Updated August 31, 2021
A house can hold a lot of history, and as a homebuyer, you probably want to know everything there is to know about the property you’re about to purchase. But if you’ve never searched public records before, you probably don’t know where to start when it comes to sifting through decades of property records — or what information you might discover. Here’s how to search property records and how to navigate the documentation, both online and offline — including what, exactly, you might want to investigate.
In this article:
What can you learn from property records?
There are a number of things you can learn from property records — in fact, you may be surprised by just how much there is to know, especially if the home you’re interested in is older with lots of history.
Any time there is a major change to the house affecting the ownership, it’s recorded with the county or city. Major changes can include sales or transfers of ownership, tax liens, and changes to the home’s square footage, if there have been additions to the property.
A property record search can also reveal information about the previous owners, property deeds — even some personal information about the seller regarding divorce and bankruptcy.
A more extensive search could tell you whether the land where the property sits has any restrictions, and who originally built the home; you might even dig up old photos of the home. For instance, the Los Angeles Public Library has a Housing Authority historic photo collection for Los Angeles county.
Online sales history
Sales history is typically easily available — often discoverable on any of the various online home sales search platforms or in person, usually at the office of the recorder of deeds. The recorder’s office will likely have both electronic and paper files for you to search.
The records should indicate who previously owned the home, how much they paid for it, when they bought it, and the current owner’s remaining mortgage bill (if applicable). Lenders sometimes use this information to target owners for refinancing.
Tax records are kept on properties to confirm that taxes have been paid and that the amount paid was correct for the assessed value. When a house is sold, the assessed value is recorded again based on the new appraisal (which should be higher than the previously recorded value; otherwise your house will have depreciated in value).
A tax history search will be able to tell you the property’s value at the time of assessment, past taxes paid, whether any taxes are due, and if there are any liens on the property. A lien is placed on a home when the owner owes money to a lender, the IRS, or possibly even a contractor who did remodeling work on the home. Even homeowners associations (HOAs) can place liens on properties for unpaid dues or assessments.
Direct assessments are also something to watch out for, as they can add thousands of dollars in ownership costs each year, according to Daniel Real, an agent in San Joaquin Valley, California, who sells homes 63% faster than the average agent in the region. “Direct assessments — buy a property in a certain location, and there could be Mello Roos [infrastructure taxes] and bonds that directly get put on the homeowners which could be anywhere between $2,500 to $5,000 a year in additional expenses.”
If there are liens, your lender might not approve a mortgage loan for the property; you’ll need to work out the issue with the seller as soon as possible — you definitely don’t want to assume their debt!
Depending on the age of the home and how far back the tax records go, you might not be able to find everything you want online, so it could be worth an old-fashioned research trip to the assessor’s office.
One thing to keep in mind as you search: sometimes, names are entered incorrectly into the database, so try alternate spellings. For instance, if the name you want to look up is hyphenated or has a plural designation, such as “Samantha Rivers-Smith” you might try the following variations:
- Samantha Rivers-Smith
- Samantha River-Smith
- Samantha Smith-Rivers
- Samantha Smith-River
- Samantha Smith
- Samantha Rivers
- Samantha River
Typically, a deed search will start with your county clerk, recorder, auditor, or state registry of deeds; these offices might allow you to search online, but for the most complete history, you should visit the office in person and request any physical records available.
You’ll definitely want to look for any recorded encumbrances, particularly liens or easements. An easement is the right for a party to use someone else’s land. Subdivisions often have defined easements for utilities: you allow the utility service to exist on your property. Another example would be if the house straddles a public road — the portion of your property that is available for the public to use on the road is the easement.
A lien is a claim someone else has on the property; for instance, the lender of the home loan holds a lien against your property until you make all your mortgage payments in full, and if you don’t, it has the right to repossess or foreclose on the property.
Here’s what else you can learn searching through the deed history:
- Current and past owners
- Lot area
- Plat subdivision (a plat map is a map drawn to scale that shows the divisions of a parcel of land; subdivisions will have assigned lot numbers, and the map will also show the north, south, east, and west orientation of the property — helpful information if you’re planning to install solar panels, for instance)
- Council district
- Zoning information
- Last sale amount
- Assessed land value and assessed improvement value
- Number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and overall square footage
Marriage and divorce, birth and death
Copies of records of marriage, divorce, births, and deaths are typically available from your recorder or county clerk. Some of these records might illuminate why a seller wants to leave; if you learn, for instance, that your sellers are getting divorced, it’s possible they will want to sell fast to move on with their lives.
Be careful when using this personal information during negotiations, however; it could backfire. An experienced buyer’s agent can help you navigate through the negotiation process in these types of situations.
“Once you find out the seller’s motivation you, in a way, could use that in negotiations,” says Real. “If they’re [seller] in default, if there’s a lien on it, if they’re in foreclosure or in the middle of a bankruptcy or divorce — all of that helps in a negotiation in a traditional market.”
How do you search property records?
Searching through property records is a process. You’ll want to call on your inner librarian and get focused for an afternoon — especially if you want to do the most comprehensive search, which will require looking both online and in person.
1. Determine who manages the records
To start, you should figure out who manages the property records where the house is located. “Whatever office has the land records will be who they’ll want to contact first,” says Marty Oaks, manager of official records for Duval County, Florida.
A few places or entities that keep county records:
- County courthouse
- County clerk recorder’s office
- City hall
- Other county or city department
In any case, you won’t have to travel far, and most agencies house their records online. According to Oaks, every county keeps records differently. Some counties only house a few decades of records online. “Typically the older the area, the more research would need to be done in person,” he says. You can do a search here to figure out which office has the records.
2. Get your details together
To run a search, you’ll need the property’s address (or lot number) and the current seller’s name. And, as with any research project, you should determine what information you want to know! Here are a few potential ideas:
- Are the owners the only people/entities who own the property? (You don’t want to be in a situation where you don’t end up as the sole owner of your home!)
- Does the square footage advertised match what’s on the record?
- Has the seller filed for bankruptcy?
- Are the sellers going through a divorce?
Phoenix-based real estate agent Mike Mendoza has almost four decades of experience and notes that square footage is the property record issue that comes up the most often. “The tax records may have a certain square footage listed, and the listing agent may have a totally different square footage listed. So the buyer might want to know, why is that?”
It’s usually because an owner, at some point, paid for an addition to the property but didn’t get the permits to do so, or didn’t formally report it.
3. Go get the reports
You will likely be able to find most of what you need online, unless you’re buying in a rural area where records aren’t hosted online. If that’s the case, visit either the assessor or the recorder and let them know you want to look at the tax history or the deed history for the home, or that you have a vital records request for birth, marriage, divorce, or death information.
For example, the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office website allows access to multiple reports without having to visit other government agency sites. Simply enter the property address or parcel number:
From there, you can review the search results. Each field is a hyperlink that provides additional information. In this case, the APN or parcel number link can provide the most detail about the property. (Personal information has been removed for privacy purposes.):
The property detail view is organized into helpful categories, including tax information, deed, maps, and more.
4. Get ready to pay
There are fees (usually nominal) for getting copies of records from city and county facilities; these will be listed online. For example, an online search in 2020 in Los Angeles will cost you $1.50 plus a $1.75 processing fee; to receive a copy of the report, you’ll pay per page printed. This research isn’t going to empty your wallet and will be far from your biggest expense in your homebuying process!
If the records aren’t available online, call the assessor or recorder before you pay them a visit and ask how much they charge for copies (as well as acceptable forms of payment) so you’ll be prepared.
Some cities might have a database of historical maps, which sometimes include historical photos of homes. And if nothing comes up there, you can also look up the house using Google Street View history: search for the address in Google Maps, click the photos of the house to switch to Street View, and then see if there’s a timeline; if available, it should go back to 2007.
And for a macabre search: you can use DiedinHouse.com to learn if anyone has passed away in the property in question (or if there were any fire incidents).
Neighbors are also a great resource if you want to know more about the home’s history and the previous owners. Neighbors, especially those who’ve lived on the street for many years, can be fantastic sources of information you can’t find anywhere else!
Property records search FAQs
When is a property search done when purchasing a home?
A title company normally conducts a title search during the escrow process.
Do I need to be in escrow on a property in order to research its history?
No. Property information is public record and can be accessed by anyone at any time, as long as you’re willing to invest the time and pay the necessary fees.
What’s the difference between a title and deed?
A property’s title refers to a person’s or entity’s legal right of ownership over a specific property. A deed is the actual legal document that transfers ownership from seller to buyer.
What else should I research beyond property records?
You can get a read on the neighborhood’s safety by thoroughly reviewing crime reports in the area. If you’re concerned about potential flood and water damage, determine if the property’s located in a FEMA-designated flood zone and contact your insurance provider to run a C.L.U.E. report for specific flood claim history.
What happens if I don’t like what I find?
If you’re conducting the research on your own prior to making an offer, simply walk away. If you’ve discovered the issues during escrow, discuss with your agent the details of what’s involved with obtaining a clear title from the seller (examples: financial or legal outcomes, length of time to resolve) to determine whether you want to proceed with the purchase.
Title and property records searches can be time-consuming and confusing. If you don’t want to do all the work on your own, ask your real estate agent to recommend a great title company to help you out.
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