Before you buy real estate, mine the public records
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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:
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.