Unsolved Mysteries: 9 Ways to Find the History of a Property Online
by Rachel Russell
March 27, 2020
You fell head-over-heels the moment you laid eyes on the perfectly landscaped house of your dreams. It’s for sale — and you just so happen to be in the market to buy. However, you’ve heard rumors about the house’s past. Maybe something bad happened there once? Or maybe it looks like a prestigious Victorian… and you wonder whether it’s an original or a reproduction?
Whatever your reason, you want to know more about the property’s history beyond the scant details provided. You need more information before you make such a huge investment.
If you’re curious about how to find the history of a property online, you’re in luck. From interviewing professional experts to researching sources, we’ve gathered all the different ways you can find the history of a property online.
Source: (The Creative Exchange / Unsplash)
Start with the listing
There’s no better way to feel like Sherlock Holmes sleuthing for evidence than by digging into the history of a property.
Whatever type of listing the house is, you should be able to find some important details about its history. Eighty-four percent of buyers who search online for detailed information find the listing description “very useful,” according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2019 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.
You can find the listing for the house you’re interested in by Googling its address.
The tiny details are what matter
“When buyers look into the history of a home, they’re concerned with the issues that can arise,” says William Barker, a top-selling agent in Omaha, Nebraska, who sells homes 19% quicker than the average area agent.
“Are there foundation issues? When was the roof replaced? Is the title clear of liens? You don’t want to be surprised by a hidden problem.”
A title should tell you the age of the house and whether it has ever been remodeled. If appropriate permits weren’t filed for certain remodel projects, the information may not be accurate, though. The title should also reveal whether the house has certain appliances, such as a garbage disposal or dishwasher.
If you’re curious whether the hardwood floor is original, a title should have that information. It may even detail what type of materials were used for the siding and roofing of the house. If the roof is covered in asphalt shingles, then you know it’s going to have a shorter lifespan and insulation won’t be as good.
If you’re more interested in knowing what various prices a house has sold for over the years, then the multiple listing service (MLS) can help you with that. It’ll show you both the sales history of the house and the different prices it has sold for. However, this information will often only go back as far as the mid-1990s.
“The biggest issue is the liens,” Barker explains. “A house could have builder’s liens or contractor’s liens. Because liens go with the property, you could end up having to hire a real estate attorney and having a huge legal battle to get the liens fixed. That’s why you need a detailed title search.”
A property records search can reveal more
Are property records public information? Yes! There are a couple of options at your disposal if you want to do a property records search.
Searching through these records, you can discover details like:
- Chain of ownership
- Sales history
- Tax history
- Changes to the home’s square footage
To get started, check to see whether your city or county has public records accessible online. You can do this by using the Public Records Online Directory portal. This will allow you to do a property history search for free.
First, click on the state where you’re searching on the interactive map display. Then, select which county the house is in. This will then show you a list of the different online public records that are maintained by the county.
For example, many counties now offer a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on their local government website. You can navigate to the house address on the interactive map and click on the property. You’ll then be given an option to view the parcel details.
From the parcel, you can learn more about:
- Owner’s name
- Mailing address
- Property class
- Year built
- Architectural style
- Basement type
Some online parcel details will also include a sketch vector of the house. From the sketch vector, you can learn what parts of the house are original and what parts are additions. It may also show you if the house has a wood deck with a roof, or a raised enclosed porch.
If you’re willing to shell out a few dollars, another option is using a service like Been Verified that can conduct a reverse address lookup. With this service, you can discover more about the current or previous property owners, as well as the sales history and home value of the house. Price plans for BeenVerified range from $17.48 per month to $26.89 per month.
The National Register of Historic Places will tell you if the home is historic
If the property you’re interested in is a historic home, then you should be able to locate it through the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is a program of the National Park Service, where properties that are historically significant are recorded.
They have a research page where you can search for properties. There’s also a downloadable spreadsheet on the research page, which is currently the most complete set of information they have on all properties. You can recover a property’s historic name or reference number from the spreadsheet. There’s also a GIS map on the website that you can use.
If you don’t find a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, that doesn’t necessarily mean the house isn’t historic. There’s a similar resource called the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
“Many states maintain their own official lists of inventories or registers of historic and cultural resources,” says Jeff Joeckel, an archivist with the National Register of Historic Places. He has more than 20 years of experience working with the National Park Service.
It’s possible for a state to list a property on the state register, but not send it to the National Register of Historic Places. “In other words, if we don’t have the information on the property, it can still be considered worthy of preservation by the state,” Joeckel says. “So you may have to look in two places.”
You can find additional information about your state’s SHPO from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Joeckel adds, “The National Trust is a separate organization from the National Register of Historic Places, but we work together on various projects.”
Source: (Thought Catalog / Unsplash)
Learn more about past residents of the house from census records
If you’re curious about who once lived in the house you’re interested in, you can use census records to look up the information.
Census records can help form the foundation for your research. You’re able to both learn new information as well as confirm facts you’ve already collected.
The census records can provide genealogy-rich information of all former residents at a property. From the census records, you can learn:
- Relationships between residents
- Birth years
- Marital status
However, the older the census record is, the less detail you may find. For example, if you’re after the 1890 census records, you’ll be out of luck. They were destroyed in a fire in the Commerce Department Building in January 1921.
Land entry records might help you build a title chain of land ownership
To put it simply, a land entry record shows you the transactional history of a property and the details of the buyer. They are records of the transfer of ownership of land from the government into private hands.
While it depends on the time period, the record might only give the bare minimum for an entry. Even still, the bare minimum would include essential information you can utilize at other resources, such as census or court records.
However, the record might also yield new insights into past owners. A fully embellished land entry record might show:
- Land use issues
- Place of birth
- Military service
- Economic status
While you can’t view the land entry record online, you can remotely fill out a form to request the information.
Source: (Annie Spratt / Unsplash)
Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records
If you’re ready to truly don the hat of researcher and delve far back into a property’s history, then there’s the official federal lands records site.
The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records (its impressively long title practically conveys its importance) is a wealth of information. It gives access to federal land conveyance records. It also has images of federal land titles issued as far back as 1788.
There is a variety of information you can pull from this website. A few examples include:
Land patents: A land patent will show the first transfer of a land title from the federal government to an individual. There are several different types of land patents, but the most common are cash entry, homestead, and military warrant.
Survey plats: An official record, a survey plat shows a graphic drawing of the boundaries and lists official acreage.
Field notes: This offers a narrative record of the initial survey done of an area. It gives a detailed description of the survey process, including what instruments and procedures were used.
Layer historic photos with the present through WhatWasThere
If you want a visual glimpse into the past, then WhatWasThere can help you.
WhatWasThere overlaps historical photos to present images on Google Maps. The website allows you to tour through a street and witness what it once looked like in the past.
Source: (Anton Darius / Unsplash)
Wondering if someone died in the house?
If you’re curious whether someone has ever met an untimely demise in the house you’re researching, DiedInHouse can help. DiedInHouse is a web-based service that gathers information and compiles a report on whether anyone has ever died at any valid U.S. address.
DiedInHouse was founded by Roy Condrey when a tenant of his texted him in the middle of the night to ask, “Do you know your house is haunted?” Condrey started to research online and discovered how difficult it was to uncover any information on the matter.
“Doing a Google search, I found pages and pages of people asking my same question,” Condrey says. “The advice I found was to ask the agent, seller, neighbors, check online, and with local government agencies. I discovered that the process is easier said than done, and not to mention very time-consuming.”
Most states don’t consider a death in a home to be a material fact, so it’s often not disclosed during the selling process. For example, in Pennsylvania, there was a court decision that set the precedent that a murder in a home is not a material fact and needn’t be disclosed.
DiedInHouse has made some incredibly macabre findings, too. Condrey reveals, “We helped to identify that a house built on the land where John Wayne Gacy’s house once stood, where he murdered 33 victims and buried 26 of them in the crawl space, was for sale.”
It’s clear there’s a demand for the type of service that DiedInHouse offers, as well: the site gets millions of visitors every year.
People are curious about whether someone has died in a house for a variety of reasons. According to Condrey, some of the reasons people have purchased a report include:
- Wanting to avoid buying a haunted home
- Not wanting a home with a dark past and negative energy
- Not wanting a home that’s a tourist attraction
- Hoping to negotiate a lower sale or rent price
- Agents researching a property before agreeing to list
- Property investors looking for leads on distressed properties
- House appraisers researching stigmatizing information
- Paranormal investigators looking for leads and supporting evidence
The way DiedInHouse compiles its report is through an algorithm, which searches through both public and private databases for information about the address. For $11.99, you can receive a report and discover if anyone has ever died at a specific address. You can view sample reports for an idea of what information is presented.
Source: (Debby Hudson / Unsplash)
Last, a good old-fashioned book is a tried-and-true method
When in doubt, turn to books. You can search through the Arcadia Publishing database by ZIP code, subject, or title to find a book that might have the property listed.
The database is massive and houses a wide variety of books. You might have to do a bit of digging and get creative in how you approach the search, but once you locate a lead, the effort will be well worth it.
Discover how to find the history of a property online with these resources
Gone are the days where you’d have to drive hours to retrieve records or search through dusty archives to learn more about the history of a house. In this digital age, there are a multitude of online resources at your disposal to make the hunt far easier.
However, don’t overlook one of the top resources around.
“Find a Realtor who’s been around a long time,” Barker says as parting advice. “We’re an industry of information brokers. We’re the No. 1 source for finding out about a house.”
Header Image Source: (Eduard Militaru / Unsplash)
Rachel Russell is an author represented by a literary agent, as well as a content marketer and editor. She is knowledgeable about all things home shopping, landscaping, decor, and budgeting as a first-time homebuyer.
Before Buying or Renting a Home, Get Informed About Everything! Use DiedinHouse.com to Learn the House History.
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