Craig Johnson

How Public Records Give You an Edge in Homebuying

Dig up data on the seller, street, and neighborhood to inform your home search and your buying decisions.

How Public Records Give You an Edge in Homebuying
Public records and these related resources can tell you about a home's seller, thus letting you draw conclusions about their motivations and eagerness to sell. | PeopleWhiz

In the face of very good reasons for the real estate market to have tanked, it's soaring. Despite a global pandemic and the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, homebuying is brisk. If you're shopping for a new home you'll likely face stiff competition.

To give yourself an edge in researching properties and negotiating to buy, take advantage of fast and powerful public record searches and other online tools.

Homebuying is hot now for a few reasons.

Sellers are trading up, purchasing larger and more practical homes as a foundation for a work-from-home lifestyle. They're relocating now that their employer has agreed to cut the leash and let them work remotely. They're downsizing, cashing in on the equity they've built in one home to buy smaller in an exciting new locale or closer to family, or just to lower their living expenses. For these reasons and more, the real estate market hasn't slowed down despite an overall dramatic decline in . . . well, everything else.

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Record-low housing supply is revving the gas on the real estate engine too. Prospective buyers are in competition for a smaller number of affordable and attractive properties. Public records searches and other quick online research can help you choose a home to pursue and give you a leg up on the competition when you negotiate.

Here's how public records and related resources can give you an edge in homebuying.

Gather Information About the Seller

Online seller's listings probably won't tell you who owns the house, but a real estate agent should be able to find out. What you find out about the seller could inform your decision to focus on this particular house. For example, if the owner is in divorce proceedings you can assume he or she is motivated to sell and won't drag out the process. This home could be yours faster than, say, a similar home in the same neighborhood where the owners are taking their sweet time.

But you don't need a real estate agent at this point if you have PeopleWhiz. Keep reading!

Property ownership is public record.

If you're not working with a real estate agent yet and want to find out the owner's name yourself, it's good to know that property ownership in the United States is a matter of public record. The address of the home is likely all you need to pry the ownership information from the county tax assessor or county recorder. Those departments collect property taxes, so if anyone knows who owns a house, it's them. The tax records on a property should show you who owns the property, the appraisal and transaction history, and any existing tax liens or deficiencies.

The records could be easily accessible online, or you might need to call or visit the office. Either way, property ownership is public information and you're perfectly within your rights to access it. Run the owner's name through a powerful people finding tool, such as PeopleWhiz, to bring up a wealth of data, such as whether or not the home is in foreclosure.

In addition to helping you narrow the field of homes to research, what you find out about the seller could also influence the strategy you take with your offer and the negotiations. If the home is in foreclosure, you can draw conclusions about the eagerness of the owner to sell and therefore start with a lower offer than you might otherwise have made.

A title company will charge you $200-$300 to look up who owns a property, a steep price when you can probably find out the information yourself.

Foreclosures are just one piece of information you can dig up with a records search. At PeopleWhiz, the scope of a public records search is all official U.S. records sourced from federal, state, and private commercial databases, such as:

  • Mugshots
  • Court filings
  • Traffic violations
  • Marriages and divorces
  • Foreclosures and liens
  • Address history

"The more you know about the seller, the better strategy you can put together," says New York real estate broker Brendon DeSimone, author of Next Generation Real Estate: New Rules for Smarter Home Buying & Faster Selling. For instance, does the seller already have a new place and therefore probably wants to sell quickly? Conversely, does the seller not have somewhere to go and therefore could want to drag out the closing? Is a divorce involved?

"Spy" on the Neighborhood With Free Online Photography

The photographs anyone in the world can call up on their computer of houses, backyards, and neighborhoods today far outpace what the best spies of yesterday could achieve. From the comfort of your sofa you can peak over fences and walls almost anywhere in the world.

Satellite photographs can give you a glimpse into the backyards of neighboring houses. When you're interested in buying a home, enter its address into both Google and Bing, and compare the satellite and street views. Does a hoarder live next door? Has the swimming pool in an adjacent property turned green? If so, you're probably looking at vermin and mosquito problems if you buy there.

You can quickly swap a bird's-eye view for a human's view with online imagery as well. Street images have long been captured by both Google and Microsoft, allowing you to virtually travel along roads, view storefronts, and navigate neighborhoods as if you're walking or driving in them. Often stitched together in 360-degree experiences, these photos are yours to examine for free when you search for most any address or landmark on Google or Bing.

Take a time machine.

The dates of the images can let you ride a virtual time machine in the neighborhood. For instance, if Bing's images are two years newer than Google's, compare them in browser windows side-by-side to see how the street and neighborhood have been maintained. Good signs to look for are empty lots that get quickly redeveloped, added landscaping, newer cars in driveways, and backyard decks and other home improvements. In the newer photographs, if you see junk piles, brown lawns, and an abundance of vehicles in driveways and along the curbs (a sign of roommate situations or short-term/party rentals) then you are seeing signs of neighborhood decline.

Don't Overlook the Usefulness of a Real Estate Agent

Because home listings are so accessible online, many buyers think they don't need a real estate agent. But an agent is your partner in research and could already subscribe to data sources that you'd have to pay for yourself.

You've got nothing to lose employing the services of a good agent. "A good agent, with knowledge of the market and negotiation experience, can make the difference between a successful purchase and a deal that falls apart," writes Teresa Mears for U.S. News and World Report. "In most cases, buyers pay nothing to use an agent because real estate commissions are covered by the seller."

You can rely on our agent to handle the negotiations too. It's what agents do all the time. This is a tremendous relief to most homebuyers, who have their own jobs and family life to keep them busy while the particulars about a home purchase get hammered out by the agents.


You can see that public record searches and other online and offline resources can tell you about a home's seller, thus letting you draw conclusions about their motivations and eagerness to sell. Stealth search-engine photography can inform you about the property, the neighbors, and the neighborhood, all without leaving home. And if you can't find out something on your own, a real estate agent can probably help at no cost to you.

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