How to Research the History of your House

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Real Estate

Discovering the history of your house can be an interesting and rewarding exercise.  Basic curiosity may cause you to wonder who may have built the house, and who lived there before you moved in.  What changes has the house undergone? Did anyone famous live there?  Many of these questions can be answered with an internet connection and a bit of time. 

A few years back, I was renovating the master bedroom of my house to convert a small adjacent room into a walk-in closet.  The room had a door to the master already installed in the closets of both rooms.  When I discovered some of the original unpainted plaster in the added closets, I realized that there were major renovations done to the house not long after it was built.  So, I got online & investigated the history of my house and can share a few resources I used to find out about my house.

You can start your investigation at the LA County’s assessor office

Here you can get some basic facts, like the year built and prior sales.

The next site I checked is the online records for the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety.

The building permits can be a wealth of information.  For my house, I was able to access the original building permit. It showed the owners name & address as well as the contractors name.  My house was built in 1921, and it was built as a 1.5 story, not the 2-story house that I live in now.  Over the years there have been a number of changes to the house that were documented in the permits applied for.  But nothing in the permits showed that the house was changed to a 2 story from a 1.5. 

The next step was to look up the house in the Federal Census.  There are a couple of sites that provide census records.  The Los Angeles Public Library offers HeritageQuest online (you need a Los Angeles Public library card).

This site is easier to use to find a person but if you spend a bit of time reading the district descriptions, you can browse your district records and find your home address pretty fast. The 1940 Census is fully digitized and is easier to find your home.

Another resource you can access via the Los Angeles Public Library are reverse look up city directories. These directories are much easier to find your address in but the number of directories online are relatively small compared to what the library has downtown. 

Another great place to check is Movie Land Directory.


It is an online resource that allows you to look up an address to see if anyone from the entertainment industry lived there. I recommend just entering your street name, then scrolling thru the results to find your address if it exists. 

Once you have the names of the folks who owned or lived in the house, you can do some sleuthing in the genealogical sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch. I would love to have photos of my house from the past and by looking for descendants of the residents of my house online I had hoped to reach out to some of them to see if I could obtain copies of photos that included the house.  So far, no luck with that. 

But I did learn quite a bit about the house, the most significant fact was that in the 1940 census the house was owned & lived in by a contractor & his wife.  He had three single adults living in the house as lodgers.  My guess is that he built out the upstairs to be a full 2 story home in order to be able to rent out rooms to tenants. 

Another fact I found interesting is the number of permits issued to change the garage.  When the house was built, the garage was quite small, but eventually, it was widened and extended over the years as the cars kept getting bigger and bigger.  In this way, the physical structure of the home and its changes reflect the broader social history of LA.  Now, after almost 100 years, I am embarking on a project to convert my garage to an accessory dwelling unit, reflecting the current housing shortage and reduced reliance on cars that the city of Los Angeles is undergoing.