Buying property? Get all the facts

You've found just the property investment you're looking for. You know about what it's worth and what you're willing to pay. Obviously, you want to buy as cheaply as you can.

Even if you buy through your own broker, wouldn't it help you in the negotiations to know the exact dimensions of the property, the precise zoning, the existence of liens or back taxes, the name of the legal owner, what other properties the legal owner owns, the existing financing, if any, the date the present owner bought the place, and about what was paid for it?

If would help you determine just how eager the owner is to sell, whether he is close to being foreclosed upon, how much he's likely to settle for, and how sophisticated he's likely to be.

You might even pay someone to give you these details before you meet with the seller or his broker.

Knowledgeable buyers can have this information at their finger tips. All it takes is a few hours of your time. Your local county assessor and county recorder have all this data in their public records, ready to be tapped by those who know how.

The exact recorded dimensions are shown on the assessor's map for the parcel you are interested in. Look for a Thomas Brothers map, or equivalent, on the public counter. This set of maps will show the entire county and how the county is divided into assessor's districts. Each numbered strip will have an index sheet, showing how the district is broken down into maps.

Each individual map will have numbered parcels. Find yours, copy down the book, page, and parcel, and sketch or trace the property you are researching.

The zoning can be verified with the city or county planning commission, but there is a quick way to check it unofficially.

Look up the parcel number in the master list of assessees. The zoning should be listed near the property address or description. The explanation of the various codes will be in the front of the volume.

Back taxes should be shown near the assessed value in this same index. The year of delinquency is usually shown, but not the precise amount. If the taxes are current there will likely be no entry.

Other recorded liens will have to be checked at the county recorder. Copy any code numbers appearing with the listing of your parcel. One of the code numbers will likely be the date your seller acquired the property. This date is often coded, such as yymmdd, where the pairs of digits are the year, month, and day of acquisition.

Be aware of the date of recording of previous tax-sale deeds.

You'll want to know if your seller bought the property at a delinquent tax auction. Use the date and the present seller's name to find and inspect the deed that the present seller recorded with the county recorder.

Look at the recorded documents just before and just after; these documents are often related to quit claims, financing, mortgages, etc. Be sure to see that the name of the seller is the same as that of the legal owner. If they are different, find out why before getting involved.

The amount of tax stamps indicated on the deed you have just found is supposed to be based on the price of the property.

The counter personnel will be able to tell you how to compute the apparent sale price from the amount of the stamps. Be aware, however, that people have been known to intentionally have excess stamps placed on the deed for a few extra dollars in stamps. If they plan to sell the property, they have a basis for claiming that they paid more than they actually did. Use the stamps to verify what you think happened, but do not rely exclusively on them as a means of determining value.

Go back to the overall name index, usually kept separately from the more frequently used documents. More and more counties are using microfilm or microfiche to keep these indexes. Don't be afraid of the film or fiche reader; they are easier to use than your federal income-tax form.

Look up the name of the seller. Does he own other properties? Does his name appear on other documents? It would be wise to know about his other dealings before you meet him. Know your opponent.

Some people keep their real estate in the name of a corporation, partnership, relatives - anyone or anything to prevent the knowledgeable from inspecting their affairs. The amateur investigator will not likely be successful in studying a seller if he has gone to such lengths to be secretive.

Most people are unaware of what treasures the public records hold for those who know where to look.

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