How to Search Property Records

Conducting Searches for Public Information on Property

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Searching property records means doing your homework, but you can personally find out a wealth of information about a property by a little sleuthing in the public records. A property record search, for example, can turn up valuable data that you can use writing a purchase contract.

Here is a good tip: I rarely write a purchase contract without digging into the history of the property and conducting a variety of property searches.

I do not rely on MLS data alone, and neither should you, because it could affect how much you pay to buy a home.

Property Record Searches Show Matters of Public Record

What kind of information can you find out from a property record search? 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. Maybe you would like to know how many times the home has been withdrawn from the market and put back as a new listing?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 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 go through county court records to determine if a seller is involved in litigation.

You can also visit a local county record's office and search by government records right on site. Usually there is a person available to assist.

However, there are easier ways to find information.

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. You can also conduct searches at your public library.

Property Search on the Internet

Many counties maintain records online. Search for property tax records, where you can find out:

  • Name of the owner
  • Tax ID number or parcel number
  • Amount of present taxes and whether the taxes are paid.

Dozens of other websites offer consumer information for free. Many websites let you search for property by area, and some give data on unlisted homes not for sale. Here are a few:

Title Company Property Search

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 do a 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 ascertain whether the public record name is your seller's name.

Property Search Data Real Estate Agents Can Find

If you are working with a buyer's agent, you can ask your agent to find out a lot more information. Most agents subscribe to services that provide property search data in variable formats.

  • MLS data. 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. I always check to 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, in Sacramento, I can look up history to determine the original sales price, whether the price has ever been reduced or the home has fallen out of escrow, and whether the seller canceled a listing and switched agents.

  • Online Title Company Database. I also have an access code for my favorite title company's Web site. I can download deeds and search the sales and mortgage history of a property going back 20 years. Sometimes I find interspousal or quitclaim deeds from one spouse to the other, indicating a possible divorce. Of course, some buyers look in the seller's closet to figure out who is living in the house.
  • Tax Assessor's Extraction Data. 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.
  • Private Subscription-based Online Services. I pay Property Radar for access to records. It not only showcases foreclosures, but it maintains a database of almost every home online. This website shows estimates of value and average rents, too. Like any online value estimator, it's not correct. This site is only one of many available to search for property records.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.