How to Search Public Property Records

Conducting Searches for Public Information on Property

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It pays to dig up as much information as you can about a home when you're thinking about buying it. It can be helpful when it comes time to negotiate a price. It can also be important if the seller doesn't disclose some issue about the house, whether they're aware of it or not.

Searching public property records can be a lot of work, but you can find a wealth of information if you know where to look. You can turn up data that you can use when you're putting together a purchase offer. You could end up moving forward without all the facts if you rely on multiple listing service (MLS) data alone. That can affect how much you pay to buy the home.

What Can You Learn From Public Records?

A good deal of data is a matter of public record. This includes details about the property, such as address, owner, lot number, and square footage. The information recorded may include the transfer of ownership when a property is sold. It should include assessed value, any tax liens against the home, and any square footage changes.

Tax records can tell you the name of the owner, their tax ID number or parcel number, the amount of present taxes, and whether they've been paid.

You can learn how long the current seller has owned the home and how much they still owe on their mortgage. This can be helpful when you want to determine a short sale. The data will tell you whether improvements have been made without a permit, and whether the home is in foreclosure.

What Can You Learn From Your Agent?

Your real estate agent can find out how long the home has been for sale. This detail can be useful, because the number of days on market affects pricing. An agent can also look up the original sales price, whether it's ever been reduced, or whether the home has fallen out of escrow. They can find out whether the seller canceled a listing and switched agents.

Where to Find Public Record Information

You can find publicly available data about a home in many places.

Public Records with Government Offices

Property records are maintained at the county courthouse, county recorder, city hall, or another city or county department. Many public offices are staffed by personnel who are ready and willing to help you find property deeds and encumbrances.

Many counties also maintain property records online. Your search could be as easy as visiting the website of the recorder of deeds or the applicable government unit. Just enter your search criteria.

You can check federal court records to find out whether a seller has filed for bankruptcy or been involved in a lawsuit.

Real Estate Sites

You can bypass public records and find the same public data about properties in many places online. Many websites let you search for properties by area, and some even give data on unlisted homes that aren't for sale. You can find property info at Realtor.com, Zillow, and Trulia.

These sites often use public records data, but you'll want to confirm the accuracy of whatever you find just in case.

Title Companies

Research a property by calling a local title company and asking for the customer service department. Many will give you a free profile of the house in question. You can also ask for copies of deeds and mortgages.

Some title companies will search for the seller's name to find out whether there are any judgments or liens filed against them. These tell you that the seller has debt that may be tied to the house.

You might turn up records that belong to someone else if the seller has a common name. Confirm their identity so you'll know you have accurate data.

Real Estate Agents

You can ask your buyer's agent to find even more information. Most agents subscribe to services that provide property data in various formats.

You can ask your agent to search the history of a home in the MLS. You can find out whether it's been withdrawn from the market and relisted, or whether it's recently sold and is a "flipper," a house that was bought, fixed up quickly for profit, and put up for resale. Ask your agent to check whether the agent who sold the house to the current seller is the same one who now represents them.

Some real estate agents have access to a title company's online database. They can download deeds going back decades and search the sales and mortgage records of a home. They might also find quitclaim deeds from one spouse to the other, indicating a possible divorce. A divorce-when-selling situation could imply that these sellers are highly motivated and may accept a lower offer.

Many agents also subscribe to a tax record search that includes the complete records on file at the tax assessor's office. This information can include the age of the home, the type of roof, the number of rooms, and other details.​

Either the tax assessor is wrong, the seller is wrong, or the property has improvements for which a permit wasn't obtained, if the tax records show square footage that differs from what's noted in the listing.

Buyers can check with their city planning unit to find out whether a permit was obtained. An addition without a permit can affect pricing.

Some agents pay for private subscription-based online services, such as Property Radar, to get access to records. These sites are useful as a frame of reference for drafting a purchase offer.