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.
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 your house is an older one.
Any time there is a major change to the house affecting the ownership, this change is 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 more extensive search could tell you whether or not 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.
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 somewhat 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’ll probably 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.
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.
First: Who manages the records?
To start, you should figure out who manages the property records where the house is located (records are usually kept at the county courthouse, county recorder’s office, city hall, or a different county or city department; in any case, you won’t have to travel far). You can do a search here to figure out which office has the records.
Next, 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 end up 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?
Regarding the square footage, 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.
Then, 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, go visit either the assessor or the recorder and tell them 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.
Finally, get ready to pay
There are fees (usually small ones) 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 on the block, just be careful of being too nosy.
Header Image Source: (Kolar.io / Unsplash)