How to Search Public Property Records

Conducting Searches for Public Information on Property

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When you're looking into buying a home, it pays to 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 can be a lot of work, but you can find out a wealth of information. By doing a little sleuthing in the public records, you can turn up valuable data that you can use when putting together a purchase offer. If you rely on multiple listing service (MLS) data alone, you could be operating without all the facts, and that can affect how much you pay to buy a home.

What You Can Learn From Public Records

The information that is available as a matter of public record includes a number of details about a property, such as address, owner, lot number, and square footage. When a property is sold, the information recorded may include the transfer of ownership, sale price, assessed value, tax liens, if any, and square footage changes if any.

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.

You can find out how long the current seller has owned the home, how much is owed (useful to determine a short sale), whether improvements have been made without a permit, and whether the home is in foreclosure, among other pertinent facts.

If you're using a buyer's agent, your agent can also find out exactly how long the property has been for sale, which is useful because the number of days on market affects pricing. An agent can also look up 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.

Public property records can give deeper insight into the reason behind a sale. For example, you may learn the sellers are getting a divorce. A divorce-when-selling situation could indicate highly motivated sellers who may accept a lower offer.

Where to Find Public Record Information

There are many places to go to find publicly available data about a property.

Public Records on File with Government Offices

Every city has a place where the public can go to search for information on a property. Property records are maintained at 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 been involved in litigation.

Many counties also maintain property records online, making your search as easy as visiting the website of the recorder of deeds (or the applicable government entity) and entering your search criteria.

Real Estate Sites

You can find public data about properties in many places online. Many websites let you search for a property by area, and some even give data on unlisted homes that aren't for sale. Here are a few sites where you can find property data:

  • Zillow
  • Trulia

Often, these sites use public records data, though you'll want to confirm whether the information you find here is accurate.

Title Companies

You can research a property's title by calling a local title company and asking for the customer service department. Many title companies will give you a free property profile. You can also ask for copies of property deeds and mortgages.

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

If the seller has a common name, you might turn up records that actually belong to someone else. Be sure to verify the identity so you have accurate information.

Real Estate Agents

If you are working with a buyer's agent, you can ask your agent to find even more information. In addition to helping you find public records data, most agents subscribe to proprietary services that provide property data in variable formats.

You can ask your agent to search the history of a particular property in the MLS. 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—a house that was bought, fixed up quickly, and sold for profit. Ask your agent to check whether the agent who sold the property to the seller is the same agent who now represents the seller.

Some real estate agents have access to a title company's online database. They can download deeds and search the sales and mortgage history of a property going back decades. They might also find interspousal or quitclaim deeds from one spouse to the other, indicating a possible divorce.

Many agents also 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, and number of rooms, among other data.​ If the tax assessor records show different square footage than what is 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 whether a permit was obtained; an unpermitted addition 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 crafting a purchase offer.