The anxiety of buying a new home can form in any number of ways, and you might find yourself questioning the property you’ve chosen – is the backyard really that small? Is the soil contaminated from the nasty-looking stream nearby? Is your house haunted?
Maybe you’re not asking the last one, and maybe you’re trying to convince yourself you’re not asking the last one – but it’s not unreasonable to wonder. Rest assured you can investigate your concerns before you purchase a home, and you can do most of it online.
Four websites provide a wide of range of property details, and then some – from historic aerial images to documents that show the home was used as a meth lab. These tools can help you see what might be a game changer before you sign the deed.
True to its name, DiedinHouse.com can tell you the name of every person associated with the address at any point in time, if someone has died in a home, if there were any previous fires on the property or if it was ever used as a meth lab.
Roy Condrey, founder and co-CEO of DiedinHouse.com, says he got the idea for the site when a tenant in one of his rental properties claimed the house was haunted. Condrey found no evidence of the paranormal, but it made him wonder. “I started thinking, I didn’t know the history of these homes,” Condrey says.
When Condrey found no websites offering information about deaths in homes, searchable by address, DiedinHouse.com was born.
At $11.99 for a single search, you receive an instant report that pulls from data providers that partner with DiedinHouse.com. For the next 30 days, DiedinHouse.com will continue to search the address in case the initial report missed anything and will notify you with any new results, as well as provide a final report at the end of the 30 days.
Condrey says it’s up to the consumer to decide whether certain results are a deal-breaker on a home, but having the information keeps you from wondering after you’ve moved in.
“A lot of people say one-third of Americans admit to believing in ghosts – and I say those are the ones that admit it. There’s a lot of people that don’t admit it, but also there’s more to it than just paranormal [activity]. ... I still don’t want to live in Andrea Yates’ home where she drowned her five children,” says Condrey, referencing the 2001 case in Houston. "I don’t want to live in a home with any deaths, that’s just my opinion.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has digitized its collection of more than 5 million federal land title records, making it possible to pull up images of original documents signing land over to private individuals dating back to 1820.
Survey plat maps, land patents and field notes on properties show the formation of property lines. All the information is searchable with the state name, name of the patentee or even minute details for the property, such as township number, survey number and issue date.
The free searchable collection of documents only covers property in the 30 states formed from the public domain, which excludes the original 13 states, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. However, details for properties in those states should be available through an online or in-person search through the state’s archives.
Originally launched as a portal for environmental records, National Environmental Title Research, better known by its acronym, provides an array of information from its databases and partner information companies, as well as links to local assessor offices across the country.
NETROnline.com’s property data has become a standard resource for many financial institutions. As Brett Perry, president and founder of NETROnline.com, explains, the site streamlines the research process on a home, “essentially making it easier to get those documents, as opposed to going to the courthouse [in person].”
While property data reports can be purchased through the site for additional information not readily available, the site provides free access to environmental records, links to county assessors' offices with online records and aerial images that date back to the 1920s.
While much of the information is used for professional use, Perry says features like the historic aerial photos are popular among metal detecting hobbyists who research where buildings once stood on a property and may have artifacts buried in the soil.
“It’s a virtual time machine,” Perry says. “It enables the user to put in their location and see what it looks like not only today from a bird’s-eye view, but going back in time in some instances to the 1920s and the 30s … you can look at different decades and see what existed on your property.”
Providing reports of a wide range of property information, HouseFax aims to increase the transparency of property information so homebuyers know what they’re getting into.
HouseFax CEO Eddy Lang explains the site started in 2002, inspired by an ongoing lawsuit at the time between Ed McMahon and his home insurance company after mold grew and spread throughout his house. A Los Angeles Times article from 2003 reports the case was settled; McMahon was awarded $7.2 million for a shoddy cleanup job from a home flood caused by a pipe burst, which made McMahon and his wife ill, and forced them to put their dog to sleep.
After following the case, Lang says he wanted to give homebuyers a better understanding of properties they view before they make the purchase. He adds that homebuyers should know the previous insurance claims on the home, what construction has been permitted on the property and what damage the property might be prone to based on the location and topography of the land. "Usually, insurance is the very last piece of [the transaction], and that’s when you find out: Is it in a flood zone? Has there been damage? Was there a fire in the house? What are the previous claims?” Lang says.
Housefax offers the first Property History Report for free, with each report after that costing $9 each – which includes property details, building permits, records of carbon monoxide or use of the property as a meth lab, natural disaster risk assessments and loan history.
The site meets homebuyer and seller needs, which make up 70 percent of HouseFax’s users, according to Lang. But for real estate professionals looking to pull reports en masse, subscriptions are available as well. HouseFax also offers an offline service – the pre-appraisal report – which brings an appraiser to your home to inspect it, take photos and make an appraisal estimate for $199 to $399, depending on square footage. The service is intended to provide buyers or sellers with a better understanding of the value of a home before a lender gets involved and conducts an appraisal.
Whether you’re curious about the construction history on a property or want to confirm your house is inhabited by the recently deceased, an increasing number of sites are offering greater transparency with property records and can provide you with the answers to questions that the deed, or maybe even the listing agent, won’t tell you.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.