Tips for Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Part 2

Metal Detecting Old Home Sites Properties

Let’s assume for talking purposes here, that if you are a newbie to metal detecting, time has passed and you followed my advice given in Part 1 of this article about avoiding long gone homesites and so you have hunted only those still standing, up to now.  You have chalked up over a hundred hours of time with your favorite metal detector and are starting to understand both its capabilities and limits.  This means the time has come for you to “branch out” and start seeking some permissions on long gone homesites… but not just ANY long gone homesite.  In Part 1 I gave 5 tips on old homesite hunting so let’s continue those tips sequentially with Tip #6.

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #6

How To Find The Best Long-gone Homesites To Hunt. 

As you drive around a particular area, some old homesites will be easy to spot because very large trees are still standing fairly close to each other like they were once part of a front yard.  The size of the trees gives clues as to when the now gone house was built… how old the site is.  The problem with these sites is that they are usually fairly close to the road you are on and so everyone within fifty miles of them with a metal detector has seen them also… and… hunted them already, if they could or can be hunted by owner’s permission.  If they are in easy sight of a main road you can be pretty sure that they have been hunted without permission by outlaw detectorists who never ask permission… they sneak in and sneak out… often at night. 

I have found the best old long-gone homesites to target are the ones way out in corn and bean fields where no trees are left to give the site away easily to passersby.  When the fields have been disked in the spring, I drive by them on the main roads and any side roads and look for areas in the field where pieces of gray or cream-colored rock stand out against the dark soil.  When these pieces are in a fairly compact area… say within a 100’ wide circle, I can be pretty sure that they were once part of stone pillars that an old log cabin or house sat on. They may be smaller than rocks you would use in house support pillars because the plows and discs have broken them up over the many years of crop cycles. Percentage-wise, you will find a goodly number of these sites have NOT been previously detected and as a general rule contain the most high-value targets with little or no modern metal trash like “can slaw” or pull tabs to contend with.  I also target the biggest fields with hundreds or even thousands of acres in them and use binoculars to help me see way out in them in my search for surface rocks.  Obviously, if the soil is naturally full of rock and gravel it will be harder to locate the house sites this way. You then have to carefully look for pieces of rock whose color does not match the common rock all over the fields.  Make sure when you use this method for finding the best homesites, you locate a water source close by like a serious creek or river where they could get water… or look for signs of a well near the scattered rocks. 

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #7

Getting Permissions After You Gave Found a Potentially Good Homesite in a Field.

Farmers, as a group type of landowners, are usually much more approachable than city property owners.  They tend to be down-to-earth, common-sense people that are usually very conservative.  This means, it’s best not to be showing off your tattoos and your fifty-dollar rock concert t-shirt and hair down to your waist, if you are a guy, when you approach them.  Don’t be smoking and dress like the farmers in your area do.  Be clean-shaven or beard neatly trimmed, guys, and don’t wear ragged out pants and shirts… be neat.  Short hair is a plus but if yours is not… put it up under a baseball cap. 

A JOHN DEERE baseball cap or some farm-themed cap from Tractor Supply is a plus when talking to farmers.  Be relaxed and don’t talk fast.  If they seem inclined to make small talk to size you up before answering, do not rush to ask permission… make small talk like, “How long have you farmed this property?” and if they have livestock that are visible try to compliment them on their animals.  Show them a flat button and maybe an old piece of mason jar glass and ask them if they have ever seen any of those at any places in their fields.  Chances are, they have and can put you on to potential old house sites that you would have missed but they did not because a farmer gets to know his land and soil pretty intimately over the years he constantly is in those fields working his crops. If a farmer says NO… smile and sincerely thank him for his time and apologize for bothering him and wish him a good day.  I have had farmers do this and then when they heard my pleasant and respectful response, go ahead and grant me permission. 

On one occasion, I actually got caught by a drunken owner hunting arrowheads in his big field without permission (because I could not find out who owned the field as I had the wrong name for the owner). He roared up in his pick-up and I got a 10 minute very loud cussing-out. I stood there and took it without a word in reply.  When he had finally vented his wrath and paused to catch his breath, I spoke up and profusely apologized to him and assured him we would leave his property immediately and never bother him again.  He looked down at the ground, scuffed his boot in the dirt and then looked up and said, “Ah hell, y’all can go ahead and hunt.. you’re not hurting nothing.” And just like that, we had 500 acres of beanfield permission and not only that… he called his farm buddy that had all the property next to his and got permission for us to hunt arrowheads and metal detect the old house sites on it as well!  We found a lot of arrowheads and Native American artifacts in his fields and some nice early coins and buttons on two very old house sites that had no modern trash to contend with. 

I confess that I have an advantage over most who ask detecting permissions because I am the author of five books on Kentucky’s Civil War and Pioneer/Native American War history.  Just about everyone loves a history book author, as soon as they are aware you are one.  I show landowners copies of two of my books and explain to them that I have been doing historical research for my next book and suspect that there were some very early settlers who built log cabins out in their fields. Would they mind if I check out those fields for evidence of early settlers after their crops are harvested?   If it is a just-cut hay field, I ask for immediate permission to do a search.  I am usually met with a smile and a YES when I use this approach.  If they have livestock, I mention that I too have a small farm and will keep an eye out while I am on their property for any cows in trouble and will leave all gates as I found them… open gates I leave open, closed gates I ALWAYS close.  Nothing will incur the hot wrath of a farmer quicker and get you thrown off the property than leaving a gate open and his livestock getting out because of it.  If you conduct yourself properly and respect his property, the farmer will often call his farm buddy down the road and get you permission to hunt his fields also.   Now… since most of you are NOT authors, here is how to modify my approach to make it work for you.  Tell the farmer you have been researching the history of the county you are in and you are trying to confirm that there were some very early settlers in that area by finding their old homesites with your metal detector… show them square nails, flat buttons, old pieces of pottery or glass or any iron or brass artifacts you have found on other sites but DO NOT show them coins you have found. If it is a CW camp I am looking for in their fields I show them Minie Balls (bullets) and ask if they have ever found any in their fields.   If they live in an older house with a big yard, ask them if any of their family have ever lost any rings in the yard and volunteer to search for them if they say yes. 

In the case of the irate landowner that cussed me out, I took and filled a small Riker display case with arrowheads I found in his fields and presented it to him and he loved it and my permission was “engraved in stone” from that point on.  Those arrowheads were only a small fraction of all that I found in his fields.  If the farmer wants to see what you found at the end of your hunts show him everything, including the junk you dug out of his fields, but do not show anything made of gold or silver… especially coins.  Badly worn coins are okay to show if they are pennies or nickels, but you’ll find that if most landowners think you are finding gold and silver, you may just lose your newly gained permission.

Also… avoid seeking permissions where a lot of detectorists have been active for whatever reason.  If you want to get a guaranteed angry, NO… just ask a landowner in the Shenandoah Valley if you can hunt for Civil War relics on his/her property.  They have probably had a hundred or more people ask for permission… and they have all run off trespassers detecting without asking permission.  Pick areas where there are not many detectorists active so it’s very likely that the landowners you approach have not had any negative experiences with anyone detecting their property before.  I live in such an area and there are not only more high-value targets to be found here than in popular detecting areas. Most of the time when I ask permission, I get a YES.

If a homesite has high weeds and grass around it, offer to mow and weed-eat the site in return for permission to metal detect it. That way the owner gets a very visible benefit from granting permission and you at the same time greatly increase the odds that you will do well when you detect it after mowing. Be sure to walk the area to be cut carefully BEFORE you mow to remove any rocks or metal that might damage your mower or be thrown from it to break a window in house or your vehicle. I have broken windows in structures on my farm by hitting unseen rocks no bigger than a walnut.

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #8

The 2-Hour Rule… This Is A Big Key To Success…

It is inevitable that because I have written other articles involving tips on metal detecting, that there will be some overlap in this article.  When you take on a good-sized old homesite with your metal detector, don’t be like so many metal detectorists today and swing for fifteen minutes and if nothing of any value has been found, they pack up and leave and go on to another site to… repeat the same mistake.

Exercise self-discipline and allow yourself the first two hours on-site to start getting really adjusted to the conditions of the site… each site can be different in character is several ways and so the detectorist has to ADAPT to conditions found on each site. You CAN NOT do that in fifteen minutes.   If I start hunting a house site at say 9 AM, I expect my best finds to come in the late afternoon between say 3 PM and 5 PM.  That is not always the way it works out but… it is the way it works out more often than not.  If you are a “hit and run” detectorist, needing high-value targets every few minutes to keep up your interest in detecting a site, you will never enjoy the success that is possible with a metal detector. Take a good long look at the pics of my finds displays in this article because I dug every single one of the items in them by doing what I am sharing with you.

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #9

Don’t Be Afraid To “Zero Out…”

The absolute best… and unworked… old homesites come from “field walking!”

When it comes to field walking, the term says it all… it means you walk miles through large fields using your eyes and your detector looking for previously undiscovered old homesites. When you do this, one of two certain things are going to happen… A.  You will find no old homesites and go home empty-handed for the day, and B. You will find one or more old homesites that no one else has detected and you will have many successful trips back to hunt the site(s) you found.  Field walkers go home empty-handed more times than do those who work the easily discernable homesites worked by many others. But… field walkers also find a lot more unworked sites full of great coins, jewelry and artifacts than those who only hunt already known sites where others have already been with their detectors. Zeroing out… that is coming home with no finds to show for your efforts… is the price one must pay in order to find the great un-detected sites that make it all worthwhile over and over.  Call it part of “paying your dues” on your way to becoming a great metal detectorist.   

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #10

Go Back And Re-hunt Sites That Were Initially Unproductive…

Call it what you will… “the Detectorist Twilight Zone…” or whatever.  Sometimes, on a particular day, you can work a great site and end up with little or nothing to show for it… no matter how hard you hunt it and no matter how well you do everything right related to your detecting technique… on that particular day… that site just will not give up any of its secrets. 

But… come back another day to the same site and you might hit an early 1800’s silver coin in the first five minutes of hunting and dig coins, buttons, jewelry, silver thimbles, etc. all day on that same site that zeroed you out on the last hunt.  And… NO… I cannot explain it after 50 years of metal detecting… all I can do is affirm to you that it happens occasionally… to everyone. 

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #11

Find Out How Well You Are Doing At Old Homesite Detecting By Running This Test…

Paint 10 copper pennies in some bright colored spray paint like yellow or red.  Take them with you when you go old homesite hunting.  When you get to the site you plan to hunt, before you even turn your detector on, take a big knife or other digging tool and bury those 10 pennies at a depth of four inches at random places around the area you plan to detect.  Be careful to try to not make the places you buried the coins obvious to your eye.  When you finish burying your 10 test targets, start at the opposite side of the site from where you buried the last penny.  Now detect the site as you normally would, making no special effort to find the 10 painted pennies.   At the end of the hunt, see how many of your test targets you recovered and you will have a fair idea of how effective your detecting is on old homesites.  If you discover that you found only one or two of your coins you buried, you will know that you are not yet a really effective homesite hunter.  If you get 8 or 9 of the pennies, you are doing pretty good. 

Metal detecting old homesite skills come with a lot of practice and PERSEVERANCE and are not easy to master because so many variables are involved that you cannot predict in advance but that you will encounter from site to site. The 11 tips I have offered our readers in this 2-Part article will, however, put the odds in your favor when it comes to overall success with your metal detecting on old homesites. 

While I did/do not come with great finds from every single house site I hunt, I come home with them often enough to fill the display cases you see in this article and a lot more besides these using the detecting tips I have given you in this article.   Now… go forth and conquer!

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  1. Great article. Thank you for sharing the tips.
    I noticed the last few sentences of tip #7 seem like they are meant for the editor and not part of the article.

  2. When I lived in Connecticut, I used to look for old bottles. When I found an old foundation in the woods, it was generally just a cellar-hole with the base of a chimney in the middle. The house had usually been gone for over 100 years (most likely burned down) and large trees were growing everywhere. I had luck by finding the side that had the back door. The housewife would just throw objects into the woods to discard them. That would include old medicine and liquor bottles. Try to estimate the distance she could wing an object and start looking there. You might laugh, but it was quite successful for me. Bottles don’t rust, and are often just a couple of inches under the surface. I used a potato hook to scratch for them. They are sold at Home Depot. I never used a metal detector.

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