How to find the history of a property

Find out how to get the details on the property you’re considering

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When looking to buy a property, some purchasers choose to conduct a property history search before making an offer. While searching for mortgage lenders is a general part of the process, many people do not conduct a property search. A property history search can help uncover useful pieces of information, such as whether the house is a historic landmark, whether unpermitted work was done, the chain of previous owners and more.

Utilizing a wealth of online resources, you can uncover information that will provide you with a distinct information advantage in the homebuying process.


Key insights:

  • There is a large amount of property history information readily available both online and in person.
  • A simple web search on a property listing site should return most of the basic information on a property.
  • Utilizing public, government records can provide additional information on the property — including some that may be more accurate than what is on a listing site.

Historical city maps

The U.S. Geological Survey provides historical maps that allow users to see the changes in a city over time. Your local public library may also have historical maps, either in person or online. For instance, The New York Public Library has an online resource and could have even more in person.

These maps could inform you as to the growth of the city around the property, the expansion of urban sprawl or potential geographic features near the property. The maps could also show you any potential changes in size to the property itself — either expansion outward, or a contraction due to the creation of infrastructure like roads.

Public records

You can check a public records website to find a host of information about the property. Searching through the public records can show you the chain of ownership for the property going back centuries. In addition, it can show you potential changes to the square footage of the home, which will tip you off to any work that was done on the property.

You’ll also be able to see the sale and tax history, which could also be useful in your decision-making process. Understanding the tax history could better inform you as to potential expenses that you will have if you purchase the property. In addition, having information regarding past sales could serve as a guide to your potential bids for the property.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration stores data on land purchased in any of the 30 public land states. Accessing these archives can show you the original sale of land from the U.S. government, and all the information from that point. While searching through public records, you can also check if the property is a historic landmark.

Property listings

A quick web search of a property can yield useful information. Property listing sites such as Zillow and Redfin provide brief overviews of properties, as well as others in the area. The sites may include pictures and 3D tours of the inside of the home, which could be useful if you have not toured the property in person. Paying attention to details such as the angle of the lens, or the potential omission of an area seen on the house map, could tell you about parts of the property the seller is trying to hide.

Property listing sites could include basic zoning and boundary information of the property, as well as the home on it. It may also show an abbreviated home history, including the year the home was built and the most recent sale. The property listing should include information regarding the surrounding area, such as the local school district and public parks. If you ask your real estate agent, you may also be able to see how the house looks on an MLS (multiple listing service).

Ask your realtor

Asking your real estate agent about a property’s history can yield interesting results. As a member of the community, your realtor can provide more personal information than a web search — things like the property’s place in the community, the changes or standing of the community itself and the development of the area.

In addition, the agent should be well versed in the facts of the property itself. They should be able to provide information regarding the previous residents, the sale history and any construction done to the home. They should also be able to tell you the general condition of the home, as well as the age of the property and any subsequent renovations.

Prior census records

If you’re interested to learn more about the residents of the home, checking old census records could provide a wealth of information. The records have the potential to tell a story that other public records may not be able to, such as the demographics of who owned the property or any legal issues that might be attached to it.

Old census records have the ability to paint a clearer, more personal picture of the history of a property. Instead of simply being a plot of land or piece of architecture, the property becomes a piece of American history. Previous residents’ occupations, marital statuses, birthdates and years of immigration are all pieces of information that old census records could provide.

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FAQ

How can I speak to the sellers of a property?

The most common way to speak to the sellers of a property is to ask your real estate agent to reach out to them.

How long does it take to get property searches back?

The property search process generally takes three to six weeks. It is variable based on the type of property.

What does a title search look for?

A title search looks for the historical records of the property and establishes whether or not a seller has the right to sell the property to you.

How accurate is a property history search?

A property history search done on a listing site alone probably won’t be 100% accurate. However, utilizing public records can help you access as much accurate information as possible.

Bottom line

Gaining all the information a property search provides can make for a worthwhile addition to your homebuying checklist. You may find information that makes you a more informed homebuyer. Conducting a property search gives you insight into the past of the home from a human perspective — not just from a geological one.

Sources
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page . Specific sources for this article include:
  1. The New York Public Library, “ Historical NYC Maps & Atlases .” Accessed Jan. 6, 2023.
  2. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “ Census Records .” Accessed Jan. 6, 2023.
  3. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “ Land Entry Case Files and Related Records .” Accessed Jan. 6, 2023.
  4. U.S. Department of the Interior, “ National Register Database and Research .” Accessed Jan. 6, 2023.
  5. U.S. Department of the Interior, “ Historical Maps at Your Fingertips .” Accessed Jan. 6, 2023.
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