Property Records and Your Home's History: Everything You Need to Know

The PropertyClub Team
May 21st 2020
Use this short guide to learn what property records are and how to search them whether you’re trying to figure out the restrictions on your new renovations or simply want to know more about your family home.

Whether you are transferring the title of a house or are considering making a new purchase, you’re probably curious about the property’s history. In the age of online documentation, there are now two potential avenues to explore to learn about the history of your property and see if there’s any information pertinent to past deeds that might affect your new renovations or the titleholder’s status. 

What’s in a property record?

From the physical space in your house to the history of its owners and renovations, there’s a lot contained in your property records. All of this can be found by searching your property records, depending on how deeply you explore them.

Any official changes in ownership are recorded in the records, including the details of the sale, taxes, and any changes to the home’s dimensions and square footage. Any additions to the property like a garage or a guest house are also included in the basic property records.

The previous owners are also listed in the property records with limited information detailing their ownership and certain other factors that may influence the legal status of the property. Examples include whether they lost the property in a divorce or foreclosed due to bankruptcy.

If you do an even more in-depth search, you will discover the original owners and builders of the home, as well as any building restrictions in your area that apply to your property and its history of sales in the neighborhood.

In addition to paper records, you have access to sales histories online through search platforms dedicated to the subject through the recorder’s office.

For now, most important files have both a hard and a digital form available. These records will show not only the house’s sales history but also its current market value and the current owner’s loan status and mortgage situation on the property.

If you receive calls or emails about refinancing, it’s possible that those companies found you by searching sales records like these.

What’s in a deed?

One of the most important property records is a deed. If you're unsure about what a deed is just read this guide which will answer common questions like what is the difference between a title and a deed.

You have a few offices to search through when you’re looking for the deeds associated with your property. These include the relevant state registry, as well as your county clerk, auditor, and recorder. While many of these offices have updated their records with online versions, the most complete and correct recording of your property’s deed is still the physical copy you can view in person. Some big cities like New York let you search property records online. For example, you can search NYC property records using the ACRIS system.

One of the main reasons to thoroughly explore these records is to verify your full ownership of a property. A legal encumbrance can be listed there that you weren’t aware of. These can affect your total control over your property.

In addition to these encumbrances (discussed below), you may also be able to uncover information in your deed history related to past owners of your property, the legally denoted area of your plot and any subdivisions of its space, the district and zoning information relevant to the property, the amount it has been sold for in the past, and the state-assessed value of the land itself.

What are encumbrances?

As we mentioned, one of the main reasons to look into your property history is legal encumbrances, which are restrictions that exist on your total legal ownership of your property that you may not even know about. If you try to make renovations, transfer titles, sell the property, or do anything major to it, these encumbrances may come back to bite you. You need to know about them now so you can handle them properly.

Legal encumbrances could be the result of tPropertyProperhe situations involving a property’s sale or taxes owed by the deed holder. Since figuring them out is one of the main reasons to research your property’s records, you need to know the difference between the two main types of encumbrances: liens and easements.

What is a Lien?

A lien is the result of a lawsuit and is the most dangerous form of encumbrance. They can be used in subsequent cases to take your property away from you, so it’s essential that you know if there are any in the property’s records.

Unpaid property taxes, child support, or homeowners association fees can create liens on a property deed and reduce your legal ownership. An outstanding lien prevents you from selling the property. For instance – you would have to settle the charges first in order to transfer or sell ownership of the home or land.

Since this is a significant impediment to your ability to use your land as a financial asset, it’s a good idea to make this a part of your property records search.

What is an Easement?

An easement does not divide up your right to your property, but it does give other people the right to use your property within certain limitations. It’s good to know who can use your property because of an easement.

For instance, most properties have easements in place for utility workers, since they often come onto your property unannounced to address power or plumbing concerns. The boundaries defined by the easement, however, restrict them to certain distances.

Other unique easements exist depending on the area. To discover if anyone has a random legal right to walk across your property or do as they please, you should prioritize this lesser-known aspect of property records in your search.

The Takeaway

Knowing how to search property records will help you account for your assets, make sales, purchase properties, and make renovations. All of these things can be hindered by legal encumbrances, which can give people the right to use your property without your knowledge.

Both digital and paper records exist. However, checking a property’s history in question usually produces more accurate and complete results. To see records of sale, partial titleholders, past owners and renovations, and anything else related to your property, it pays to go to the registry office yourself.