You might think a treasure hunt means diving in the ocean to find sunken ships or exploring ancient ruins in faraway countries looking for hidden chambers full of gold and jewels.
But fortunately, you can also become a treasure hunter in and around your own house, starting with nothing or perhaps a small investment in a metal detector.
Most of us don’t believe there’s anything valuable hidden in the house, but after you hear these 10 stories, don’t be surprised if you start knocking down a wall or two…
Inside the Walls
It isn’t easy to look in walls, but there can be valuable things there. For example, more than one owner has found movie posters that were once stuffed between walls as insulation. In a recent case a man in Canada sold 40 movie posters for $50,000 after finding them inside the walls of his house during remodeling. Keep that in mind the next time you think about expanding your bedroom.
If you’re careful you might be able to peek inside some walls. Turn the power off, remove the plastic covers from switches and electrical outlets, and shine a light in wherever there is an opening that you can see through.
When I was about twenty years old I buried 100 ounces of silver in a plastic container a foot deep and sixty-six inches inside the south and east walls of the crawl space under my parents’ house. I left it there for years. Today it would be worth over $2,000. The important point here is that I never told anyone about the stash at the time, and I could have died unexpectedly, in which case the silver might have stayed there for a century. Death is perhaps the biggest reason that there are thousands of hidden treasures to be found.
If a crawl space can be accessed from (an opening in the basement in my case) it’s more likely to have been used as a hiding place because of the privacy. And it isn’t just buried items that might be there. In that same crawl space I found a chest in the corner with coins and currency from Vietnam, along with documents and other things. I knew the previous owner so I returned these finds, but if he had passed away in the meantime I might have considered them fair game. You can use a metal detector to look for buried objects or you can just look for clues, like a dip in the ground or a patch of dirt that looks different. Dig gently; there shouldn’t be wiring buried there, but water lines and drain pipes are common.
Stories of hidden valuables in an attic are almost cliché, but that’s because these discoveries are so common. I once demolished an old house and I found a glass piggy bank full of pennies under the insulation in the attic. If you plan to poke around under fiberglass insulation you should wear protective gear (disposable clothes, a face mask and safety glasses). Some attics will have things stored in boxes and trunks. These are especially promising if some of them were there before you moved in. Check online for help determining if your finds have value.
Last year an original Vincent Van Gogh painting was found in an attic in Norway. Pablo Picasso produced more than 20,000 works of art during his life, and more than a thousand of his paintings are listed as stolen, missing or disputed. So check that attic.
Behind the Washing Machine
Many washing machines have water lines and drain lines that come through the wall about halfway up. Sometimes these openings are not sealed, which is why I was able to stash a pouch full of cash there in a house I owned years ago (I used to like hiding things — now I use banks). I hung it on a string anchored inside the hole so it would be down inside the wall by the floor. I’m not trying to be morbid, but I should remind you again that people sometimes die without revealing all of their hiding places. Take a peek if you have an opening into the wall for your washing machine drain line.
If your home was inherited or for other reasons came with things already in it, search through those closets. A few years ago Michael Rorrer found comic books worth $3 million while cleaning out a closet in the home of his deceased great aunt in Martinsville, Virginia. He found a total of 375 classic old comics, including the first issue of Batman.
Even if you thought the closet shelves were empty when you moved in, sometimes there are things at the back which can’t be easily seen. And poke around for secret hiding places. I once cut a hole above the door inside a closet, stashed cash inside, and covered it with a white panel that looked just like the wall. Yes, if I had died young there would have been some treasures to find.
If you watch the PBS program Antiques Roadshow, you might have seen the episode with the man who discovered a 150-year-old photograph of Abraham Lincoln. He found it in his grandmother’s basement. It was signed by President Lincoln and was estimated to be worth somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000.
Apart from being a natural collection point for all sorts of forgotten items, basements also have many hiding places. Look around and think about where you would put something if you wanted to hide it really well. I used to hide things on top of ducts that run along the basement ceiling. If the basement wall is made of concrete blocks and the top row is accessible, there could be things hidden inside the blocks there. Use a mirror and flashlight to take a look.
While taking the carpet out of an old house my parents had bought, I discovered that newspapers lined the entire floor. An old-timer told me this was once a common form of cheap carpet padding. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that those newspapers were old enough to have some value to collectors. I just browsed the old headlines and threw them all away.
Money is sometimes hidden under carpeting. This is most common in places where a corner can be pulled up without loosening the whole carpet. Check for unattached corners in the backs of closets and under stairs, and take a peek.
A California man had an old penny in his deceased father’s desk for 33 years before he took it to a coin shop. That’s when he discovered that it was a rare aluminum penny from the Denver mint. The discovery in the desk is estimated to worth over $200,000.
Some desks have secret compartments. Look underneath to see if there is enclosed space that doesn’t seem to be accessed from the usual drawers. There are also drawers that don’t open all the way but appear to do so because of a false back. If you find coins or bills or even old postcards, you can use online resources to determine if they’re worth anything.
As you pull apart your home in the name of treasure hunting, you might find some valuable old books. You can sell them on eBay. But don’t discard the worthless ones too quickly. My mother told me about an uncle who stashed currency in books. After he died his family discovered thousands of dollars while leafing through the pages. Apparently hiding money in books was common for those who lived through bank failures during the Great Depression.
More recently a man in Massachusetts found $20,000 inside a book that he bought at a used book sale. It’s likely that someone got rid of it after a loved one passed away, and didn’t take the time to open it and leaf through the pages. Check those books!
When we were children we used to throw pennies into a hole in kitchen floor. We never did know why there was a quarter-sized hole through the linoleum and wood. We also never retrieved any of the coins. They might be there today, almost forty years later.
Apart from accidental stashes like that, things are often purposefully hidden under floorboards. Recently, a man in England found valuable old British Rail posters stashed under the floorboards of a house he bought. They sold at auction for 18,000 pounds, or about $30,000. Unless you’re renovating you probably don’t want to tear open your floors. But you might find a loose board that can be removed, and you might find access from the floor below. In the case of our kitchen hole it would probably have been as simple as popping open a ceiling tile in the basement. That brings us to our next potential treasure location…
While remodeling, a New York couple found $15,000 in their ceiling. Actually it was their contractor who found the bag full of money, and he was honest enough to give it to them. Again, you can’t tear open a ceiling just for the small chance that there’s something valuable in there, but you can look for clues. Maybe part of the ceiling has already been removed and can be removed safely again. A drop ceiling might have tiles which are easily lifted, so you can take a look. An attic can provide access to a ceiling as well.
That should be enough to get you started, and we haven’t even considered getting out of the house to the garage, shed, barn, garden and yard. Those will be covered in a future post. Meanwhile, here’s one last place to check: your furniture. If all of your hard work scouring the house for valuables doesn’t get you anything, at least you can round up the lost change in the couch and recliner for a minor treasure hunting success.