Published on August 27, 2021 by Alison Bentley
With all the steps you’re required to take during the homebuying experience, you may be forgetting to ask some very important questions, like when was the house built and what exactly is its history? So, before you strike a deal with a home seller and begin the closing process, it’s important to learn about the property history of your soon-to-be home. Below, we outline how you can search for a house’s history so you know exactly when it was built, any major renovations that were completed, and other important details to help make homeownership that much easier and stress free.
How can I find the history of my property?
Finding the history of a home that you own or are looking to buy can be a fascinating rabbit hole to dive into. However, it can also be a little tricky. You’ll probably start with a public records search on your local city and county websites, but may find significant differences in what’s available online from different websites. This can also help determine how many steps you’ll go through to find your property’s history. But don’t worry, we’ll walk you through the process.
Step 1. Look up summary info
The first step in finding a house’s history is looking up the address of the property on a real estate website. The property details listed will include the assessor’s parcel number (APN) or tax ID number and the year the house was built under the Public Facts section, among other details. Be sure to write down the APN or tax ID number, since you’ll be using this in many of the steps below.
Step 2. Go to your county recorder’s website
A county recorder’s office, which may also be called a county clerk’s office, locates all taxable property in the city or county. They identify ownership, establish a taxable value on the property, and record other documents, such as deeds of trust, reconveyances, liens, and lien releases.
Step 3. Look at the county parcel viewer
The quickest and most straightforward way to locate property information on a county recorder website is with the APN number. If you couldn’t find a parcel number for a property by looking on a real estate website, you can most likely use your city or county parcel search feature.
An assessor’s parcel viewer allows you to search by address or parcel number—or visually, by zooming in on the property on the interactive map. In most cases, you can choose the type of map you want to see, like aerial satellite imagery, streets, topographic, and others.
You may want to switch between various map types to make the search easier. For example, if you have the address of the house, and the house’s location on a map, you can either search for the address or zoom in on the neighborhood with the aerial map and switch to the street map to find the street.
When you click on the property, you’ll see a pop-up box. This box contains basic info about the property. From here, you can access various property records, including when the house was built, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, assessed value, and tax history.
If a parcel viewer isn’t listed in an obvious way on a recorder’s site, you can search for it on the city or county site, or via a regular search engine. It might go by other names, such as property information viewer or parcel lookup, especially for counties that don’t offer a map-based interface.
If the property consists of multiple tax parcels that are under common ownership or have been formally combined into a single parcel, keep in mind that some of the records may still be listed under the original parcel numbers.
Step 4. Access property records online
Next, see if the county or city has an online portal where you can look up more detailed public records data for property taxes and permitting. This includes deeds, liens, and more. Depending on the county or city, you can often view these records for free online.
Note that online records will have limited availability in terms of what year they start. Online records might begin anytime between the 1970s and the 1990s. However, if your house does not have online records between these dates, you might have to search microfilm. Microfilm is a photographic record of documents, such as deeds, building permits, or other legal records. Sometimes microfilm records are found digitally, but other times you may need to view them in-person.
It is possible that the property records you want are split between city and county databases. For example, the county may have records dating from 1970 to 1980, while the city might have records from 1981 to 1990. In that case, you may need to check both city and county records to find all the property records on your home.
Step 5. Order copies of property records
If you can’t view a document online, you can usually order copies. Or you might want hard copies of documents that are available online. You can normally get copies of property records in-person, online, by mail, or by dropbox. If you want certified copies, you will typically have to pay the recorder’s office a nominal fee by page or document.
Step 6. Get permit records
Permits can tell you a lot about the original construction of the property and any later additions to the home. The city or county permitting department may have an online permit center, where you can search for current or past permits by address or parcel number.
For some houses, looking up detailed public records will be very straightforward. In other cases, it won’t. For example, if the house was built in the 1920s, then was remodeled in the 1980s, you likely won’t know what was included in the remodel until you get the building permits from the 1980s. The original permits from the 1920s might only be available on microfilm and may be a little more than a hand-drawn sketch.
Normally, you would find records of permits at a planning or permitting office. If the jurisdiction of the property is a city, you would contact the city for permit records. Otherwise, you’ll get the permit records from the county. Keep in mind that in some areas, both city and county records will exist. For detailed permit records, you’ll often have to request them in digital form or make an appointment to review the original copies at the building or planning counter.
You can typically find permits on a wide variety of projects, additions, remodels of different rooms, finished basements, upgraded electrical components, complete renovation, or even a change or use such as when a commercial building becomes residential.
How can I find the owner of a home or property I’d like to buy?
In some cases, you’ll need an owner’s name or other information to do a property search for public records information. So, it would help to find the name of the current home or property’s owner.
Going back to the county parcel map, locate the property again on the map, and click on it. Some parcel viewers will give you the owner’s name. If not, check the property report. This often includes the most recent sales history listing the seller and buyer, as well as the change in ownership instrument, like a deed. You can often click on the recording number to see the deed. You may also be able to look at the property tax bill, which typically lists the owner’s name and address.
Deeds and ownership transfers
Another way to find an owner’s name is through deeds. When you look at a property on a parcel viewer and find the property detail report, you may see the last ownership transfer and document type. In some cases, this may show you names and dates. But it also may just show you a number you can use to request the latest deed via email or in person from the assessor’s office.
You can also find the owner through a records search for the property and locating the “grantor” and “grantee.” Typically, the grantor is the seller, or the one taking out a deed of trust or mortgage and the grantee is the buyer or inheritor, or the bank holding the deed of trust or mortgage. Note that some search results may also show nearby properties, so be sure the parcel ID matches the one you’re researching.
Census and planning records
Other options include census records, depending on the year. These records can give you details on the residents and their relationships over time. And if your property is on the city water and sewer system, you can check with your local planning department or inspections department for side sewer cards. Side sewer cards can show you the dates that side sewers were installed at a specific address—and the names of property owners and contractors. Keep in mind, you’ll typically need the parcel number or address to find side sewer cards.
What kind of property details can I get from public records on a house’s history?
As we described earlier, the local parcel viewer is a great place to begin any property records search. The corresponding property report gives you a wealth of information on the house, including the year it was built, floor plans, photos, condition, lot size, and tax roll history.
Property details you can get from public records include:
- Property info: Which includes owner’s name, address, maps, parcel and block number, zoning, jurisdiction, and any historical preservation status. You can also see the property tax information and its status (if it’s been paid or is delinquent). Other property info includes the size of the lot, square footage, floor plan, number of rooms, certain fixtures, number of stories, what year the house was built, and if the home was remodeled.
- Assessor’s summary, assessor’s roll values, or tax rolls: Tax rolls will have basic descriptive information about the property such as name, legal description, taxes paid, and the assessed value of the property. You can typically find the tax roll history in the property report.
- Zoning districts, special use districts, and regulations such as additional dwelling units (ADUs)
- Environmental info and environmental impact statements: This can give you specialized info about the land and property, including potential air pollutants, flood risk, seismic hazards, and slope info.
- Maps: Maps can show you how the area, land, property, and street layout have changed over time.
- Surveys: You may be able to look at a land survey on the county recorder’s website. A land survey will show you the home’s property lines. If it’s not online, you can request copies from the recorder’s office. You may also find surveys on a maps section for land records. Note that surveys aren’t always indexed by parcel number, so in many cases, you’ll need to copy and paste the abbreviated legal description.
- Active and completed permits: Permits usually have the name of the property owner and contractor, as well as the address. You might see permits listed in the property report.
- Planning or building department complaints.
- Encumbrances, liens, deeds, and easements.
- Plumbing permits, septic system records, and private well records.
- Photos: These are typically searchable by parcel number or legal description and can often be found at the city, county, or regional archives. You can often see an exterior photo in the property report, via a parcel viewer. Property record cards usually have photos. It’s not always straightforward to find aerial photographs, but you may find some city or county agencies that make those available online.
- Area reports as part of the property report: These include taxing district, maps, the area’s typical valuation, and other details. If you’re lucky, this will also have a report from the department of assessments about the neighborhood. An area report may include a one-to-two page overview of the area the house is in, including topography, the typical condition of homes, and the specific subareas of the neighborhood.
What if I’m looking at an older home?
When you buy an older home, you might want to learn about the history of ownership. You’ll probably also want to know how the house was upgraded over time, if anything different was on the property beforehand, as well as if and how the land was divided.
Historical materials are often found within various local agencies. One place to start is the archives site for your city, county, or region. You can typically find property record cards in the archives department. These cards will give you photos and historical information about the property. From there, you can access record cards with a parcel number or the abbreviated legal description.
Property record cards may include photographs and exterior sketches, description and date of construction, ownership information, and permit numbers. To search for property records of a historical home, you’ll typically need the parcel number, address, or legal description. Note that with older homes, the parcel number, street name, and street number might have changed over time.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are a great resource for seeing if the structure of an older home has changed over time. These maps show the size, shape, and construction of the building as well as firewalls, locations of windows and doors, sprinkler systems, and types of roofs, and neighborhood infrastructure like water lines.
You may also want to look for reports on the history of a specific area of the county. A report will give you a comprehensive historical look at a broader regional area that includes your property. Unlike the in-depth reports on a neighborhood or smaller area you might find from your county, these historical reports will include more details on the history of how the land was used. You can also use your local library’s special collections to find more about the history of the area.
Can I do a free online property title search?
The short answer is yes. While most of the resources described above are free or very low cost, running through a comprehensive title search will take some time. But if you just want to know when your home was built or who currently owns a property you’re planning to buy, you can likely find that out in just a few minutes.
For example, in the property details shown in the parcel viewer described above, you can often see the sales history of the property. This will show the sale price, the seller and buyer’s name, and the type of deed. The sales history will also show you some, but not necessarily all, recorded easements and encumbrances.
What if I have questions about the process?
While many types of property records are straightforward, others may be harder to make sense of. Luckily, there are professionals who look at these documents all the time, including real estate attorneys, escrow agents, and real estate agents. So, if you’ve started your search and have questions, be sure to reach out to your real estate agent or other trusted real estate professional.