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? Did someone die in the house recently?
Here are eight things about your house you may want to know:
- History of major construction and work on the property.
- Details of previous sales.
- Names associated with the address.
- Environmental information about the property.
- Deaths that occurred on the property.
- Fires or gas leaks that have been reported on the property.
- Meth activity.
- Historic photos of the home.
Before you scour the public record and historic documents for information about your house, be sure that you are ready to deal with the issues that may arise from knowing more. If you discover major issues with a property you own – whether it’s soil contamination that makes it dangerous to live there or a murder that occurred in the house – you may have to disclose the information to would-be buyers when you try to sell the property.
Still, the more you know, the better equipped you are to restore a historical property, make the structure safe for your family or simply stay away if it’s a home you haven’t purchased yet.
To help you in your quest for property knowledge, here are eight ways to find out the history of your house and the land it sits on:
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 1788.
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 public domain, which excludes Hawaii and additional counties in some other states. However, details for properties in those places should be available through an online or in-person search through the state’s archives.
Your local assessor’s office, often at the county level, keeps the records of all properties under its jurisdiction and can be a valuable resource for information regarding a home's ownership history and legal record.
While some assessor’s offices require an in-person visit in order to access property records for free, most are available and searchable online for easy access of current information. Many online records show current property owners, land and structure values and assessed value for tax purposes. You may also find a legal description of the property and previous deeds documenting the sale of the property.
If you don’t see extended historical documents about your property, reach out to the local assessor’s office to see if it’s possible to have that information made available to you. Some offices charge a fee to make copies of documents and send them to you if you can't visit in person.
If you’re curious about the history of who lived at your address in decades past, census records will give you details about the identity and number of people who previously called the place home.
For privacy protection reasons, census records are confidential for 72 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so you’ll be unable to look up Census details for a specific address or individual after 1950, unless it’s about yourself or a direct ancestor of yours.
Census records from 1790 to 1940 are available to the public through the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Aside from documents kept in the government’s public record, you may find valuable details about an older house from your local library or historical society archives. Libraries and locally focused historical societies often keep archives of local newspapers, and you may be able to find out news or events revolving around your house and the people that lived there previously.
While some news archives are digitized and searchable, there’s a good chance you’ll have to search by hand if you’re looking to explore news from before the age of the internet. Especially in small town settings, you may be reading headlines on microfilm, which allows you to scroll through images of news pages photographed and kept on film.
True to its name, DiedinHouse.com can tell you the name of people associated with the address over 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, among other details.
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. His goal is to help people learn more about a property that may or may not have to be disclosed in a sale, like its connection to a serious crime or incidents that could compromise the safety of the building.
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.
If you know your house dates back to the early days of your town or neighborhood, you may find the address noted in history books focused on local events. If you live in a big city or renowned neighborhood these local histories may be more widely available. For small towns or less popular cities and neighborhoods, ask the local historical society for guidance or check with local independent bookstores that might carry works from local authors.
Originally launched as a portal for environmental records, Nationwide 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 and Historic Aerials, 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 and links to county assessors' offices with online records.
A part of the NETROnline.com network, Historic Aerials contains the largest database of U.S. historic aerial imagery. An aerial image of your home from 50 years ago or more can offer some interesting context about your property or show you what once stood where your house is now.
“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.”
The rule is "location, location, location" for a reason.
A homebuyer’s must-have list often includes a certain number of bedrooms, updated appliances and a garage or backyard. But one detail that’s sometimes overlooked is just outside the property lines – and it’s a major deal-breaker for many. The road your house is located on, backs up to or is even in the general vicinity of can have a significant impact on your quality of life as well as your home’s resale value and how long it takes for you to find a buyer. Before you buy your dream home on a busy street or near a railroad, consider how these roads and locations can become a major turnoff for future buyers.
Updated on Nov. 1, 2019: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.High-traffic road
Living off of a road that sees a lot of traffic throughout the day can make for a hassle getting in and out of the driveway. And when you decide to sell, potential buyers will worry about its resale value, says Greg Hague, CEO of Hague Partners and 72Sold.com, real estate brokerages based in Scottsdale, Arizona. “The biggest detractor in home values (on a busy road) is the fear that buyers have that these homes will be harder to sell,” he says. It might take more time on the market and a lower asking price to entice buyers over a similar home on a quieter street.Cul-de-sac
A cul-de-sac is a dead-end road with only one entrance and exit to other streets, and on residential streets it often includes a circle for cars to turn around. Often located deep within a subdivision or at the end of a neighborhood, a cul-de-sac means minimal traffic, which will be a big selling point down the line. The farther inside the neighborhood you go, the less traffic you’ll experience and the more desirable the houses typically become, explains Roberta Parker, a real estate agent for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach, Realtors in Princeton, New Jersey. A cul-de-sac may also back up to a wooded area or undeveloped land, so homeowners benefit from the added privacy of having no neighbors behind them. As Parker says: “A cul-de-sac is your best investment.”Dirt road
Some people prefer to get away from heavy traffic so much that they’ll leave pavement altogether. A dirt or gravel road will certainly attract fewer cars, and properties on a dirt road are often larger with more land. While a buyer should expect his house and car to be dirtier because of the dust or mud of the road, many homeowners consider it a fair trade-off. “We don’t really find that that is a detractor in value – it’s a lifestyle,” Hague says. While you may not have the same size buyer pool for your house as a home in a developed subdivision, you shouldn’t have to worry about would-be buyers seeing your dirt road as a negative in terms of home value.Near a traffic light
Near a traffic light
Even if your area doesn’t experience high traffic volume throughout the day, having a traffic light within eyesight of your home can be irritating. Timothy Somers, a real estate appraiser and partner at the appraisal firm Davis M. Somers Co. in Ann Arbor, Michigan, lives near a traffic light. For him, it’s the noise from idling cars at the red light that can be a bit bothersome, although he’s gotten used to it over the years. “It can get noisy at times – not so much the traffic, but the loud music and that sort of stuff is annoying,” he says. Potential buyers may feel that way too.Alley
An alley is a narrow street between buildings, often in a city setting, that may not even be marked on a map. But in older cities and historic districts, you may occasionally find property addresses that take you to a door in the alley rather than on a main street. It may be hard for visitors or potential buyers to find, but Hague explains an alley entrance is considered a plus for home value: “You obviously have no traffic – just foot traffic. It’s unique, and people like unique.” The feeling of privacy and exclusivity can play up the desirability of the home and make a buyer willing to pay more for it.Double yellow line
Double yellow line
The area might not seem busy if you visit on the weekend, but if the home is located on a two-lane road with a double yellow line to prevent cars from passing each other – most often found in less-populated suburban or rural areas – Parker says it’s a red flag that a lot of cars use the road. “A double yellow line is an indication that there is more traffic, and it’s not typical of just a neighborhood. A double yellow line is a serious road,” she says. Expect it to be difficult to turn left out of your driveway during peak traffic hours. Also expect speeds higher than 25 miles per hour, which may make spending time in the front yard feel unsafe if you have pets or young kids.Highway within sight
Highway within sight
Regardless of how far you travel to work, a home next to an on-ramp is not ideal due to the noise pollution and the difficulty you’ll have trying to sell it in the future. It's better to live in a neighborhood that is set up to provide easy access to commuting options and where you won't have to see or hear traffic from a highway.Railroad
With a railroad near your home, you have a whole new type of car to be concerned about. Trains are loud to begin with, and if you live near a tunnel, train station or railroad crossing, expect even more noise as conductors sound horns and bells to ensure the track is clear. “Some people would shy away from a location like that. … When a freight train rolls through, it clanks, and there’s horns and more noise,” Somers says. If you’re considering buying a house near a railroad track, find out how often it’s used and the times of day trains will pass by. A regular midnight freight train could keep you up at night in your new home.Brick or cobblestone paving
Brick or cobblestone paving
A brick or cobblestone street often comes with the assumption that the houses on that street are as old as the paving. You may even live in a historic district of your city or town. “They’ve kept that (paving) because it has a such a historic and a kind of cool feel,” Hague says. A well-maintained house on a historic street will attract many potential buyers willing to pay top dollar for the location and overall look. Living in a historic district also means you’re expected to maintain your home to historic standards, so you’ll likely need to seek approval to paint your house, renovate the kitchen and even update the plumbing. All of these projects are likely to be more expensive for historic houses, as you may need to hire contractors with experience working on historic properties.Corner lot
Attitudes about corner lots within a neighborhood can vary depending on an individual’s preference, but Somers says preferences have evolved to favor interior lots. “Corner lots back in the ‘50s and ‘60s were a premium site. Today people will steer clear of them; they don’t like them as well,” Somers says. “Because of the yard configurations, they usually end up with a small backyard and large side yard. It’s less appealing than the standard interior lot. Plus, they’ve got twice the sidewalk to shovel.”One-way street
One-way streets are often found in more urban settings and often close to downtown to reduce gridlock. While it might prove inconvenient at times to live on a one-way street when you’re running late and need to head in the opposite direction, people don’t seem to let it affect their preference. Somers says he doesn’t see any change in desirability for a property located on a one-way street. So don’t be concerned about attracting potential buyers – the appeal of living close to downtown will likely outshine any downsides of living on a one-way street.Types of roads that could affect your home value:
Types of roads that could affect your home value:
- High-traffic road.
- Dirt road.
- Near a traffic light.
- Double yellow line.
- Highway within sight.
- Brick or cobblestone paving.
- Corner lot.
- One-way street.
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Updated on June 23, 2020: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.
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.