What You Can Learn About a Home Through Property Records (and how to search them)

November 5, 2021
By James White

It’s human nature to be curious about the history of a property that you might make an offer on. It’s also wise – taking the time to do some research into property records can spare you legal hassles down the road and give you the reassurance you need to move forward. Regardless of the outcome, knowledge is power when it comes to making such a large financial investment.

It can be daunting to get started, but think of it as putting on your detective hat and you may even enjoy the process. Everything we discuss in this article is public information and where to find it – so you can sleuth without having to be sneaky. Let’s start searching!

But wait! What exactly am I searching for?

It goes without saying that the older a home, the more records there will be to sort through. For every time a house changes hands or undergoes major renovations that require a permit, there will be evidence. You may also learn who owned the home at various points in its existence, tax information, particularly if there are any liens that may affect the sale and any restrictions on land use and zoning.

Taxes – that’s important to know about because once you assume ownership of a property, you’ll be paying for them. Review the tax history to see what kind of increases – if any – typically occur year over year in the particular municipality you’re planning to buy in. You’ll also want to take a look at the assessment and how frequently that gets updated, since any change in the assessment will have major implications in the future property taxes you’ll pay.

It’s also possible you’ll encounter a lien on the home if the owner owes money to the IRS, to a lender, a homeowners association, or if they are in arrears on the water bill. It’s unlikely that a lender will approve a mortgage on a property with an existing lien, so this is critical information.

Like many records, these are probably available to access online through the town or county’s website (look for the assessor department). If the records go very far back, for properties with a long history, or if you’re looking in a more rural area, you might want to pay a visit to the assessor’s office in person.

Deeds – Another important property record you’ll want conduct a search for is the deed. A thorough review of a property’s deeds can tell you a lot – the names of all previous owners, the size of the lot and its boundaries, a map of the subdivision – or development – and the lot number, zoning information, and house features (number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and square footage).

As in your tax record search, watch out for liens (a claim that another party, like a lender, may have on the property). Also keep an eye out for easements, which allows another party to use the land. This could be for a utility company that has services on the property, a public road that runs through the property, or even boating rights for neighbors if that land is water-adjacent.

Again, it may be possible to find what you’re looking for online, but it might be simpler to take a trip. Just make sure you know where to go first! A good place to start is the county clerk’s office, the recorder, a state registry of deeds, or the auditor – the specific name of the office will vary by where you’re looking but a quick google search should tell you where to begin. You’ll want to have the address or lot number and the name of the current owner on hand to conduct your search. And bear and mind that it’s not uncommon to encounter human errors. You may need to try alternate spellings of the owner’s name to locate the deed.

Sales History – Another useful nugget of information is the selling prices from the previous times ownership of a particular home changed hands. It can help you assess whether the asking price is a fair one, if it’s jumped more than the average increase in home values, and whether that’s due to home improvements or wishful thinking. This information is often readily available online on sites like realtor.com or Zillow when you look at the home listing. This information should also be available where you look at past property deeds.

Finding the Records

The land records discussed above may be located in a different building depending on where the property is located. Usually, they will be kept at the county courthouse, the county clerk’s office, or a city or town hall, but this is not an exhaustive list. Many of these have modernized their records into electronic files so that they can be found online (although there may be a small fee involved in accessing them). In more rural areas, you may find that your only option is a trip into the town or city center.

What about the title search?

The title search is the most important one of all. A title is what determines who the legal owner of a property is. While you can conduct your own title search just as you can for deeds and tax records, it’s wise to get professional help. Most mortgages will insist on title insurance through a reputable company who has the means to do a complete and thorough title search. If a title isn’t clean, it can become a massive liability and could result in a loss of your investment.

At QuickDeeds.com, we encourage you to do your own research on the home of your dreams, but we don’t want you to take any chances. Our team makes it quick and affordable to obtain title insurance with attorney services provided by Easler Law, a Florida-based law firm that believes the little details are the important ones. Visit quickdeeds.com today for all of your title insurance and deed preparation needs.

The information on this page may have changed since we first published it. We give great legal advice, but this page (and the rest of our site) is for informational use only and is no substitute for actual legal advice. If you’d like to establish an attorney-client relationship, reach out to us and we’ll tell you how we can make it official. Sending us an email or reading this page alone doesn’t mean we represent you.