In the past decade, potential home buyers and renters—along with the entire real estate industry—have had to contend with an explosion of online real estate sites completely changing the way we look for homes. The ability to find the sales price of neighboring homes, search for listings in a given school zone, and take virtual tours of a property has made the internet both an essential and overwhelming house-hunting resource.
Use this wealth of information to your benefit—it pays to do a deep dive into any property you’re seriously considering buying (or renting). Once you’re inside, building issues will be yours to live with. Here are eight tips on how to scour the web to uncover everything you need to know about a property and its owner—all before making an offer.
Start with Google
It’s a simple first step, sure, but start with a thorough Google search of the address and see what comes up. And be sure to check the news tab as it may reveal past happenings in or around the property.
Dig deep into the online listings
Online listing sites like Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com, and in New York Streeteasy should be used for more than just perusing properties. One of the most helpful features of such sites is that many track the listing history of a property so you can see how much it sold for in the past in relation to previous asking prices and how long it’s been on the market. They can also provide a record of year-over-year changes in property taxes. For rentals, websites like Streeteasy provide a similar background check on the apartment listing, and allow you to search the building to find what other units in the building are renting for.
These sites are also great places to check the legitimacy of the real estate agent listed for the home or apartment you’re pursuing. Is the agent affiliated with a reputable broker? Does he or she represent other listings that look legitimate? It’s a good sign if the agent and broker have an established presence online.
Remember, most home ownership information is public
Checking the deed is a good step for hopeful homebuyers who want to go beyond the price history provided on listing websites. You’ll likely need to know the legal description of the property, its official address, and the subdivision lot number before you start. With that information, the purchasing and ownership history of any given property is at your disposal, as it’s all public record. All deed transactions are recorded at local county courthouses in the Register of Deeds, and it’s common to find them digitized online (and if they’re not, most staff who work with deeds can help you find what you're looking for based on the address). When you start your search, begin with the most recent deed transactions and work backwards in order to start with the freshest information.
Check your local government
Your local buildings department can be a major resource. Not only does it offer an online database of building permits filed for renovations or any major changes to a building, it will show which permits have been approved and issued. The buildings department also tracks any violations against a property. If a homebuyer finds a violation filed by the local government agency that is marked as unresolved, it means the new owner would assume that violation—and the accompanying fees. As for rentals, if a lot of violations surface on a search, that may mean that the landlord isn’t taking proper care of the property.
Tap into AddressReport
If the local buildings department feels intimidating, just punch the building address into AddressReport. On top of general information—like neighborhood demographics and property values—the site tracks construction projects as well as any violations that may have been issued against the property or complaints reported. Don’t get hung up on small violations that happened years ago, but if you see repeated mice complaints, it’s probably not a good sign.
Don’t let the bedbugs bite
In some places, like New York, landlords are required to disclose whether or not a building has had a bedbug infestation. Still, it doesn’t hurt to do independent research. In New York City, the Bedbug Registry is a crowdsourced database that provides reports—from brief to very detailed—of buildings that might be host to these nightmare bugs. The registry also lists nearby places that might have been exposed to an infestation.
Find hyperlocal resources
There’s no better resource than your potential neighbors in order to get the low-down on a property. Perhaps the best place to start is NextDoor, a free neighborhood-based forum for folks to discuss everything from local events to real estate and crime. Unsurprisingly, Facebook is also a great tool, as many people host neighborhood groups on the site. For a numbers-based breakdown of a neighborhood, try NeighborhoodScout, which takes an address and provides a full report of the local real estate, demographics, crime, school, and home value trends.
Look into landlords
There’s no shortage of shady landlords out there, and there’s not much to keep them accountable. Some cities like New York track the worst of them in an official capacity. The city’s public advocate lists them here; you can also search by building, landlord, or management company name. If your city doesn’t track them, take to Google again to see if any negative reports pop up.
There’s also a crop of websites designed to review landlords, including Rate My Landlord and Review My Landlord. Type in a building address, and the sites will generate reviews from tenants sharing personal experiences with management, whether good or bad. While these shouldn’t be thought of as official reviews—use them as you would Yelp—it’s a good place to start your landlord research.