Resources for Property Research
There are many different avenues to research the history of a particular building or piece of property. One place to start is the King County Parcel Viewer, which is searchable by address or parcel number. This database includes information such as the property's legal description, appraised value, recent sales, square footage, and building construction and features. It also links to Assessor's property reports, GIS information, property tax information, and other resources.
The King County Recorder's Office holds real property records including deeds, easements, mortgage documents, liens, and bills of sale. Tracing these documents back through time will reveal owners' names and other information. You may search online for these records as well as excise tax information, registered land, and plat names. Recordings prior to 1991 that are not available on the Recorder's website can be accessed at the King County Archives.
The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections Microfilm Library has building permits from the 1890s to the present and building plans for single-family residences from 1974 to the present.
Fire insurance maps, such as Sanborns, can also be useful for researching building histories and land use. The Seattle Public Library has Sanborn maps available online, accessible with a library card number. Kroll maps can also be useful in determining property lines and plat names. These can be accessed in several locations, including the Seattle Public Library, the Seattle Municipal Archives, and the University of Washington. Historic and current zoning maps are available on our website.
The King County Assessor's property tax records at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives can be another useful resource. They consist of information cards with photos attached (every building in the county was photographed during the 1930s and 1940s). You will need the parcel number to access these records.
You can search online to see if your building was a part of the Department of Neighborhoods' Historic Resources Survey. More than 5000 properties are included in the database, which includes architect names, construction details, and known changes to the building.
City directories can be useful in researching the use of properties, especially after 1938 when reverse lookup began (i.e., listings by address in addition to by name). Seattle city directories can be accessed in many places, including the Seattle Municipal Archives, the Seattle Public Library, and the University of Washington.
The Seattle Public Library has created a 50-page guide, Researching the History of Seattle and King County Buildings, that goes into greater detail on research sources and strategies.
How can I find a photograph of a house?
King County Assessor's Photographs
The best source for historical photographs of buildings in Seattle and King County is the King County Assessor's property records at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives. These records are not available on the Internet. Information about using these records is available from the Washington State Archives (phone: 425-564-3940).
Seattle Municipal Archives
The Seattle Municipal Archives online photograph database contains photos of many residences and other buildings. These photographs were usually made for purposes other than illustrating what buildings looked like. For example, many photos were shot to illustrate paving, sewer, or water main construction, or problems like landslides.
Since houses and other buildings in these photographs are not often identified by street address, searching directly for a street address is not a reliable way of finding relevant pictures. Instead, try a broad search by neighborhood district, or searching by street name. For example, for a house on the corner of 18th Avenue East and East Prospect Street, a search for "18th or Prospect" might work. Remember that directional designations for Seattle streets have changed over time, so including designations such as "E" or "East" is not usually a good idea. To see how the street designations have changed, check the maps showing the changes.
The description of a photograph of the area around 18th and Prospect may include the word "18th," the word "Prospect," or neither. For the most complete retrieval, try retrieving all photos from the neighborhood (in this case Stevens) or even better, from the broader neighborhood district designation, Capitol Hill. For more tips on searching in the photo database, see this page.