When you’re buying a home, it’s only natural to want to know as much as possible about its history.
Learning about the house’s history can reassure you that you’re making the right decision. Uncovering information that you wouldn’t have known otherwise, such as tax history details, may provide leverage in any negotiations.
Laws vary by state, but in general, sellers must disclose certain information to the buyer of the home, such as the presence of lead paint. Then, a home inspector will investigate the roof, basement, and other structural issues.
Remember, though, sellers aren’t obligated to disclose every detail. And they have zero incentive to talk about less-than-desirable aspects of the home.
Fortunately, you can do your own investigating. Here are some ways to research the history of a home before you make a bid.
Another great way to learn about house history is to work with a local real estate agent.
How to find your house history
Do your own research before you buy a home. Some research you can do on your own; other information can be found with a little bit of help.
|Best for learning about
|How to access
|Links to county assessors offices, recorders of deeds, etc.
|Outstanding claims or liens on the home
|Contact title company
|Any tax liens on the home; the seller’s tax history
|Google “[County] property tax records”
|Inside information such as last sold price
|Through a real estate agent
|Any insurance claims made on the home in the past seven years
|Ask current homeowner
Search NETR online
Nationwide Environmental Title Research (NETR) is a private company that compiles useful links to free public records on its website, NETR Online.
The directory of links to county offices for assessors and recorders of deeds is one of the site’s most useful resources for house hunters. Just click on your state in the U.S. map and then look for your county.
Once you find the listing of offices for your county, the website will tell you if you can access an online database or if you need to visit the office in person to view records.
NETR Online also provides links to access to public environmental records from federal, state, and local governments. Enter an address to see information about possible contamination or environmental violations nearby.
And if you’re curious about how a property looked from above 10, 20, or 60 years ago, check out NETR’s historical aerials page.
Do a title search
Before the seller can sell their home, the buyer must order a title search to confirm the seller’s legal ownership of the property.
Don’t take it for granted that the seller is indeed entitled to sell the home. If a bank or tax collector has a lien against the property, they would have dibs on proceeds from the sale.
A title search looks for things like unpaid property tax bills or judgments that need to be settled before any transaction takes place.
Lenders usually require a title search before authorizing a loan for a house to protect their investment. The buyer typically pays for a title search, and they have the right to choose which title company to use.
The title search company combs through public records looking for liens or claims against the property. If no claims are found, the title is declared “clean” and the sale may proceed.
What about title insurance?
So the title search company will find any possible problem, right? Well, hopefully yes, but not necessarily.
Even the most experienced title search professionals occasionally miss title defects, especially if claims weren’t properly recorded. This is where title insurance becomes useful.
Title insurance protects the buyer against judgements, liens, and other complications not found in the original title search.
A title search might miss:
- Easements or covenants that haven’t been properly recorded
- Conflicting wills
- Outstanding lawsuits or liens
- Overlooked issues due to flawed records or defective record-keeping
- Incorrect signatures on documents
- Forged or fraudulent documents
Mortgage lenders usually require that home buyers purchase lender’s title insurance, which protects only the lender against loss due to a defective title. Homeowners can protect themselves by purchasing an owner’s policy at closing for a one-time fee.
The average cost of owner’s title insurance is about $1,000, but can vary due to location and property value.
Research the tax history of the home
It’s important to have a clear picture of the tax history of a property because you don’t want to be stuck with someone else’s tax bill after closing.
A title search aims to uncover any tax liens against the property. Usually the search will uncover tax liens, but things can slip through the cracks. While title searches are best left to the professionals, anybody can supplement the title search with their own research on the tax history of a property using public records.
Researching the tax history of a house can help:
- Ensure taxes have been paid and correctly assessed.
- Give buyers an estimate of annual property taxes.
- Indicate if the seller is behind on taxes or otherwise in financial trouble.
- Give buyers information they can use during negotiations.
Tax searches can be done through the county’s tax recorder or tax assessor’s offices. Most counties have an online portal, but some may require an in-person trip to the office.
To find your particular county’s tax records, search for “[County] property tax records.” You may find that just Googling “tax records” is enough to bring up your local office.
Every county is different, and you may need to sort through several databases to find what you’re looking for. For example, finding records before a certain year might mean clicking on a different link or even diving into microfilm records.
NETR Online is a great place to start looking for links to your county’s offices, too.
A property’s tax history updates with new information every time it changes hands. Once you can view the tax records, you’ll be able to see the name of the owner, the last assessed property value, and all taxes due.
Research the MLS listing
The multiple listing service (MLS) is a nationwide database that includes every home listed for sale by real estate agents.
Property data in the MLS includes:
- History of upgrades
- Number of rooms
- School district information
- Square footage
The MLS is an invaluable resource, but it’s only accessible by real estate agents.
You may be thinking, “But can’t I find this information in other places?” And you’d be correct, a lot of these facts may be found on listing sites like Zillow or Redfin. But this information on third-party platforms can be incomplete or outdated.
Listing sites like Zillow or Redfin often omit valuable information such as the type of financing the seller will accept. Access to the MLS can also give you the inside track on homes that are about to hit the market.
To go directly to the source for the most up-to-date information, you need to partner with a real estate agent. A responsive agent will help you design an MLS search alert that will give you instant updates on new listings that meet your criteria.
If you already have your sights set on a home, an agent can also use their MLS access to let you know if the home has a pending offer or if the price changes.
Ask to see a CLUE report
A Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) report details insurance activity tied to a certain property. Any claims on the home in the past will show up here.
Insurers use CLUE reports to determine an individual’s insurability, much like how lenders use credit reports to determine one’s credit worthiness. If an individual has filed a lot of insurance claims, their insurance policies will likely be more expensive.
The CLUE report for a certain property will include all of the details regarding insurance claims filed by an individual there in the past seven years.
If a claim was filed, the CLUE report will include the date of loss, the type of loss, and the amount paid out by the insurance company. So if a storm damaged the roof of a home, you’ll be able to see when it happened and the amount the insurance company paid to fix the damage.
✅ Quick tip:
If you want to see the CLUE report for a home, you’ll need to ask the homeowner. Only property owners can request a report for their property by ordering through LexisNexis.
Many homeowners offer their CLUE reports when selling a home to prove that they haven’t made any recent claims. If the seller of a home you’re considering buying hasn’t made the report available, ask.
Other ways to research house history
Make sure that you do the essential research on a home, like investigating the tax history and having a title search performed. But further investigation into the history of a home may uncover interesting details that even the current owner might not know.
Learn if the home is in a historic district
Do you think the home may be in a historic neighborhood? Historic properties can mean added value, but there might be restrictions on renovations. Often, the seller is happy to brag about their historic home in the listing. But if you’d like to do your own research, start by visiting your state’s office of historic preservation.
The National Register of Historic Places has a list of state historic preservation offices. Your state office website should give you an idea of where to go next to find out more to find out about the home and surrounding neighborhood. Some states have a comprehensive list on their own website, others will direct you to local historical organizations for details.
If you do end up with a historic property, you might be able to apply for public grants or loans to fix up the property. Every historic neighborhood has its own rules regarding alterations to the home, however, so make sure you’re ultimately researching at the local level to learn about your specific property.
Find out if anyone died in the home
In many states, sellers are not legally mandated to disclose if someone has died in the house. You can check Diedinhouse.com for a report on deaths in the home, including the cause of death, if available.
The report will also let you know if there have been any fires or meth lab activity reported at the address.
House history research takeaways
Buying a home is a huge investment, and it makes sense to do as much research as possible before making an offer.
Some of your due diligence can be done from your computer at home, but hiring a real estate agent is the best way to make sure you have access to as much pertinent information as you need to make a decision.
FAQs about home history
Do I need a real estate agent to access the MLS?
The multiple listing service (MLS) is a powerful database that's only accessible by real estate agents. While you may be able to find some information taken from the MLS on sites like Zillow or Redfin, it can be incomplete or outdated.
How do I research the tax history of a house?
Search for tax information using the local county’s tax recorder or tax assessor’s offices. You can often search records using an online portal, but some offices might require a trip to the physical building. Start by googling “[County] property tax records.”
Why do I need to do a title search?
A title search looks for unpaid taxes, judgements, or other issues that would prevent the current homeowner from selling the property. If a lien against the property exists, the bill must be paid before any transfer of ownership takes place.
How do I find out about insurance claims on a house?
The Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange CLUE report for a certain property will include the details regarding insurance claims filed by an individual there during the past seven years. CLUE reports must be requested by the individual named on the report, so ask the selling agent or the homeowner directly.