Genealogy Research

How Joanna Gaines Made Me a Better Genealogy Researcher

Become a better genealogy researcher by following the principles of popular DIY home improvement shows such as Fixer Upper.

My daughter and I love to binge watch old Fixer Upper episodes with Chip and Joanna Gaines.  The couple takes the worst looking houses  and turns them into beautiful family homes – all within an hour! After seeing umpteen episodes, the thought occurred to me:

Renovating a house and genealogy research have a lot in common!  Dare I say, I’m a better genealogy researcher, because I watch DIY home shows?!

[Stay with me! I’m really not crazy.]

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Vision and Inspiration for the Genealogy Research

Fixer Upper opens up with a couple meeting with Chip and Joanna Gaines to find their forever home to renovate.  Of course, the homes to choose from are out of date and in need of significant repairs.  Still the couple puts their trust in the hosts and buy into the vision of a new family home where they will live and connect with their family for years to come.

Old house

At the beginning of a genealogy research project, likely all I have is a vision of connecting generations together, but my notes and ideas are in serious need of “repairs”.  Often I receive from relatives notes, ideas, oral history transcripts  are just stuffed in a folder.  Outdated contact information for living relatives, inaccurate oral histories, unlabeled photographs… get the picture. 

But one small spark of inspiration from a photograph or family mystery, and I see the vision. Despite the odds I can visualize my success. 

But…between that vision of connecting generations and the pile of stuff in a file folder, there is a lot of work to be done. Some of it could get messy!

Assess Where You Are At In Your Project

Back to our nervous couple who have chosen a dilapidated house to renovate.  They’ve bought the house. They’ve got the vision of what the house will look like. It’s time to see exactly what needs to be done. Is the project a total re-do? Or is it more cosmetic? 

What can stay? Why must go? Which walls will be taken down? Which rooms need to be added? What plumbing or wiring need to be re-located? 

If you are currently in the middle of a genealogy research project (and aren’t we all!), stop. 

stop sign

Just like a house inspector inspecting an existing structure, inspect your past research into that ancestor.

Go back to the beginning of your research and essentially start over.  Put away any preconceived ideas and understandings of your ancestor and re-assess everything you have so far with a fresh eye. [This is your “Demo Day”.] You are a different genealogy researcher than you were at the start of your project. Take advantage of that and see things with a new eye.

The DIY shows may not show you, but very detailed assessments of the properties are made and architectural plans drawn up before any work is started. 

A detailed architectural plan = A detailed genealogy research plan.

You know you want to find your paternal great-great-great-father. That is your goal. [That’s your vision.]

Now you need to build out your architectural plan on how to do that –  [That’s your genealogy research plan.]

Your research plan will do several things for you:

  • Keep your research on track and off the “rabbit trails”.
  • Help you use your research time more efficiently.
  • Keep you from overlooking needed records.
  • Ensure you perform an exhaustive genealogical search for your ancestor.

So, just how do you create that genealogy research plan? [I’m glad you asked!]

Just like the home DIY show, you can use fun digital programs to design your plan. 

For instance, I often use Trello to create my genealogy research plans. I have used it for years. Here’s a screenshot of a part of a research plan on Trello:

Sample Trello plan for the genealogy researcher

Asana is another popular project management site popular with researchers. Both have free versions that are fine for our research purposes and also, sync to their app on your phone.

I have also created my plans in a Google doc and save it to Google Drive. The program or method you use to create your genealogy research plan is not nearly as important as the fact that you make one. Don’t get too caught up in learning new digital programs and sites if that is not your thing.  Paper and pencil still works, too.

What Does a Genealogy Researcher Put Into a Genealogy Research Plan?

Back to our young couple and their home project renovation….. The house’s foundation must be checked and must be solid. Problems in a home’s foundation will lead to big problems later on. 

A shaky research plan will lead to problems in your research later on, as well. Your research plan needs to be comprehensive and give your research a solid foundation. Do not skimp on this process! 

At the top of your research plan,  write out your goal! Having your goal front and center will keep you off the rabbit trails.

Next up, list out the types of records you need to research. These might include wills, estate records, deeds, special collections, tax records….. Include the date ranges and locations.

For example, in my research of Joanna Barrett (1824 – 1910), I am focusing on the time period from 1850 – 1852. Specifically, I am looking for a marriage record. In my plan I will list out which records I want to search:

  • Marriage records in Carroll, Grayson and Patrick Counties, VA for 1850 – 1852.
  • 1850 Census records for Carroll, Grayson and Patrick Counties, VA
  • Marriage records for the District of Columbia.
  • Ship passenger lists for port of Baltimore.

Record where the needed records are located and how you plan on accessing these.  Some will be in online databases. Others will require a trip to the archives or a county courthouse.

  • Marriage records for Carroll, Grayson and Patrick Counties, VA —-> Call the register of deeds and order/request a search
  • 1850 Census records —-> Ancestry.comΒ 
  • Marriage records for District of Columbia —->
  • Ship passenger lists for Baltimore —->

Need some inspiration for making your research plan? Download this genealogy research plan template to use in your next research project.

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When Things Do Not Go As Planned – It Always Happens!

Have you ever noticed on those DIY home shows how a problem always comes up? Wiring thought to be up to code needs to be replaced. Carpenter ants did some unexpected damage in the wall. A load bearing beam runs right through a planned special feature.  Things do not go as planned.

Well….things do not always go as planned in your genealogy research, too.  Maybe, it is just me, but somehow, I don’t think so. Records did not survive. An ancestor’s name is not readable on the record. An ancestor seems to have vanished. An ancestor changed their name. It happens. 

Time to re-assess and tweak the plan.  

For you the genealogy researcher, this might look like searching out alternate sources for a birth date or researching records in surrounding counties/states.  Or maybe you need to learn more about the impact current events were having on your ancestors.

However, this looks to your genealogy research, tweak the plan and move forward.

The Finishing Touches & Big Reveal! (Even a Genealogy Researchers Get a Big Reveal.)

Welcome, home! 

The young couple sees their newly renovated home for the first time! It’s gorgeous, and Joanna Gaines has put her signature style throughout the house. She’s made special play areas for the children and used the couple’s photographs in unique ways to make the house feel like a home. The house tells a story of the young family and their ideals.

Well, fellow genealogy researcher…..It’s time for the YOUR BIG REVEAL!

You have done the research and found your ancestor! It’s time to share. Maybe it’s a share on social media. Or an exciting phone call to a fellow researcher. Or maybe, you’ve finally written that book on your ancestor. Whatever your style, share the Big Reveal! 

Finding your ancestors is a lot like renovating a house. Learn how to beome a better researcher by following a home renovation process.

As genealogy researchers, we are often found in the records of the past. We can be online or in a courthouse basement and forget what year it really is. [Again, is that just me?!] 


We can and should look outside traditional genealogy resources for our research inspiration. Skills and processes in other hobbies and industries can absolutely have a positive impact on our research.

Now back to watching Joanna Gaines on Fixer Upper…..

For you fellow Fixer Upper fans, here’s me at the Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas! You’ve got to go!

Genealogy researcher Lisa at Magnolia Market

***Please note that this post contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you decide to purchase a product/service. This does not cost you extra. Be assured I only recommend products/services that I use and think you would like too. Read my disclosure policy and privacy policy.

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  • Janice Harshbarger

    I like Fixer Upper, but the TV show I most relate to is “The Curse of Oak Island”. So many leads, so many false starts, such joy when it looks like it’s all coming together. Except, of course, there are always more questions when one discovery is made. Of course, my treasure is that elusive ancestor, who is priceless to me.

  • Annette Taylor

    My goal is to take my research, family tree, pictures and documents and self publish this information in a book format for my family. I have used the standard office related tool like Excel, Word and PowerPoint ; and sites like PicMonkey. But I have not found a tool that enables me to recreate the family tree with a set of standard dates/places and photos. Can you suggest tools and end results (the reveal :)) that might set me in the correct direction?


    • LisaL

      Annette, I’m in the same boat you are. I still haven’t found one good tool that does it all for me. I’m going to ask in the Facebook group and see what others are using.

  • Eddie Black

    “The couple takes the worst looking houses and turns them into beautiful family homes – all within an hour!”

    Just join Ancestry … click on the little green leaves … Presto! Your Family Tree – all within an hour!

    Sorry I couldn’t help myself.

  • Sue

    How about survivor? You find multiple candidates for someone’s parents and you have to vote them off one at a time until there is only one left.
    P.S. I loved Fixer Upper too. Now I am watching Home Town which is similar.

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