Is your house historic? How do you know? Your house has a story to tell. Find out when your home was built, who lived there, and how it has changed over the years. Whether you're looking to document your home for historic designation status or just curious about tracking its history, research can be a fascinating and fulfilling project. This guide is geared to residents of the City of San Diego. Some tools will also help research property outside the city, but within San Diego County. The cities of Chula Vista, Coronado, Encinitas, Escondido, La Mesa, National City, Oceanside, and Vista have their own historic registers and most have historical societies with public archives.
First, learn about your home's architecture.
Then, check whether your house has already been documented or designated.
If your search indicates your home is not designated, the steps laid out below under categories 1-10 are for compiling your house history.
If your research goal is for historic designation, there are additional steps to take. For the City of San Diego, these appear below.***
Applying for a historic designation for your home takes a lot of time and research, but getting official recognition of your home is satisfying and rewarding. Designation has been proven to raise property values, and, if your home is eligible, it can have tax advantages in exchange for restoration work in keeping with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards.
Go to Submittal Requirements and Designation Guidelines, this contains all of the information and links to various forms necessary for City of San Diego historical designation. As you conduct your research, it is important to refer to the submittal guidelines often. Also, be sure to carefully and accurately record your references so you can prepare the required bibliography.
***To have your report accepted by the City of San Diego and heard by the Historical Resources Board, you must meet the following two requirements.
The following instructions and resources will help you in find the documents you will need to meet the submittal requirements outlined above. Let's get started!
1. CITY OF SAN DIEGO COMMUNITY PLANNING PROFILES WEBSITE
Items you obtain here:
A. Surveys of Historic Structures
Look for the City of San Diego or your city or county's recent surveys. The City of San Diego has conducted surveys of historic structures and included these survey results in the appropriate community plan documents. It may take some searching to find this information.
- First, identify the property's planning area or neighborhood. Then go to the community profile page and select the planning area. Within that profile, look for the community plan and for the survey.
- Once you're reading the full version of the survey document, search using the street address to find the page with the property you are researching. If there is no survey data with the community plan, you may need to continue searching for a prior survey or a draft survey.
B. Information about your neighborhood
While searching for the survey data, check the community planning documents for your neighborhood's history as part of the historic context statements in the plans historic resources section. This is the official history of the community. You may also find resources that provide other aspects of your community's history in publications by SOHO, from tours, articles or events. Also helpful are publications focused on local history, such as the Arcadia Publishing Images of America series for San Diego neighborhoods, i.e., Mission Hills, North Park, Ocean Beach, and others.
2. SAN DIEGO COUNTY RECORDS OFFICE · 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92101
Conducting the title search at the San Diego County Recorder's Office may be one of the most time-consuming parts of your designation report. You may decide to hire a title company or an architectural historian to do this research for you.
You will need to visit multiple county departments for the necessary records.
By doing your research in the following order, the documents you collect will build on each other and assist you in finding and filling in all of the essential details and information.
Items you obtain here:
A. Residential Building Permit
You'll need the assistance of the county clerk to get a copy of the Residential Building Record. They will ask for identification before giving you this document. If you are researching someone else's property (as a professional researcher, for example), you will need the owner's written permission. If you are researching your own home, present your driver's license with your address. There are fees for copies, for each page of copying the report, and for any county documents you require.
B. Subdivision Map
Ask for the subdivision map. The map will include the legal description. If it is not clear, ask the clerk for the written legal description.
C. City lot and block showing the first owner and when the house was built
At the Records Department, ask the clerk for a mapping technician to help you with the lot and block database. This material is held on a restricted access computer that is only accessible with the mapping tech login and password. The lot and block database shows the taxes paid in a handwritten spreadsheet format and spans a period of time from approximately 1900-1944. You will need to know the legal description (for the lot and block numbers) and subdivision name. Start at a period of time when you think your house was built. You will know that you have the first tax assessment for the property when it lists the first dollar amount under the heading "houses or buildings."
This identifies the first assessment as of January 1 that year so the house was most likely completed the year before. The name of the person (and sometimes a different mailing address) who paid the taxes is usually the first owner. Once you find the lot and block record for the first owner needed for your report print out the document. Continue to record the subsequent owners or those who paid the taxes for your chain of title research.
County mapping techs aren't often asked to find these resources. Some are better at using the database than others. If the mapping tech who helps you is unfamiliar with this database, ask for someone with more experience.
D. Chain of Title
Note: To be most effective, you may wish to undertake the title search after you have conducted city directory research. That way you will have more names for your search.
Ask the clerk for assistance in using the departments' computer tools to search for the title documents. The title documents needed for your report are for the first and current owners. Use the documents you have gathered including the legal description and names from the lot and block books, to further your search.
Search grantor/grantees indexes. These will include all property transfers, including transfers between family members creating a list showing the grantor, grantee, dates, document numbers, and page numbers.
E. Miscellaneous Records - Notice of Completion
After you have identified the first owner, search for a Notice of Completion of constructio by looking by year through Miscellaneous Records. If you have already identified the builder or that the house was built on speculation, the Notice of Completion may be in the builder's name. Once you foind the grant deed, use that date and search backwards in time, looking for the description by lot and block, not just the name. Be aware that there is not always a Notice of Completion on file with the county. Searching newspaper archives is another tool, but that may be more tedious. When a Notice of Completion is filed, it provides a definitive date for the purposes of your report.
3. CITY OF SAN DIEGO DEVELOPMENT SERVICES DEPARTMENT (DSD)
1222 First Ave. 2nd Floor, San Diego, 92101
(619) 446-5300 - Appointment recommended
Items found here:
- Make an appointment to work with a records clerk to obtain any and all permits that may have been issued for the property. Before you go to your appointment, you may check for permits from home. This is another place to find copies of water/sewer records, another way to document the construction date. You may also search the department's computer for permits that are available online if that helps you complete the permit search.
- Besides the other places the clerk checks, ask them to search the TOTO database. If you are able to locate water and sewer records in this database, you may not need to go to the Water Department at Chollas Lake. You will need the clerk's help to access the older permits. The clerk will point you to a machine to review and print out the permits found. Remember to put the machine on a setting that will print with black type.
B. 800' Scale Maps
Just outside the Records Department are City of San Diego 800' scale maps. Ask the clerk to help you find the map for your area. Take the map unless it is the last one, in which case, please alert the clerks first.
4. CITY WATER DEPARTMENT, CHOLLAS LAKE
Chollas Lake Water Department card system at 2797 Caminito Chollas, San Diego, 92105 (619) 527-7482
Items found here:
Copies of original water and sewer records
To further document or to establish the date of construction, owner, or builder of your house, visit the San Diego City Water Department records archives (Monday–Friday, 1–4pm ) and request original permits to hook up the water and sewer at your address. You can also do an online search.
You can search in the card files for the original water and sewer records by the name of the street your house is on and then by the number. Use this material carefully so that the records do not get out of order or get torn. If you find items out of order, put them in order. Sometimes the only official record to date your house is by these permit documents. Some of these records, but not all, have been scanned into a database called TOTO that is available at the Development Services Records department. Should you not find your original document during your search, it may be that it was pulled and put into the TOTO database and not returned or may be missing.
5. DOWNTOWN CENTRAL LIBRARY AND SAN DIEGO HISTORY CENTER (two location)
Items found here:
A. List of residents - City Directory and Haines Directories
Central Library · 330 Park Blvd. 9th Floor, San Diego, CA 92101
San Diego History Center Research Archives Casa de Balboa
Suite 3, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
- Check the San Diego City & Haines Directories year by year, at the Central San Diego Public Library on the 9th floor in the Genealogy/San Diego History floor and at the San Diego History Center Research Archives to learn the names of residents associated with your house: the owners and/or occupants (make note of their professions), and the architect/builder.
- Residents of your house: Make a chronological list starting with earliest owners/occupants associated with your house and state their professions.
- You can also access the City of San Diego City Directories online through 1925 from your home computer. Scroll to the bottom to see other years available.
B. Sanborn Fire Maps, 1921, 1942, 1956
are located on the computers on the 9th floor at the Central Library, with original paste up books in a back room. They can also be found at the History Center. Check the 1921, 1942, 1956 Sanborn Fire Maps for your city. These contain drawings of the footprint of a building and show your house with changes over time. By comparing the maps from different years, you can establish an approximate date of construction and determine when and what types of additions or alterations have been made to the building and surrounding property or streetscape.
Dating back to the late 1800s the Sanborn Fire Maps are available on microfilm in the Newspaper Room at the Central Library (the librarian has an index). They are also available online to library cardholders at Digital Sanborn Maps. Include fire map copies in your report.
C. Newspaper Archives showing Building Permits and Notices of Completion
While at the Central Library, if you know approximately when your house was built but don't know the architect or builder, request the librarian to pull microfilm and search through the San Diego Transcript for building notices or notices of completion. You can also search the San Diego Union or Evening Tribune at both the Central Library's 9th floor, Genealogy/San Diego History collection.
Real estate sections are started appearing in the Sunday editions of the San Diego Union in the 1920s. If your house was built after 1927, you can search the Southwest Builder & Contractor website, which can be found on the 9th floor of the Central Library.
For areas outside of the City of San Diego, check local newspapers that were active during the period your home was constructed. Include all articles you find relating to your house in your report.
D. Historic Photos (if possible)
San Diego History Center Research Archives Casa de Balboa
Suite 3, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
- Check the historical photograph collection at the San Diego History Center or your local historical society to locate possible photo documentation of your house. Check under owner's names, neighborhoods, architectural files, family scrapbooks, or aerial photographs.
- The Library of Congress also has catalogued 19th-century lithographs of many cities and towns. These provide a fairly accurate view of many buildings that existed at the time the lithographs were created.
- Order copies of the historic photographs you need and include them in your report with credit given to the appropriate source.
- If a prominent local architect designed your house, check the architectural drawing files at SDHC.
E. Biographical information on residents and architect/builder
Check SDHC archives for biographical information about the architect, builder, first owner and other occupants of your property. Ask the librarian or photograph manager to show you the book San Diego Architects, 1868-1930, compiled by USD.
Also check the SDHS biographical files and computerized index for further information. Search local biographical histories compiled by Smythe, Black, McGrew, Heilbron, and Who's Who in San Diego (1936.
At the Central Library, check the San Diego Union index for all the people you are researching.
NOTE: For historic designation, the City of San Diego has specific criteria for important people associated with your home and most people won't rise to this level. Review the criteria to determine how much research you want to do for this section and use your judgment. Any information you find is valuable, so consider memorializing the past residents by including some biographical information in your report for your own information and for future residents or generations. Otherwise, your hard work will simply be wasted or left for someone else to redo. Since the importance of the resident may change over time, it is better for posterity to include the biographies and obituaries of past residents with sources.
Use the site Ancestry.com at the Central Library (where use is free; at home you must pay) to find U.S. Census data and other owner/resident biographical information.
You may include a copy of the biographical information in your report with proper credit given to all sources used, i.e., USD, architectural drawings SDHC, etc.
You'll also find public records such as mortgages, wills, and tax records at the County Clerk's office. Mortgage records may 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, and the file usually provides an estimated date of construction. It may also contain an older photograph of your house and perhaps other structural information.
6. USGS MAP
You will need historic and current USGS maps of your property. Go to efghmaps.com or the USGA store. From the USGS store, locate the property by address, then use a slide tool to go back in time for historical maps. Download the results or take a screen shot.
7. SITE PLAN
If you don't already have a site plan from prior architectural drawings showing your property from an aerial perspective in relationship to the street with hardscape features and to scale, contact a local architect to draw this for you, as it is required for your report. Find an architect in SOHO's Old House Resource Directory (pages 1-2), as they will understand your needs.
8. OTHER ONLINE RESOURCES
A. Genealogy Bank (this is a subscription). Enter the address and names to discover newspaper links to your house.
B. Southwest Builder
Go to the Southwest Builder website, look for your house's notice to build and notice of completion.
9. TALK TO LOCAL HISTORIANS, NEIGHBORS, AND FORMER RESIDENTS OF YOUR HOME
Verbal accounts from family, former residents, and others associated with the property are often useful, and can help date changes to the home. Written histories, journals, letters, photographs, postcards, scrapbooks are sometimes available from family members. Neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time can also be helpful. Family photographs might show the house in the background.
Conduct oral interviews of previous owners and the architect/builder, if possible.
10. ARCHITECTURAL STYLE
Having determined the architectural style of your structure and the integrity of each of its exterior features, you need to describe how your house was built and the building materials used in your report. Examine the building size and details on all four sides, including the doors, windows, roof, walls, porches, balconies, moldings, and other architectural details. Look for original materials. A good reference is Virginia & Lee McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses. Photographs of each side of the building are required in the report. If the property includes other structures, those also need to be photographed and included.
Congratulations! You're well on your way to having your home designated. Now that you have gathered all of the documents, maps, information, and forms described above, carefully read the City of San Diego's Historical Resources Board submittal format guidelines. Should you need a Department of Park and Recreation (DPR) form, they are available online at the State of California Office of Historic Preservation (OHP). Look for the forms you need in the right column.
Should you need assistance, professional researchers are available for hire. See SOHO's Old House Resource Directory (page 3).
SOHO looks forward to seeing your hard work come to fruition and result in the local historic designation of your property. Good Luck!
Updated June 30, 2017