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LIFESTYLE : Homing In on History : Delving into your house's past is fairly easy and can turn up interesting facts about former residents.

August 04, 1995|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray writes regularly for The Times

Easterners may laugh at what Californians call historic, but even the typical postwar tract home has a past.

Finding out more about a house can be fascinating, and a home's history, unlike genealogy, is relatively easy to uncover, often requiring just a few inquiries at city and county agencies.

Many homeowners are fascinated to learn who lived in their homes, what the original floor plan looked like, when prior owners added on rooms or tore down a back porch. Some find out fascinating things: that the whole neighborhood was once an orange grove, or that the previous owner was a movie star, or that a scene from a well-known movie was shot in the back yard.

Sometimes what is learned is more legendary than fact but provides a sense of intrigue or interest. Margie Lipson, a real estate broker with Buddy Bernard Whitehouse Properties in Encino, lives in a 60-year-old Sherman Oaks house that previous owners told her was owned by a movie star who kept a lover in the guest house. She was also told the den was haunted by the wife of the prior owner.

Although uncovering a home's history may not add anything to the abode's monetary value, some experts think it can help make a sale. When Lipson sells a home that is or was owned by a famous person, she said she always mentions it to prospective buyers.

"I just sold [sports broadcaster] Gil Stratton's house to a couple--and they seemed impressed," she said.

Sometimes all you get in the hunt for historical data are odd, disconnected pieces of information. Judy Selnick, an accountant in Sherman Oaks, started delving into her 55-year-old house's history about two years ago when she had to pull permits to convert a five-car garage into guest quarters.

Although Selnick already knew that the house was originally owned by a man who restored antique cars for Disneyland, by pulling old building permits she discovered that the second floor was not original to the house, but was added a year after it was built.

"Just knowing that helped make the house's floor plan make more sense to us," said Selnick. "But what I love most about the house is our 100-year-old avocado tree. The area was once a grove."

Jim McGlothlin, a Venice architect who lives in Agoura, said those who search for links to their home's past are trying to create a sense of historical tradition, something that's hard to find in the Los Angeles area.

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Sometimes the historical information is limited, he found.

"We bought our house from the original owners," McGlothlin said. "They showed us their kids' handprints in the concrete--that's often the most history we've got in Southern California."

So McGlothlin set out to create history for the next owners, assembling a three-ring notebook with information ranging from the house's plot plan and architectural drawings to paint swatches, notes on additions and improvements--even the design of a water garden he built in the yard.

For Los Angeles residents who are interested in learning about their home's history, McGlothlin suggested checking with the city's Department of Building and Safety for information on the house's builder and architect, the year the residence was built, the plot plan and any permits that were received for additional work on the house or property.

To learn the succession of owners, the Los Angeles County assessor's office will pull out a listing of all the previous deeds on the property at no charge. Those names can then be searched in newspaper archives for items of interest, and for birth, marriage and death announcements.

Once a sense of the house's past has been established, some homeowners like to talk about the history, especially when a house is for sale, said Lipson.

"It adds some intrinsic value--knowing the house's history--but probably won't get the sellers a higher price," she said.

McGlothlin said that for most people interested in digging up a home's history the purpose is simple: knowing that those who stood on the front stoop and played in the back yard are not totally forgotten.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE TO GO

Contact: Department of Building and Safety: 14425 Erwin St., Van Nuys. Call Permit Records, (818) 756-8461. A copy of a permit ranges from 10 cents to $1.10.

Contact: L.A. County assessor: 500 W. Temple St., Room 225, Los Angeles. Call (213) 974-3429. No charge for access to the deeds on the property; copies range from $2.80 to $4.30.

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