Public Records and Property History

Liens On Property

Property records that detail the history of parcels and buildings are important, which is why most are public. When a property changes hands, the deed is recorded in a public office for the purposes of taxation, ownership, access, and confirming boundaries. Because these documents are public, neighbors can look them up to ensure they’re paying the same tax rate and that boundaries and lot sizes are accurate. Property buyers, too, can learn a lot about a parcel through public records.

Records of Physical Property

Some property information is public while other aspects are not openly shared. Cities and towns collect certain information as a matter of business, including:

  • size and dimensions of the property, including surveyed boundaries;
  • features of the property that make it inhabitable or useful (or not);
  • size and location of any buildings;
  • age of buildings;
  • past and present ownership;
  • condition of buildings, and
  • permit information regarding any changes or improvements to the property.

Some property records may be found online but a personal visit to the city clerk’s, assessor’s, or county deeds office may reveal more and allow an opportunity to ask questions about any unclear terms and notes. Visiting the building inspector’s office may also uncover permits for work that will help to determine the age of certain upgrades, rebuilding after a fire, and the quality of work done on-site (whether it passed inspection).

How Records Affect Property Sales?

Property History

By law, a seller must disclose, often through his real estate agent, certain information about a property to a prospective buyer. Federal law requires sharing information about any lead paint on the property, but state laws vary about what additional information must be divulged. In general, sellers and their agents must tell a potential buyer about any of the following:

  • defects in plumbing or electrical systems;
  • presence of termites or other pests;
  • structural problems (leaking roof or cracked foundation);
  • external hazards such as flood zones, and
  • other known issues.

States have disclosure forms specific to the issues often found there. For instance, Florida’s real estate disclosure form asks the seller to describe any issues with sinkholes, including on nearby properties, for a certificate of elevation that would apply to flood insurance, and whether subsurface rights belong to any third party (presumably for mining or drilling). New York’s disclosure statement asks about any past leaks of oil, fuel, or hazardous materials on the property. Arizona’s disclosure form states that the seller is not required to tell a potential buyer about any homicide, suicide, deaths or felony crimes that have taken place on the property – and that they’re not required to inform the buyer of any known sex offenders nearby (other states may require this information).

Drug manufacture is a new issue in property purchases and sales. Some states have adopted requirements that sellers with convictions for manufacturing methamphetamines must have the property inspected and tested before it can be sold but some manage to avoid doing so. If there’s a possibility that a home or building has been used for drug manufacturing in an area known for high rates of meth lab activity, it’s important to research local police records and get it checked as residue can be hazardous to one’s health.

Prospective buyers should ask lots of questions and get a professional inspection of any property before buying as the owner may have limited knowledge of the property. Sometimes sellers have recently inherited a property, are selling on behalf of an estate, or have owned the property as a rental and never lived in it. An inspector can assess the lifespan of the systems (age of the furnace, condition of pipes), the quality of construction, and determine if the structure has settled. This information is not often revealed and is not part of public records unless some can be discovered through permit research.

Other Reports

A CLUE report is also available and will provide details of insurance claims made on the property in the past 5-7 years. Called a Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, it is private but can be requested by the homeowner and provided to the prospective buyer to detail any storm damage or losses due to robberies.

If buying raw land, a surveyor and professional engineer can mark the property’s boundaries and potentially evaluate the land for building (perk testing). City clerks and land bureaus should divulge if a piece of land is not eligible or suitable for building due to any of the following:

  • past use as a landfill;
  • geologic features;
  • archaeological restrictions;
  • inadequate size, or
  • being in a restricted zone, such as wetlands.

Aside from structural and systems integrity, sellers and property owners are not required to reveal information about things like deaths on the property or hauntings/supernatural events. Buyers who are interested may research newspaper records,  church records, and talk to local neighbors or town historians for this information. 

External Agreements

Physical Property Definition

Records may reflect that a property is within the boundary of a neighborhood association. The bylaws and governing body of that organization may have particular powers over the residents as well as the buildings in the organization and should be made available to prospective buyers in advance – most associations even screen candidates and vote to determine who’s allowed to purchase property in their neighborhood. Along with requiring that homes are kept in good condition and having binding agreements about drinking water sources, waste water compacts (shared systems), and which cable/internet company is allowed to run lines in the neighborhood, many go further. Neighborhood associations often limit the number of vehicles that may be kept on-site, enforce quiet hours, restrict the size and number of pets allowed, and host mandatory owner’s meetings. Depending on the tenor of the association leadership homeowners may be told they can’t put up exterior holiday decorations, can’t possess trucks or motorcycles on the property, can’t keep garage doors open, and have limited control of the color of their homes. If detailed association information including minutes of association meetings are not made available, the local county courthouse may be a source of information. Colorado’s property disclosure document asks if the association has filed many lawsuits against the developer for defects in construction or for any other reason.

Easements are a type of binding agreement that allows the use of a portion of a property for private or public access. These are recorded on a deed (if formalized) and stay with the property even when ownership changes. Some easements may be less obvious, such as seasonal access to do power line maintenance or for a neighbor to access a hunting blind. Other easements may belong to utilities that have buried pipelines. A deed search that’s required with any property purchase will show formalized easements. Informal easements are kept or discarded at the discretion of the owner.

Liens on Property

Liens are public records but may not show up in a seller’s disclosure until a title search is done. A lien can be placed on the deed to a property for reasons like unpaid taxes, bills, contractor’s work, and court judgment. If the total amount of the liens exceeds the selling price of the house an agreement must be formulated for settling those debts. Liens are recorded at the county clerk’s office or registry of deeds. Mortgages will also be reflected in these records.