How to Search Public Property Records
Conducting Searches for Public Information on Property
When you're looking into buying a home, it pays to try and dig up as much information as you can about the property. This can be helpful when it comes time for you to negotiate a price, in case the seller doesn't disclose something, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Searching property records is a lot of homework, but you can personally find out a wealth of information about a property by a little sleuthing in the public records, and a property record search can turn up valuable data that you can use when putting together a purchase contract. Do not rely on MLS data alone, because it could affect how much you pay to buy a home.
Matters of Public Record
Property record searches can give deeper insight into the reason behind a sell. For example, if you knew the sellers were getting a divorce, you might not offer full price. A divorce-when-selling situation is a red flag that the sellers might take less because they are motivated. Perhaps you would like to know how many times the home has been withdrawn from the market and put back as a new listing. You can find out how long the seller has owned the home, how much is owed (to determine a short sale), whether improvements have been made without a permit and whether the home is in foreclosure, among other pertinent facts.
Property Search in Public Records
Every city has a place where the public can go to search for information on a property. Property records are maintained at either the county courthouse, county recorder, city hall, or another city or county department. Many public offices are staffed by knowledgeable personnel ready to help you find property deeds and encumbrances.
You can check federal court records to find out if a seller has filed for bankruptcy or involved in litigation. You can also visit a local county recorder's office and search by government records right on site. Usually, there is a person available to assist.
Once you find the owner of record, if you don't have an address or the person has moved, you can order reports online to find that missing person. These companies charge a fee, but you can conduct searches at your public library for free.
Property Search on the Internet
Many counties maintain records online. Search for property tax records, and you can find out the name of the owner, their tax ID number or parcel number, and the amount of present taxes and if they're paid.
Dozens of other websites offer consumer information for free. Many websites let you search for a property by area, and some give data on unlisted homes that aren't sale. Here are a few sites that offer property history information:
Title Company Property Search
To research a property's title, you can call a local title company and ask for customer service. Many title companies will give you a free property profile. Ask for copies of property deeds and mortgages.
Some title companies will also search for the seller's name to find out if there are judgments or liens filed against the seller. If the seller has a common name, however, this information may not be useful because you cannot always easily determine whether the public record belongs to your seller.
Property Search Data Real Estate Agents Can Find
If you are working with a buyer's agent, you can ask your agent to find even more information. Most agents subscribe to proprietary services that provide non-publicly available property search data in variable formats.
It's not enough to get a customer's copy of a listing, ask your agent to search the history of the property in MLS by looking up the address without parameters such as active or sold. You can find out if the property has been withdrawn from the market and relisted or if it has recently sold and is now a flipper. Ask your agent to check and see if the agent who sold the property to the seller is the same agent who now represents the seller. Your agent can also find out exactly how long the property has been for sale. Days on market affects pricing. For example, an agent can look up the history to determine the original sales price, whether the price has ever been reduced or fallen out of escrow, and whether the seller canceled a listing and switched agents.
Some agents have an access code for a title company's online database. They can download deeds and search the sales and mortgage history of a property going back 20 years. They might also find interspousal or quitclaim deeds from one spouse to the other, indicating a possible divorce. Some buyers have also tried looking in the seller's closets to figure out who is living in the house.
Many agents subscribe to a tax record search that discloses the complete records on file at the tax assessor's office. This information can include the original age of the home, type of roof, number of rooms, among other data. If the tax assessor records show a different square footage than noted in the listing, either the tax assessor is wrong, the seller is wrong, or the property has improvements for which a permit was not obtained. Buyers can check with their city planning department to find out if a permit was obtained.
Some agents pay for private subscription-based online services, like Property Radar, to get access to records. It not only showcases foreclosures, but it maintains a database of almost every home online and shows estimates of value and average rents. Like any online value estimator, it's more for a frame of reference than for a reliable value estimate. This site is only one of many available to search for property records.