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How to Research Your House
A Step-by-Step Guide
Is your house historic? How do you know?
If your research work is for historic designation, pay special attention to the DPR form requirements in bold.
- First, check to see whether your house has already been documented! Check with your city, local historical society or preservation organization.
- Determine the style of your home. Note how your house was built and what type of building materials were used. Examine the doors, windows, roof, walls, moldings and other architectural details. Look for original materials. A good reference for determining architectural styles is Virginia & Lee McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses.
- Do a title search at the San Diego County Recorder's Office or hire a mortgage company or architectural historian to do this search for you. When you know the original owner, check for Notice of Completion to determine builder and/or architect. Research all the transactions involving your property, noting the date, names of buyers and sellers, and the dollar amounts and types of transactions (warranty deed, quit claim deed, mortgage, etc.). Indications of a construction date are the first relatively large mortgage or dramatic increase in the selling price of the property. Note: you will need the legal description of the property to do this research, not simply the address. A list of owners and Notice of Completion should be included in your report.
- To further document or to establish the date of construction of your house, call the San Diego City Water Department records archives at (619)527-7482 and request information regarding the water and sewer hook-up at your address. You may need to provide them with the assessor's parcel number, and the subdivision, block and lot. If they find documents relating to your property, you can get a copy at 2797 Caminito Chollas, San Diego, CA 92105. Include this data in your report.
- Check San Diego City & County Directories, 1872-1980, at the San Diego Public Library (SDPL) California Room and at the San Diego Historical Society (SDHS) to learn about the people associated with your house: the owners and/or occupants (make note of their professions), and the architect, and the builder. A chronological list starting with earliest owners/occupants associated with your house and their professions should be included in your report.
- When you know the names of owners, occupants, architect, builder, check the SDHS biographical files and computerized index for further information; search for information in local biographical histories compiled by Smythe, Black, McGrew, Heilbron, and Who's Who In San Diego (1936); also check the San Diego Union index at the SDPL California Room for references. Mount important biographies and obituaries, etc. on separate pages with sources identified for inclusion in your report.
- If you know approximately when your house was built but don't know the architect or builder, search through the San Diego Union on microfilm during that time period, which can be obtained at the SDPL Newspaper Room. Development sections are included in the Sunday editions of the San Diego Union commencing in the 1920s. If your house was built after 1927 you can search through the Southwest Builder & Contractor, which can be obtained in the periodical section on the first floor of the downtown library. Also The San Diego Daily Transcript lists building permits and notices of completion. For areas outside of the City of San Diego check your local newspapers that were active during the time period your home was constructed. Include all articles you find relating to your house in your report.
- Check the historical photograph collection at the SDHS or your local historical Society to locate any photo documentation of your house. Check under owners' names, neighborhoods, architectural files, family scrapbooks, or aerial photographs. All historic photographs should be included in your report with credit given to the appropriate source they were found.
- If your house was designed by a prominent local architect, check the architectural drawing files at SDHS. Also obtain biographical information about the architect in San Diego Architects, 1868-1930, compiled by USD and available at SDHS. The Library of Congress also has catalogued 19th-century lithographs in which many cities and towns are included. These provide a fairly accurate view of many buildings that existed at the time the lithographs were created. You may include a copy of the biographical information in your report with credit given to USD, as well as architectural drawings of your house with credit given to the SDHS.
- Check the Sanborn Fire Maps for your community/city. These contain much information about individual structures, and show your house with additions, etc., over time including materials they were built with. By comparing the maps from different years, you can establish an approximate date of construction and can determine when and what types of changes have been made to the building and surrounding property. Dating back to the late 1800s the Sanborn Fire Maps are available on microfilm in the Newspaper Room at the SDPL (the librarian has an index) and at the SDHS. Include fire map copies in your report.
- Obtain a copy of the Residential Building Record Conduct oral interviews of previous owners and architect/builder, if possible, to obtain further information about your house. Track down former residents or their children. Verbal accounts from the family and others associated with the property are also often useful. They may be able to help you date changes or tell you stories about their home. Written histories, journals, letters, photographs, etc., are sometimes available from family members. Neighbors can also be helpful if they have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Ask neighbors or relatives if they have any family pictures that might show the building in the background.
- Obtain a copy of the Residential Building Record for your home from the San Diego County Assessor's Main Office, County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway, Room 103, San Diego CA 92101. There is a fee per page (back to back) and this record shows a configuration of your house with changes over time, as well as assessor notations. You may want to include this in your historic report.
- Other public records to look for are mortgages or wills and tax records. Mortgage records can contain detailed descriptions of buildings. Will and probate records may list one or more of the previous owners. Local tax records may reveal the dates of additions and improvements to property by a change in the valuation, the file for a property usually provides an estimated date of construction. It may also contain an older photograph of your house and perhaps other structural information.
- DPR forms (Primary Record - 523a; and Building, Structure and Object - 523b) may be obtained online at http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1056
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