Amna Shamim contributed research and writing to the most recent version of this story.
You fell head-over-heels the moment you laid eyes on the perfectly landscaped house of your dreams. It’s for sale — and you just so happen to be in the market to buy.
However, you’ve heard rumors about the house’s past. Maybe something bad happened there once? Or maybe it looks like a prestigious Victorian… and you wonder whether it’s an original or a reproduction?
Whatever your reason, you want to know more about the property’s history beyond the scant details provided. You need more information before you make such a huge investment.
If you’re curious about how to find the history of a property online, you’re in luck. From interviewing professional experts to researching sources, we’ve gathered all the different ways you can find the history of a property online.
Start with the listing
There’s no better way to feel like Sherlock Holmes sleuthing for evidence than by digging into the history of a property.
Whatever type of listing the house is, you should be able to find some important details about its history. Ninety-five percent of buyers searched online to find additional information about homes they were considering purchasing, according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2021 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.
You can find the listing for the house you’re interested in by Googling its address.
The tiny details are what matter
“When buyers look into the history of a home, they’re concerned with the issues that can arise,” says William Barker, a top-selling agent in Omaha, Nebraska, who sells homes 15% quicker than the average area agent.
“Are there foundation issues? When was the roof replaced? Is the title clear of liens? You don’t want to be surprised by a hidden problem.”
A title should tell you the age of the house and whether it has ever been remodeled. If appropriate permits weren’t filed for certain remodel projects, the information may not be accurate, though. The title should also reveal whether the house has certain appliances, such as a garbage disposal or dishwasher.
If you’re curious whether the hardwood floor is original, a title should have that information. It may even detail what type of materials were used for the siding and roofing of the house. If the roof is covered in asphalt shingles, then you know it’s going to have a shorter lifespan and insulation won’t be as good.
If you’re more interested in knowing what various prices a house has sold for over the years, then the multiple listing service (MLS) can help you with that. The MLS is a realtor database that generally has fairly comprehensive information curated from multiple resources, including the homeowner themselves.
MLS listings will have details about the house, such as the materials used for the roof and siding, how many parking spaces are in the garage, and other variables that are good to know about a listing. It’ll show you both the sales history of the house and the different prices it has sold for. However, this information will often only go back as far as the mid-1990s.
“The biggest issue is the liens,” Barker explains. “A house could have builder’s liens or contractor’s liens. Because liens go with the property, you could end up having to hire a real estate attorney and having a huge legal battle to get the liens fixed. That’s why you need a detailed title search.”
Nadia Aminov, a Baltimore, Maryland agent who sells 97% of her listings, always helps her clients search the MLS because she not only has access to more information as a broker, she also understands it at a deeper level.
“We have access to land records, you have to create a profile to be a member in order to search for a deed that’s been recorded or a lien that was placed on the property. A buyer can get access to the database but it might be just a little bit confusing to navigate. You have to have some experience with this to understand what things really mean in context.”
Google the address
Googling the address will give you the listing information — but that’s not all Google is good for. Smart buyers will also check news stories related to the house by clicking on the “news” subsection at the top of your Google search results.
Once you select that filter, you’ll get access to years of records of any news stories related to that house, whether it’s the site of a grisly murder or the fun fact that it appeared on House Hunters.
Tracemyhouse.com started in the U.K., but has expanded to become a great resource for homebuyers in the U.S.A.
If you’re a first-time homebuyer or just new to searching properties online, you’ll likely find their framework helpful when it comes to conducting your property records search. Without a framework, property records search can be a little overwhelming and disorganized, especially if you’re checking the history of multiple properties at once.
A property records search can reveal more
Are property records public information? Yes! There are a couple of options at your disposal if you want to do a property records search.
Searching through these records, you can discover details like:
- Chain of ownership
- Sales history
- Tax history
- Changes to the home’s square footage
To get started, check to see whether your city or county has public records accessible online. You can do this by using the Public Records Online Directory portal. This will allow you to do a property history search for free.
First, click on the state where you’re searching on the interactive map display. Then, select which county the house is in. This will then show you a list of the different online public records that are maintained by the county.
For example, many counties now offer a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on their local government website. You can navigate to the house address on the interactive map and click on the property. You’ll then be given an option to view the parcel details.
From the parcel, you can learn more about:
- Owner’s name
- Mailing address
- Property class
- Year built
- Architectural style
- Basement type
Some online parcel details will also include a sketch vector of the house. From the sketch vector, you can learn what parts of the house are original and what parts are additions. It may also show you if the house has a wood deck with a roof, or a raised enclosed porch.
Another option is using a service like Been Verified that can conduct a reverse address lookup. With this service, you can discover more about the current or previous property owners, as well as the sales history and home value of the house. Price plans for BeenVerified range from $17.48 per month to $26.89 per month.
The National Register of Historic Places will tell you if the home is historic
If the property you’re interested in is a historic home, then you should be able to locate it through the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is a program of the National Park Service, where properties that are historically significant are recorded.
They have a research page where you can search for properties. There’s also a downloadable spreadsheet on the research page, which is currently the most complete set of information they have on all properties. You can recover a property’s historic name or reference number from the spreadsheet. There’s also a GIS map on the website that you can use.
If you don’t find a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, that doesn’t necessarily mean the house isn’t historic. There’s a similar resource called the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) that you should also check.
“Many states maintain their own official lists of inventories or registers of historic and cultural resources,” says Jeff Joeckel, an archivist with the National Register of Historic Places. He has more than 20 years of experience working with the National Park Service.
It’s possible for a state to list a property on the state register, but not send it to the National Register of Historic Places. “In other words, if we don’t have the information on the property, it can still be considered worthy of preservation by the state,” Joeckel says. “So you may have to look in two places.”
You can find additional information about your state’s SHPO from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is a separate organization from the National Register of Historic Places.
Learn more about past residents of the house from census records
If you’re curious about who once lived in the house you’re interested in, you can use census records to look up that information.
Census records can help form the foundation for your research. You’re able to both learn new information, as well as confirm details you’ve already collected.
The census records can provide genealogy-rich information of all former residents at a property. From the census records, you can learn:
- Relationships between residents
- Birth years
- Marital status
However, the older the census record is, the less detail you may find. For example, if you’re after the 1890 census records, you’ll be out of luck. They were destroyed in a fire in the Commerce Department Building in January 1921.
FamilySearch.org can help you understand the demographic history of a neighborhood or house
Most people think of FamilySearch.org as a resource for learning about their family tree, but it can also be useful for learning about a neighborhood or house’s demographic history.
You can check their location list to search historical records by place. You may not find your exact property, but you can get a sense of what the neighborhood was like in different periods. You’ll be able to read about ethnic, political, or religious groups; business records and occupations; census, taxation, and voter lists; church history, and other population insights that will shed light on the demographic history of the area.
If you have the names of previous owners, you could look them up in the database and get additional insight on the house you’re considering. For example, if the house was previously owned by someone who worked as a farmer, you’ll know the other houses nearby are likely newer as the surrounding land would have been farmland at the time.
Cyndi’s List can be a starting point for finding resources
Cyndi’s List’s is an index of various genealogical databases on the internet and their House and Building Histories has several options for how to find a house’s records. You can check the Locality Specific resources and the General resources.
If neither one has anything on your specific house, check the Professionals, Volunteers, and Other Research Services section where Cyndi’s List will direct you to services that can help you dig up lots of information on your house. Hiring someone else to do the digging can be a great option if you have more money than time to spend on your property history research.
Land entry records might help you build a title chain of land ownership
To put it simply, a land entry record shows you the transactional history of a property and the details of the buyer. They are records of the transfer of ownership of land from the government into private hands.
While it depends on the time period, the record might only give the bare minimum for an entry. Even still, the bare minimum would include essential information you can utilize at other resources, such as census or court records.
However, the record might also yield new insights into past owners. A fully embellished land entry record might show:
- Land use issues
- Place of birth
- Military service
- Economic status
While you can’t view the land entry record online, you can remotely fill out a form to request the information. You can choose between a paper document, electronic file, or a CD/DVD of the record, all for the same price of $50.
Conduct a title search
If going to the local county office for a property history deep dive is unappealing, you’re not out of options. Companies like Get Title Shield offer free online title searches as part of their offering of selling title insurance. You won’t need insurance if you don’t own the property, but having a simplified digital deep dive into the title history of a property is valuable, especially as these reports dig deeper than most people are willing to do when manually searching multiple resources for the same information.
If you don’t see the name of the seller on the report, that’s a red flag that something shady is going on. Other red flags include unknown or missing heirs, technical defects on earlier deeds, unknown liens, and fraudulent deeds.
If you’re buying the property, “make sure the person that is selling or transferring title has ‘clean title.’ That means there are no outstanding tax liens, mortgages, or other issues that you would be assuming by taking the property,” advises Matthew Carter, attorney at Inc and Go, who has practiced business and real estate law for 15 years.
“If they jointly own the property with someone else, you need both people to be on the deed to you for it to be valid.”
Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records
If you’re ready to truly don the hat of researcher and delve far back into a property’s history, then there’s the official federal lands records site.
The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records (its impressively long title practically conveys its importance) is a wealth of information. It gives access to federal land conveyance records. It also has images of federal land titles issued as far back as 1788.
There is a variety of information you can pull from this website. A few examples include:
- Land patents: A land patent will show the first transfer of a land title from the federal government to an individual. There are several different types of land patents, but the most common are cash entry, homestead, and military warrant.
- Survey plats: An official record, a survey plat shows a graphic drawing of the boundaries and lists official acreage.
- Field notes: This offers a narrative record of the initial survey done of an area. It gives a detailed description of the survey process, including what instruments and procedures were used.
Aminov always helps her clients look at and understand land records because,
“Let’s say you’re looking at a property and it’s an older home. You’re looking at the current listing. Then you start going deeper and look at the property history when it was sold thirty years ago. Sometimes you can see notes with disclosures from when it was sold before, and perhaps you can uncover additional information to what the current seller is disclosing. For example, you find out that there used to be a well take on the property and newest listing doesn’t have any mention of that. So now you know to do more research and find out what the story with the well is.”
Layer historic photos with the present through WhatWasThere
If you want a visual glimpse into the past, then WhatWasThere can help you.
WhatWasThere overlaps historical photos to present images on Google Maps. The website allows you to tour through a street and witness what it once looked like in the past.
Wondering if someone died in the house?
If you’re curious whether someone has ever met an untimely demise in the house you’re researching, DiedInHouse can help. DiedInHouse is a web-based service that gathers information and compiles a report on whether anyone has ever died at any valid U.S. address.
DiedInHouse was founded by Roy Condrey when a tenant of his texted him in the middle of the night to ask, “Do you know your house is haunted?” Condrey started to research online and discovered how difficult it was to uncover any information on the matter.
“Doing a Google search, I found pages and pages of people asking my same question,” Condrey says. “The advice I found was to ask the agent, seller, neighbors, check online, and with local government agencies. I discovered that the process is easier said than done, and not to mention very time-consuming.”
Most states don’t consider a death in a home to be a material fact, so it’s often not disclosed during the selling process. For example, in Pennsylvania, there was a court decision that set the precedent that a murder in a home is not a material fact and needn’t be disclosed.
DiedInHouse has made some incredibly macabre findings, too. Condrey reveals, “We helped to identify that a house built on the land where John Wayne Gacy’s house once stood, where he murdered 33 victims and buried 26 of them in the crawl space, was for sale.”
It’s clear there’s a demand for the type of service that DiedInHouse offers, as well: the site gets millions of visitors every year.
People are curious about whether someone has died in a house for a variety of reasons. According to Condrey, some of the reasons people have purchased a report include:
- Wanting to avoid buying a haunted home
- Not wanting a home with a dark past and negative energy
- Not wanting a home that’s a tourist attraction
- Hoping to negotiate a lower sale or rent price
- Agents researching a property before agreeing to list
- Property investors looking for leads on distressed properties
- House appraisers researching stigmatizing information
- Paranormal investigators looking for leads and supporting evidence
The way DiedInHouse compiles its report is through an algorithm, which searches through both public and private databases for information about the address. For $11.99, you can receive a report and discover if anyone has ever died at a specific address. You can view sample reports for an idea of what information is presented.
Peruse OldHouseWeb forums for property type insights
While the forums on OldHouseWeb aren’t going to tell you much about the specific house you’re considering buying, they can tell you a lot about houses from that period and/or in your region.
Depending on when your house was built, you can gather information in the Pre-1900s or Post-1900s house sections, check out photos in the Picture section, and ask questions and network in the General discussion and Hangout forums.
The Resource forum is where you may discover that the type of house you’re considering buying is perfect for your needs … or is going to be way more effort to maintain than you want to expend.
The forums on OldHouseWeb are free to peruse, and creating an account to interact with other users is also free.
LexisNexis provides property claim reports
Before you buy a house, confirm that no one has any claims on the property by using the LexisNexus Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (C.L.U.E.). This exchange gathers and reports up to seven years of claims against personal property, like a house or the land it’s on.
The claims information in this report will include information on the date of the property loss, as well as amounts paid. Previous claims against a property can impact your insurance premiums and may need to be factored into your bid price.
Getting a property claim report from LexisNexus is free once every 12 months.
Check foreclosure history and current status
RealtyTrac offers members the ability to check foreclosure history and current status of any property. Depending on the reason for the foreclosure, you can get a great deal on a property, especially if it’s preforeclosure or if you’re the first one to snap it up.
You can sign up for a free trial to check the RealtyTrac database and then determine if the $49.95 per month membership is worth it to you.
Environmental data checks for contamination and violations
As much fun as living on contaminated land might sound, you probably won’t get any superpowers as a result, so it’s best to avoid it entirely.
You can confirm the property you’re interested in doesn’t have any current or previous issues by searching hundreds of thousands of local, state, and federal documents that have been organized into this database.
The results will show you if there have ever been or currently are any suspected contamination issues, compliance or violation concerns, as well as permitted sources of toxic vapors that might be harmful.
Historic aerial views also are hosted on this site so you can see what the area used to look like and confirm there aren’t any other potential issues — like a pond you’ll want to confirm wasn’t filled in with sand, or an old coal mine.
Get offline and use real life resources!
Not every database has been put on the internet so with a little legwork in the real world, you’ll be able to find information that simply isn’t available online.
Check the local library
Your local library will have records of the area that may never be put online, simply because there isn’t enough demand. While someone across the country may not care about the history of the land in your area, your local library will most likely have resources that will be helpful when checking out various neighborhoods or specific pieces of land.
Check out a local history book that covers the neighborhood where you’re house-hunting. If you’re not sure which one(s) to read, ask the librarian.
Visit the local building department
If your local library isn’t as helpful as you would like (or even if it is), the local building department should be your next stop. They will be able to provide insights around building codes and any possible violations that the home has — whether that’s because the rules changed or a previous owner broke the rules.
You can see what permits have been issues and what the rules are for that area. You can find out what the official inspector will look for and conduct some of the simpler checks yourself, before placing an offer or coordinating an official inspection.
Read a local resource book
When in doubt, turn to books. You can search through the Arcadia Publishing database by ZIP code, subject, or title to find a book that might have the property listed.
The database is massive and houses a wide variety of books. You might have to do a bit of digging and get creative in how you approach the search, but once you locate a lead, the effort will be well worth it.
Chat with a local historian or take a local tour
If you really want to learn about an area, find a local historian or take a local tour. Even if the home isn’t an area with lots of tourism and tours, there will often be a local historical society, professor, or even just local history enthusiast who will be happy to share their insights with you.
Discover how to find the history of a property online with these resources
Gone are the days where you’d have to drive hours to retrieve records or search through dusty archives to learn more about the history of a house. In this digital age, there are a multitude of online resources at your disposal to make the hunt far easier.
However, don’t overlook one of the top resources around.
“They can look up certain information themselves but we have the most accurate information as an agent online and so I recommend they utilize their agent to go over property history with them.”
Header Image Source: (Eduard Militaru / Unsplash)