3 Ways to Research a Property Online

Nearly every home search starts online these days. Sorting through listings, photos, floor plans and descriptions is a great way to feel out the market for those who are in the earliest stages of the home search.

When you find a home you’re ready to bid on, it’s incredible how much background information you can find online. The Internet is full of data on past home sales, recorded sales prices, and the history of each sale, plus information that may not be as obvious – such as the safety of the neighborhood you’re considering buying into.

Here are three ways to use online tools and real estate mobile apps to get more details about the home you want.

Check building records

Nearly all public information and documentation is now available online, and most municipalities provide web access to building permit history. Although the law requires most sellers to disclose previous work done on the property, there may be a history of earlier work the seller didn’t know about.

For example, if there is a newer bathroom or kitchen but no history of a permit for the work, there is a chance someone did the work without a permit – and potentially not to health or safety code. And if you become the owner, this unpermitted work becomes your responsibility.

To begin your search, type “building records,” plus your city’s name into your favorite search engine. Example: “building records Seattle.”

Use Google Street View

Researching an address using Google’s Street View can be one of the most revealing options available. Street View provides a snapshot of a property at a particular moment in time, which can provide insight into the recent history of the property or neighborhood.

Be aware, however, that the image you see may not accurately reflect the home’s current state. For example, I helped a homeowner list and sell a home in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood a few years back. We planted a beautiful garden area to create a buffer between the sidewalk and the windows. But a search for the property on Google Street View revealed the windows with bars on them, and no garden. The previous owner had bars on the window, and someone had removed the bars to make the property look more inviting.

Seeing the windows with bars on them in Google Street View could raise questions for potential buyers: Is the neighborhood unsafe? Was there a history of crime in the community or on the property? Are the street-level windows safe?

Consult a neighborhood crime app

A variety of crime reporting apps for mobile devices show on a map recent crimes that have been reported, including assault, theft, robbery, homicide, vehicle theft, sex offenders, and quality of life (which often means noise complaints). It’s an easy way to get a quick overview of how safe or unsafe a neighborhood is.

So much information is available to buyers these days. You don’t need to rely solely on the seller’s or the real estate agent’s disclosures. Use online resources to find out as much background information on a property as you can, either before making an offer or during your contingency period. It is best to do as much research as possible, in order to make an informed final decision.

Looking for more home-buying advice and tools? Check out our Home Buyers Guide.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

Originally published March 1, 2012

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