vickyverky at 3:18 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Send them a letter, with a photo of the interior of your home when you were a kid.

Don't just turn up out of the blue, they might be in the middle of a dinner party or a serious relationship conversation or who knows what!

Be aware that they might say no - when I was living alone, a man knocked on the door and I didn't open it because he was a stranger. He said through the closed door that he grew up in the house I was renting, and he wanted to take a tour of it.

He left a letter in the letterbox... I confirmed with the middle aged neighbours who owned the house across the road that they remembered him, and that he did grow up there... they remembered him well, and spoke fondly of when he was a child.

But I never rang him back to come in for a tour of the house.

Because while it was sweet that he wanted to see his childhood home...

The potential worst case scenario for me from having a strange man into my place while I was alone, was something being stolen, me being groped or sexually assaulted, or otherwise having my boundaries crossed.

The best case scenario was that he got to see his childhood home.

And I just wasn't prepared to take the risk.
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 3:30 PM on March 6, 2011

Yeah, letters work well. I've actually sent letters to get inside homes I've never lived in, for history projects I was working on. 2 out of 3 times I've gotten a phone call within a week.
posted by zvs at 4:05 PM on March 6, 2011

My parents took me to the house where I was born on a road trip after I finished college. The owners were very nice about it. However, it was a little weird for my parents because the house was very dear to them (early 1900s kit house with a lot of really lovely details) and the more recent owners had done some remodeling that didn't quite fit the architectural style. I think both my parents found this slightly upsetting. But it was fun for me to see the place, having been too young when I lived there to form any memories.
posted by troublesome at 6:00 PM on March 6, 2011

Interesting question, as I just discovered my childhood home was the victim of the mortgage crisis and is currently unoccupied and on the market. However, I moved away from there so many years ago, it's not really that easy to get to nor do I often return there since I no longer have family there.

It was, however, entertaining to think of calling up the real estate agent to see the place in person! The photos on the agent's website show the house has been so radically altered that it would be a game to find out what, if any, details still remain from my time there ... especially the can of paint I spilled under the basement stairs and then drove my Tonka trucks through over and over. I know at least one resident after us (in the early years after moving I still lived in the area, and to this day the across-the-street neighbors are *still* there, so we had stopped to see them) laughed when I mentioned this, and she said they had often wondered what child did that!!
posted by kuppajava at 8:35 AM on March 7, 2011

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