How to Research Your Home's History
Every building has a genealogical record, just as humans do. The research efforts are much the same, but some of the questions, as well as the resources, are different. In any case, it can be a fascinating and worthwhile adventure – hunting for treasure and solving mysteries, all coming together to reveal your home’s unique past.
Start with a notebook; you'll be gathering information from a variety of sources and you will want to keep it all organized from the start. Be sure to include the source of the information for every entry because odds are, you’ll be referring back to it at some point. A great deal of information is also accessible on the Internet - after you set up a file folder on your computer, have a thumb drive available just for this one project. Always take your thumb drive with you to copy files from databases anywhere you do research; it’s sometimes the only way to capture information. Or, if you forget, and it is allowed a cell phone camera can be used to photograph sources you use. Take along several sharp pencils, too – using a pen while combing through archives can permanently damage original records.
Above all, you’ll also need patience, persistence, and a good dose of curiosity. Stay the course, follow the twists and turns, and eventually, you will have a history of your home to share with friends, neighbors, and future owners to come.
Resource: Local Register of Historic Properties
Hundreds of homes are on Escondido’s Local Register, a list of historic structures maintained by the Planning Department at City Hall. While many homes have been included in the Register with minimal documentation, in other cases the property owners fully researched their homes and the information is on file. Check the Local Register list by clicking here and, if your property is on it, contact the Planning Department to find out what kind of documentation might be found there. If your home is on the Local Register, it might also be on the Mills Act, a property tax reduction program that carries with the home; this is a good time to look into the contract to update it. If you’re not fortunate to have had the research already accomplished, move ahead with the resources that follow. Once you’ve done your research, you’ll have the information needed to apply for Local Register status and the Mills Act, if your property qualifies.
Resource: Your Realtor or Escrow Officer
If you recently purchased your historic home, check back with your realtor or escrow officer and ask if you can be given a full Chain of Title. You’re not likely to need the full deed, only the list of Grantor and Grantee names dating back to construction. Having that list will be a huge leap in your research as it might tell you when your home was built and for whom, as well as all the others who have owned it. Also, in the process of marketing your home, your realtor may have been told some stories relative to the history of it by previous owners, neighbors, etc. Don't forget to ask; the information might not be completely factual, but write it down with the source’s name and contact information; it also might point you toward other resources.
Research Alert: Be aware that addresses and street names may have changed. At some point, going back in time to understand the context or changes within your community will prove helpful. Changes may also include shifts from post office held mail to using Rural Route numbers to individual mail boxes while address changes due to Lot splits or remodels might also have occurred.
Resource: County of San Diego Archives - Santee
If your realtor is unable to assist you in obtaining the chain of title, the County of San Diego has recently opened a new archives center that is likely to have the information you’ll need, though it can take hours of digging. Contact archives staff to schedule an appointment prior to your visit by emailing Archives@sdcounty.ca.gov or by calling (619) 219-6500. You’ll need to have your property’s approximate construction date, APN, and lot and block numbers so that you can delve into the Grantor/Grantee Indexes. As you proceed, write down every seller/buyer citation with exact names, initials, book, page and deed numbers, before moving on to the Deed Books. When the deed description matches the Lot and Block Numbers, you have the correct ownership for that time and you’ll continue through the years to attain the full Chain of Title. The staff can be very helpful, so be sure to ask for assistance.
Resource: Escondido History Center, Pioneer Room
There are many other questions to be answered about your historic home. What's its style? A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia & Lee McAlester might have the answer, but the History Center and Pioneer Room have other architecture books to help you determine your home’s style. Other questions have to do with the people who lived there. What were their histories and what part did they play as members of the community? What was going on in Escondido at the time they lived here? This information will take some digging through a variety of resources.
Keep in mind that not everyone who has provided the information you are sifting through will have been as accurate as you wish. Yes, even newspapers can make errors. A careful review of multiple sources whenever possible will assist you in catching errors, omissions, and what turns out to be urban legend. Here are some of the other resources available at the History Center (EHC)and Pioneer Room (PR):
Historical Surveys (EHC) You might also find your home was part of a Historical Survey; notebooks with all the structures included in each of several surveys can be found at the Escondido History Center and at City Hall in the Planning Department.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (PR and EHC) show the original Lot and Block numbers and the original street names, as many have changed over the years in Escondido. The maps also show the original footprints of the buildings. and detailed instructions for understanding them can be found by clicking here.
Lot & Block Indexes (PR) show the names of property owners and assessments by year. The first assessment of buildings indicates the near year of construction. You may find a zero in that column after several years of assessments; this indicates that the original building is no longer on site, whether it might have burned down, been demolished, or been relocated.
Building Clipping Files (PR) hold construction news from the Times-Advocate, arranged chronologically. Armed with the approximate year the building was constructed, you might find a story about its construction with information about the builder, exact date it was finished, location, style, materials, first owner, etc. There are also files connected to a limited number of specific addresses.
Biography Collection (EHC and PR) offers informative articles on local persons.
Photographic Collections (EHC and PR) include thousands of photos from Escondido and the surrounding area. Photographs of individual homes are rare, but it’s still worth a try. You might also find photographs of people connected with your home or their businesses. Other archives, such as the San Diego History Center located in Balboa Park and the Dan Rios Photographic Collection archived in Special Collections at the main library California State University - San Marcos might have helpful photographs, as well.
Resource: City of Escondido, City Hall
Escondido City Building Department has Building Permits on file from the 1940s, forward, that reveal owners’ names and contractors’ names as well as information about initial construction, building additions, and replacing electrical or plumbing features.
Engineering Department has Subdivision Maps from way back that might prove helpful.
Resource: County of San Diego, Recorder's Office - San Marcos
With the Assessors Parcel Number (APN) in hand, the owner, or person with a signed permission form from the owner, may request, for a fee, a copy of the Residential Building Record from the Recorders Office in San Marcos. This shows the year the building was first assessed. The on-site assessor would have indicated the actual or presumed year of construction and details of style, materials used, size, additions, alterations, quality of construction, and, in some cases, the builder. Note that the County played catch-up in the 1950s, so early remodels could have been put in by the word of the owner at the time and information like year of construction might not be completely accurate.
Resource: On-line Research
There is a great deal of information that can be found conveniently on line, once you have names, dates, and events associated with your home. The following should be helpful:
Escondido Directories A few directories have been digitized and are available free on-line. https://archive.org/search.php?query=Escondido%20telephone%20directories For a full selection of City Directories covering Escondido and related rural areas, visit the Escondido History Center or the Pioneer Room. From 1923 forward, the directories will list names of owners [h] or renters [r]. A few volumes contain Reverse Directories, making the process easier. Residents’ wives, occupations and business addresses are often given, adding depth to your search.
Escondido newspapers have been digitized and are available from Newspapers.com for a fee. You can purchase a subscription for minimum of six months or take advantage of a 7-day free trial offer. A year to year search of the Escondido newspapers can be undertaken at the Pioneer Room; be ready to take notes or have a thumb drive with you to transfer articles.
San Diego newspapers have been digitized and are available through Geneologybank.com for a fee. https://www.genealogybank.com/
Census Records are available for free through Familyseach.com Simply open an account at no charge. Watch the left margin of the Census. Many years have the street name listed as the enumerator collected census. However, watch for errors, the censuses, like other resources, aren’t necessarily perfect and handwritten entries can be difficult to read.
W.E. Alexander Book of Plat Maps of San Diego County , 1912, includes central Escondido and the surrounding countryside, much of which is now in the city limits. https://www.loc.gov/maps/?dates=1912&fa=segmentof:g4363sm.gla00147/&sb=shelf-id&st=gallery
Historic Aerial Photos. There are several sources, however, if you only need to spot check some dates, consider starting your search by using https://www.historicaerials.com/viewer. You don't need to register if you only need to check for minor layout of your property within certain dates.
Miscellaneous Findings: Online Archives of California is a long shot to find material, however, it does happen. A spot check could bring up something.
Architectural Styles: A number of internet sites have listings and samples of residential architecture by era. One is the Old House Web. Other websites feature digitized house plans. One, featuring dozens of plan books is the Building Technology Heritage Library
This primer is meant to be an introduction to searching for your local property’s history. It can seem like a daunting task, but taking one step at a time, along with adequate coffee and snack breaks, will get you through it. Don’t be shy about asking questions at the walk-in resources and remember to take lots of notes. Finally, if all else fails, there are professionals who will go through the process for you but it can be expensive and you might just miss out on an adventure!
Researched and Compiled by Lucy Berk with updates by Carol Rea and Alexa Clausen
Oh, the places you'll go! When you're tracking down information about your historic property, you will find great resources online or around San Diego County.
Escondido History Center
Grape Day Park
321 N. Broadway, Escondido
201 N. Broadway, Escondido
M-F 7:30 am-5:30 pm
North County Assessor’s Office
141 E. Carmel, San Marcos
M-F 8 am-5 pm
East County Assessor's Office & Archives
10144 Mission Gorge Rd.
Call for Appointment
San Diego County Assessor’s Office
1600 Pacific Highway Room 103, San Diego
619 531-5777 M-F 8 am-5 pm