By Larissa Runkle
Mar 7, 2022
Buying a home is never a straightforward process. But it can become that much more complicated if you sense your dream house might be hiding something—specifically a complex or dark history.
Maybe you get an eerie feeling when walking through a home’s front door. Or perhaps there’s something about the way the neighbors seem to eye you as you walk up to the house. Or you might be a history buff searching for a connection to a home. Whatever it is that piques your curiosity, you deserve to know your home’s entire history, especially before you move in.
To help you, we’ve come up with a nifty little protocol you can use to discover your home’s roots—and rule out any foul play on your new property. Here are six ways you can learn about your home’s past, plus some extra sleuthing tips from seasoned real estate experts.
Use the National Register of Historic Places
One of the first (and easiest) ways to understand your home’s basic history is by using the National Register of Historic Places.
“If your home is old enough to be on this register, it can be a great source of information about its history, including when it was built and by whom, as well as some architectural and stylistic details,” explains Martin Orefice, CEO of Rent To Own Labs. “One bonus of this method: If you find your home here, you are likely eligible for some tax credits that can be used for the upkeep of the property.”
Conduct a property records search
If your home doesn’t quite qualify as historical, then you can conduct a property records search.
“Government property records contain copies of your home’s deeds, plat maps, mortgages, liens, tax records, building permits, and more,” says Jennifer Osterhout, author of the “Beginner’s Guide To Tracing Your House’s History.” “These records can be found online or in-person at the local or county offices.”
Not sure where to start? Osterhout recommends visiting the Public Records Online Directory, a portal to state and local government offices with databases with available online public records.
Search census records
With some basic property searches out of the way, you might be curious to learn more about your home’s previous owners. And that’s where the power of U.S. Census Bureaurecords comes in handy.
“Census records are some of the most comprehensive historical data available in this country,” says Orefice. “They can provide a useful starting point for further research into your home’s history. Just keep in mind the focus is going to be on the individuals living there.”
Once you have the names of previous owners, a Google search can help tell you which (if any) have a history that’s worth exploring further.
Visit the Vital Records office
For those simply trying to confirm what—or if—any deaths might have occurred in a house, a quick trip to your local Vital Records office can help rule out those concerns.
“At your county’s Vital Records office or website, you can find listings of death certificates in the area,” says Daniel Osman of Balance Homes. “You’ll be able to search to see if your address appears on any of the certificates as the location of death, and you’ll also be able to discover the circumstances behind the death. In my experience, workers at Vital Records offices are more than capable of helping you.”
Dig into criminal records
If your initial sleuthing brings up deeper concerns about past owners (and what may have happened in your home), it might be time to start digging into criminal records.
“If buyers are curious about any potential criminal records at a home, they could search local police records available at a police station or in the state’s online criminal databases,” says real estate broker Tyler Gaudet, of Sprague & Curtis Real Estate in Kennebec County, ME.
“There are even websites that will help compile public record data on a person or address, which can be especially helpful if you know a particular homeowner’s name through your public records searches,” adds Gaudet.
One such website you might look into is Crimemapping.
“This site gives you access to details on reported crimes or police actions involving your home,” says Stephen Keighery, CEO of Home Buyer Louisiana.
Talk to neighbors
If your home does have a history, a neighbor likely remembers it. So never underestimate the power of collective knowledge, especially in an established and tight-knit neighborhood community.
“I cannot tell you how important neighbors are,” says real estate agent Kurt Grosse, of Realty One Group in Las Vegas. “I always tell my clients to drive [through] their prospective neighborhood looking for neighbors before writing an offer. For example, my clients loved a house last year—it was such a good deal! But then a neighbor explained how the previous owner had used acid in the bathtub to dispose of a body—there was no conviction yet, so disclosure by the Realtor® wasn’t necessary.”
The bottom line
If you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right—but found no proof—it’s time to share your concerns with your real estate agent. A good agent should help you dig into the details of a home, and make sure your concerns are addressed before you buy it.