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Using Property Records To Turbo Charge A Real Estate Search (Updated)

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Use what's out there to make life as easy as possible. When it comes to searching for the right digs, there's plenty of places to look, but knowing how to look is half the battle. Fortunately, the old days of actually printing out the property information are over which saves everyone time and untold numbers of trees. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of online search databases, there are some good ones and some not-so-good ones out there.
And to prepare for the battle, you need to know what's out there. The encyclopedia of the property search world is the Multiple Listing Service -- better known as the MLS. (Not to be confused with Major League Soccer, a Master of Library Science, or the ever popular Microwave Limb Sounder.) The upside is this database is pretty comprehensive with nearly every property for sale by an agent. But that doesn't mean every property is included because FSBO (for sale by owner) listings aren't.

When in the MLS, property is searchable by a number of criteria, including address, bedrooms, square footage, and where the kiddies will be going to school. The downside is this database is primarily for agents and those with affiliations with agents. For Joe Schmoe, accessing this kind of data will yield limited info.Fortunately, for DMVers, the MLS is a suitable search engine, but for those looking to gain a foothold in Manhattan's real estate scene, referring to a database operated by the Real Estate Board of New York may be required.

Beyond the MLS, there are records databases operated by state and county governments. Usually the state portal will send you to the link for the county or city website to search those records. So to conduct a test run, I searched for my old address in York County, Virginia to see what was available for the public. First, there's a new owner in the house, and it was sold (again) in October 2012. There's an updated assessment of both the land and the house. There's even a cute picture of what the old abode now looks like. (Nostalgia.) Then there's a sales history that shows how much it was paid for it back in 2002 and how much the current owner paid for it. This is all online for those willing to hunt.

And as an added bonus, in some of these databases, before you get to the property records, not only can someone search for boring things like tax liens and property amounts, someone can start a background check on a friend, family member, or frenemy. Fun!

Are there some limitations to these property searches? Absolutely. For one, there's the issue of access. Some property databases are not available (or easily accessible) to the public. Another problem is how user-friendly the database is. It's not like using Google and halfway typing something in will yield successful results. These are databases that require specific information on the property. Otherwise, expect to weed through a lot of results that only quasi-correspond to what you're looking for. And speaking of searching through unnecessary results, finding a townhouse is one thing. Finding a specific condo in a development will require a bit more elbow grease since unit number will make a difference. These records also don't tell the whole story. You can find the changes in the assessment of the land and improvements (aka, the house) from different years, but there's no context about why the assessment might have changed. Maybe no improvements were made to the house, but the street was finally hooked up to the sewer. Or maybe the house had a significant addition/remodel to make the price go up. Property records will provide high-level information, but if someone is searching for granular level specificity, more resources are in order.

Now when going down the worm hole of reviewing property records, be careful not to get sucked up in real estate fantasy land. It's fairly easy to start looking at one assessment, then searching for all the goodies about your neighbors' and neighbors' neighbors' properties. Once out of the property record wormhole, it's time to get off the computer and check out the interest listings in person. (Assuming that's a viable option and you're not merely waxing poetic about what will never be.) At least when showing up to an open house, the initial phase of the homework has been completed. And the real estate agent will certainly be impressed.

Updated: After this post went live a rep from the company StreetEasy wrote in to say that their DC site now has all recorded sale information (including buyer and seller info) in an easy to search format. StreetEasy has had a DC site up for about a month now, but it is looking less and less beta as the days go by.

· District of Columbia: Search Real Property Assessment Database [Official Site]
· Virginia Public Records Directory [Official Site]
· Maryland Public Records Directory [Official Site]
· MLS: What Is MLS? [About.com]
· Multiple Listing Service [Wikipedia]
· StreetEasy DC [Official Site]

[Photo from Shutterstock]