PAST Logo Palo Alto Stanford Heritage

Home Architects & Builders  Holiday House Tour Newsletters Walking Tours
About PAST Centennial Houses Inventory Preservation Awards Contact PAST
Advocacy History and Architecture Articles   Master Index to Houses RESOURCES

Homemade History:  Researching Your House

When your house built?  Want to know how to find out? Find out here!

Researching the history of a house is a popular hobby throughout the country. For some, there may be legal or other reasons that demand such research. Researching can be fun and exciting, or full of frustrating dead ends, twists, and puzzles. For most of us, it is a curiosity about our house's history and its former owners and residents that leads us through the maze of information sources toward a clearer picture of our home's past. For residents of Palo Alto, the Guy Miller Archive, located in Room K–7 at the Cubberly Community Center on Middlefield Road, can serve as a starting point and assist you in several areas of research.

There are professional researchers who dig through the legal records, city directories, and other sources to compile house histories. These searchers may go back 200 years or more elsewhere in the United States, looking for information on owners and their homes. In the Bay Area, we do not have such a long history to search through. In fact, there are very few homes in the Palo Alto area more than 100 years old. This relatively short architectural history permits non-professionals to perform most searches, on their own.

House research typically attempts to answer the basic questions:

Answers to these questions may be found in your home, your neighborhood, city or county offices, libraries, and local historical collections.

Your first step should be a search of your home. Some houses will have physical evidence present that can be useful in your search. A copy of the original building permit may still be posted (perhaps in the garage or other out–of–the–way place). Sometimes a copy of the blueprints may have been left by a previous owner. From these sources, names and dates can be gathered.

A structural analysis of the house itself may also yield useful information. A knowledgeable person can often estimate dates to within just a few years by dating house fixtures (such as kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures) or building technologies (such as the presence or absence of certain materials). These estimates are, however, subject to error due to misleading clues left by remodels, especially those employing materials and techniques from different periods, which will mask the true date of construction. Yet these clues will date alterations to the house that may not appear in any official records.

Your neighborhood is another good source of information. Long–time residents may have a wealth of data not found in printed sources. You might be lucky to discover a long–timer who remembers the construction of your house. This person may offer details like the original color, landscaping, or unusual events associated with the house’s construction. This neighbor and others may provide you with detailed family histories of earlier residents, including the names and number of children living there. These “oral histories” that you compile may also include information on the development of the neighborhood.

Permits and tax records

After searching your house and talking with neighbors, you will want to look at documentary evidence to confirm what you have learned or to fill in gaps in your knowledge. Depending on the date of construction and the legal jurisdiction, the city or county building department may have a copy of the building permit issued for your house. Information included in the permit will be the date it was issued, name(s) of the owner and architect and/or builder, cost, and perhaps floor plans. Later building permits will be evidence of alterations, additions, and major remodels.

A search of the county tax records in San Jose or Redwood City will reveal the real estate transactions associated with your property. It is easier and quicker to search by property parcel number (found on your property tax bill). These transaction records will trace changes of ownership, mortgages, or increases in assessed value (perhaps due to construction). This information is useful in filling in the gaps between previous homeowners.

Library resources
Former residents of Palo Alto and surrounding communities can be found listed in the collection of city directories kept at the Guy Miller Archives. Years ago Polk city directories were issued for many communities throughout the country. City directory coverage for Palo Alto began in 1895 and continued until 1979. For many of those years residents of the Stanford campus, Menlo Park, and East Palo Alto were included. Unlike the tax records, which record changes in ownership, the city directories trace residents or properties by street address as well as by telephone number. An added feature of the city directory for many years was the listing of occupations for head of household.

Located in the Guy Miller Archives are the files of the Palo Alto Historical Association. These files contain several sources of information that can supplement your home’s history. The Palo Alto Historical Association (PAHA) has a set of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps available for Palo Alto and the former community of Mayfield. These large–scale maps show individual lots and the size and type of buildings constructed thereon (including auxiliary structures, such as garages and sheds). PAHA also has an extensive collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, and other materials of historic interest. The photographs can be useful in researching the restoration of a building’s facade. Other local historical groups and libraries may have similar collections for communities served by them.

Newer houses
You need not have an old historical home to conduct a search of its history. Homes 20 to 30 years of age can reveal an interesting, if short, history. Remember to keep a record of your search and leave a copy with the new owners should you sell the house at some later date. Your research might be the starting point for a researcher in 2094.

Steve Staiger

Steve Staiger is available for questions at the Guy Miller Archives, Room K-7, Cubberly Community Center, Tuesdays from 4–8 p.m. and Thursdays from 1–5 p.m.

You can e-mail Steve at


FaceBook f

E-mail us at either or

PAST Logo Palo Alto Stanford Heritage—Dedicated to the preservation of Palo Alto's historic buildings.