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How to Research Property History

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If you know the history of a property, you will be able to understand its value and make informed decisions about it. You can find basic details about a property on sites, such as Zillow. Legal documents, such as the property’s title report, may also provide you with some useful information. However, if you want to know beyond the basics, you may have to dig a little deeper and use new tools and methods.

The Importance of Property History

When you assess a property, every bit of information is helpful, especially if the property owner does not know something or does not disclose it. Property history research can reveal many details, ranging from past owners to the latest sale price to records of unpaid taxes.

Types of information: It can bring up historical facts, such as the original owner and subsequent residents or any interesting happenings about the land or the buildings on it. You may also get to know architectural details, including when the building was built, the materials used, the architect’s name, and whether any alterations were made to it.

Uses: Learning property history will help you save money, identify potential buyers (and sellers), and detect any problems. Even minor things, such as when a part of the property was restored or when an appliance was installed in it, help determine its value.

  • If you know the property’s sales history, you would be able to create comparables or comps for commercial assets. Comps are assets quite similar in type, size, and value to that of the subject asset. They are also usually in a similar environment, market, or area.
  • The sales history shows what the owner paid for the property and when they purchased it. This can help you gauge what price he/she would expect.
  • Also, if the property has been sold recently, the people who bought and sold it can both be potential buyers. The property’s buyer may be looking to further expand their portfolio, whereas its seller could be searching for a good opportunity to reinvest the money they received.
  • If the owner has been holding property for long, he/she may be quite flexible in price negotiations. Conversely, frequent transactions of the property in a short period could indicate potential problems.
  • A property’s mortgage history reveals the most recent debt positions on it, as well as the past loans taken on it. Likewise, property tax history shows its assessed and market values and its annual tax rate.

All these details help estimate the property’s value.

Ways to Research Property History

You can research a property’s history using a combination of the following methods.

Public records: Property deeds, utility records, encumbrances, census records, maps, photographs, architectural plans, etc. may be available at the local library, historical society, local government offices, and in private collections. You can locate them by checking at the genealogy library or genealogical society.

Property records are usually maintained at either the county courthouse, county recorder, county tax assessor’s office, or the city hall. Tax records would contain the owner’s name, their tax ID number or parcel number, and the current tax status. The local building inspections offices, such as the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, provide you access to records of building, electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits related to a property.

The zoning office records indicate how the property is and was used. Your local library and the city Department of Building and Safety are good places to check the names of the building contractor or architect.

You can to find out if an owner is involved in litigation, such as bankruptcy or divorce, from federal court records. This may reveal the reason for the property’s sale.

In case of residential property, probate court records will have information on births, deaths, marriages, and such other events, which constitute the history of the previous residents. Estate inventory records and wills can reveal the history of some items you may find on the property.

Online records: There are many government land records online. Some private websites, such as, Trulia, and Zillow, also offer property history information. Many websites, such as the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), let you search for a property by area.

Researching owners: Another way to know the property history is to contact its owners. You would know the names of the original owners and some of the previous occupants from the chain of title, the property’s official ownership record.

Old phone books and city directories, which you can find at local libraries and historical societies, will yield a list of former occupants. Remember that the street number or name where the property is could have been different in the past. You can find these numbers and names in such phone books, directories, and old maps. Local bookstores might have books and literature written on specific cities or areas. 

Newspapers and local church and parish records could have birth, marriage, and death dates of the former owners. The U.S. Newspaper Directory provides you information on the newspapers published throughout the country at any given period since the year 1690 and the institutions that have copies of them.

Other methods: You can also learn about a property’s history by looking at features, such as the type of construction, the materials used, the roofline shape, and window placement. Check for alterations or additions, fences, paths, trees, etc. Observe the buildings nearby for similar architectural features. All this will help you to identify its architectural style and, thus, its construction date.

Also, talk to the owner’s relatives, friends, neighbors, employees, etc. They might know interesting facts about the property, including who constructed the buildings on it and when, what existed there prior to that, and much more.

While researching the history of residential properties, diaries, photo albums, family letters, and scrapbooks can provide valuable information. A thorough search of such properties may produce an original deed or even a blueprint, lying forgotten in attics, under floorboards, or between walls.

Whether you buy or sell a property or mediate its buying or selling, researching its history will give you a detailed insight into it and its owner. This will help you make smart, sound decisions. If such detailed research seems tedious, use a complete property and owner database, such as ProspectNow. Not only does ProspectNow have information about millions of commercial and residential properties, but it also predicts which among them will potentially sell or refinance.

About the Author

My name is Jason and I’ve been writing for online and offline publications for more than a decade. I love writing on technology and business. Anything else is fine too unless it doesn’t skip me completely. Social media is not my cup of tea, but I find online messaging services extremely handy. My pastimes include reading books and magazines, and also watching movies and sports with my favorite people.

Jason T is a freelance writer who writes about lifestyle and travel.

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