Property records are available to the public, and anyone who wants to find out the history of a house can do so. The availability of property records without charge will vary from state to state and even from county to county. However, many counties offer free searches to the public, either online or in person, and may only charge fees for copies of documents. Interested parties can search through the property tax records, mortgage records and deed records to put together a home's history.
Property Tax Record Searches
All real estate is subject to property taxes, assessed by the county, the city or both. Most of the time, property taxes are based upon the assessed value of the real estate and charged accordingly, usually quarterly but sometimes annually or bi-annually. The government agency that assesses property taxes typically also keeps property tax records, although that's not always the case. Exactly what agency that is depends on the county. In Orange County, Florida, for example, the Orange County Property Appraiser keeps the tax records, but the Orange County Tax Collector is in charge of the actual taxes.
Property tax records can show the history of tax assessments and assessed values for a parcel of real estate, and they might show the ownership history if the records allow you to view the tax assessment postcards from years past. They also show how much the taxes are and whether they're paid or past due.
Most large counties and some rural counties have tax records online; otherwise, searches and inquiries can be made at the county office during office hours.
Read More: How to Search Property Title Deeds
Property Deed Record Searches
Real estate ownership is evidenced by deed. The property owner will have a deed showing that the prior owner transferred the property to her, and the deed should be recorded with the county where the property is located. Deeds are recorded with the county so that everyone is on notice as to who owns the property. The county recorder of deeds or register of deeds is typically the agency that keeps land records, and deed searches may be performed either on the county website or at the county office.
New York City's land records are available online, for instance, by searching the owner's name or the property's block, lot and borough. Searches are free, and document images are also free.
Mortgage Record Searches
Mortgage records are also kept by the county register of deeds or recorder of deeds, as are other types of recorded encumbrances such as easements and assignments. Like deeds, they can be searched either online or in person, often for free but sometimes with a fee. Mortgages and similar instruments show who owns the property in addition to showing that a bank or other entity has an interest in the property due to a loan or other money owed.
Title Searches for a Fee
While free searches are available, the most thorough way to get the history of a home is to pay for a title search. A title search will show the deed history as well as all mortgages, easements, assignments and judgment liens. If someone is searching the history of a home for financial purposes, such as an intent to purchase the property, a title search will give the biggest picture, and the title company will insure the title.
Property records are public records available at county offices. Many counties have records available online. Some counties allow free searches and only charge for copies of documents, while other counties may charge for access to records. Property history searches can include searches for deed and mortgage records as well as property tax records.
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.