How to Research a Home on the Internet
Today, nearly every home search starts on the internet. And when you find a home you want, it’s incredible how much background information you can find online. Here’s how to research a home on the internet.
1. Go online to check building records
Nearly all public information and documentation is available online, with most municipalities providing 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, is there a newer bathroom or kitchen but no history of a permit for the work? There may be a chance someone did the work without a permit—and potentially not to health or safety codes. If you become the owner, this un-permitted 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.
2. 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 ago. 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 them to make the property look more inviting.
Seeing the windows with bars on them 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?
3. Consult a neighborhood crime app
A variety of crime reporting apps for mobile devices show on a map recent reported crimes 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.
With so much information available today, 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. By doing as much research as possible, you can make the most informed final decision.