Before you buy real estate, mine the public records

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

No matter where you live, the public records can be a treasure-trove of information about real estate. Suppose you plan to buy some land and want to determine if the selling price is realistic. The public records will provide all the details you need to negotiate a real estate investment before you make your first offer.

The information you collect before the negotiation begins will make a better deal for you. Most buyers are in too big a hurry to save any money. Smart buyers take time to do their homework.

Here are some of the data readily available in the public records found in the county registry of deeds:

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Dimensions. The exact recorded dimensions of a piece of property are shown on the recorder or assessor map for that parcel. Look for Thomas Brothers maps, or the equivalent, on the public counter.

This set of maps shows an entire county divided into districts. Each numbered district has an index sheet that shows how the district is further broken down into map books. Each individual map in a map book has numbered parcels. Find yours, copy down the book, page, and parcel, and sketch or trace the property. You can also buy copies of the map itself.

Zoning. The zoning determines what you can do with the property. The zoning can be verified with the city or county planning commission, or you can check it unofficially. Look up the parcel number in the master list of assessed property. The zoning should be listed in code near the address or the legal description.

The explanation of the various codes will be found in the front of the volume.

Unpaid taxes. Any unpaid taxes should be paid by the seller; otherwise, it will be up to the buyer to pay them. Back taxes are usually indicated in the master list of assessed properties. The year of delinquency is often shown, but not the actual amount.

If the taxes are current, there will be no entry. Your attorney or title company can easily find out the delinquent amount.

Liens or claims. You need to know about liens or claims by people who may have done work on the property, but who have not yet been paid. As with back taxes, if the seller does not pay these liens, the buyer must do so.

Recorded liens can be checked at the county recorder's office. One of the code numbers will represent the date your seller acquired the property. This date is frequently coded as a six-digit number representing the year, month, and day of acquisition.

If there is a claim for demolition work, for example, the contractor who has not been paid would have filed a document. If you find such a lien, you can ask the seller for an explanation. That explanation may give you a valuable hint about whether the seller (who may need cash from the sale to pay off the debt) is particularly eager to sell. Such knowledge improves your negotiating position.

Legal owner. You don't want to negotiate with anyone except the legal owner of the property. No one else can make a binding commitment unless the legal owner gives that person written permission to do so. In most states, real estate matters of any kind must be in writing to be enforceable.

If the legal owner is not the same as the person with whom you are negotiating, and the owner has not given your contact written authority, get in touch with the owner directly. His name and address are also included on the master list.

Existing mortgage. Using the name of the owner and the coded date of purchase , consult the property owner's index. One of the code numbers will be the actual document number of the deed that gave the property to the present owner. Read that document closely, and inspect the documents recorded just before or just after it. Also, consult the name index for any later mortgages.

Mortgages are always recorded, so if there is one, you will find it.

Seller's original cost. The amount of tax stamps on the deed is supposed to be based on the price of the property. The counter employees will be able to tell you how to compute the apparent sale price from the amount of the stamps.

But be aware that people sometimes have excess stamps placed on the deed. Then if they later sell the property, they have an apparent basis for claiming they paid more for the property than they actually did.

Pending foreclosure. If the seller is seriously behind in his mortgage payments, the chances are that the lender will have recorded a document that says so. Sometimes called a notice of foreclosure, it will be found in the name index. Search the index to see if such a notice was filed. If so, the seller is likely to be quite eager to sell. He probably has a very limited time to come up with his delinquent payments.

If the money is not found, he will lose the property to the lender. Such a seller is likely to accept less for the property to ensure a quick sale.

Other properties. If the legal owner's name appears frequently in the name index, you can be sure you are dealing with a real estate veteran. On the other hand, your prospective investment may be the only property owned by the seller.

You may want to plan how you would negotiate with either kind of seller.

Sophisticated sellers. If the legal owner's name appears on one or more second or third trust deeds in the name index, or on wraparound loans and complicated leases, expect that the seller will know a lot about creative financing. See what you can deduce about the seller from his other transactions shown in the public records.

Assessed value. The county assessor must estimate how much the property is worth in order to compute the amount of property tax due. This estimate is usually at least a year old because the assessor's staff is too small to reassess each property each year, and it is usually lower than the market value.

In some states, the assessed value is set by law to the last purchase price and then adjusted by a fixed percentage each year. Find out what rules apply in your county.

Names of adjacent owners. The adjacent owners are potentially your neighbors. You can look up their names the same way you looked up the legal owner. If you have any questions about future plans or historical events in the area, write or call the neighbors before you meet the legal owner of the parcel you want to buy.

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