You can never know too much about your home. Whether you're renting or buying, you're in a house or an apartment, or you currently live there or are planning to move, knowledge is power. Fortunately, there's a lot of free public housing information out there. Perfect for some detective work!
Though each area is different, we researched and spoke with experts to get guidance on what details you can find out about your property, and where to find them. Word to the wise: If you're having trouble finding the right department for your research, it may go by a different name or be under another division. For this information, contact your city hall.
Here are a few of the major things you can find out about the place you might soon choose as your home:
1. Construction Date
Want to know when your home was built? Give your city's building and safety department a call. They should have a record of your building's permits.
2. Assessor’s Identification/Parcel Number (AIN or APN)
An AIN is assigned to a parcel of land by a tax assessor. It is meant to help with property identification and recordkeeping, so having this number can help you easily find additional details about your property.
You can find the AIN on your property's deed, title report, or annual property tax bill. If you don't have these in your possession, you can contact your county assessor or clerk for assistance.
3. Property Value and Tax History
County assessors possess a wealth of property information, including the value of your property, tax information, and recent sale information. For the original value of the property, you can request building permits from your county's building and safety department.
Your local library can also help you access this information. As an example, we reached out to the Los Angeles Public Library.
"In the Business and Economics Department, patrons can get information about their house within the City of Los Angeles boundary through a database called LUPAMS (Los Angeles Land Use Planning and Management Subsystem)," Youngsil Lee, Senior Librarian of LAPL's Business and Economics Department, tells Hunker. "The information includes current owner, size of the house, last transaction date and the price, [and] assessor value."
4. Environmental Factors
For data about air quality, water quality, energy production, health risks, climate, and more, the Environmental Protection Agency has a MyEnvironment portal where you can search for these facts by inputting your address.
5. Name of Contractor, Architect, and Original Owner
If you're curious about who originally built and owned your property, you can visit your city's building and safety department. Your library can also point you in the right direction.
6. Ownership History
If you want to know about everyone who has ever owned your property, pay your county clerk a visit. They are responsible for maintaining public records like property deeds. You can also try using online city directories, census records, or voter registration records that allow you to look up residents by address. From there, you can search newspaper archives (which include birth, marriage, and death announcements) for additional information about each person.
Probate records are court records that can also be utilized. They outline distribution of an individual's estate after their death. You can find these records at your county courthouse, and they can help you trace ownership by finding out who inherited your property after a previous owner passed away.
For details about the current property owner, you can visit your city's assessor. If you have the assessor number available (see #3 on this list), make sure to bring it.
7. Property Changes
Shuman Roy, a home insurance writer for Expert Insurance Reviews, tells Hunker that the Freedom of Information Act can provide details on any changes that have been made to your property. All you have to do is submit a FOIA request with your local building department. You can find out exactly how to do that on the FOIA website.
"Your town's building department has a file on each property within its jurisdiction," Roy states. "Whether you are renting or purchasing your property, you can get an actual history on the property by reviewing all of the construction permits filed, identifying which contractors did the work, and reviewing any variances that were requested on the property." This information can also help you plan any changes you'd like to make in the future.
For zoning details involving land use and building environment, you can visit your local planning department. They can tell you more about the size, shape, style, and location of your building — as well as any regulations your property falls under.
9. Building Violations
Real estate attorney Samuel Goldberg tells Hunker that your local housing department can help you find information about building violations. Take NYC as an example: "In New York City, a tenant can go onto the HPD (Housing Preservation Department) website," Goldberg says. "When you enter your address, you can find out lots of information about the owners of the building, [such as] if the building is validly registered with HPD, and if there are any violations in common areas of the building or in individual apartments." Your housing department can even help you report a violation.
Suro also recommends looking through city, county, and courthouse records to find out if any illegal improvements were made (ones you can't find a permit for), if property information was ever incorrectly reported (so you can fix it), and if the previous owner was fined for anything.
10. Rent Control
To find out if your building is rent controlled, you can visit your local planning or housing department. Sally Richman, a Senior Housing Planning Economic Analyst at the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department, tells Hunker that a housing department can also provide in-depth information on "rent stabilization, rental housing inspection, [and] affordable and accessible rental housing searches."
11. School Information
To read up on your property's school district, you can search for the address on a real estate website. Real estate expert Benjamin Ross tells Hunker that this website can also provide you with "in-depth data on any school's performance, including test scores, school rank comparisons, attendance rates, and demographics."
12. Historic Photos
You might be able to find historical images of your neighborhood or home by contacting your local library or historical society. Suro also recommends checking Google Maps to see how a property looked at various points in time.
13. Tract Maps
To view a map of your property divisions and the surrounding area, reach out to your county's building or engineering department. If they have the original property records, this department can also provide you with the name of the original owner and property subdivisions.
14. Physical Structure and Blueprint Information
The number of rooms, purpose of the building, material of construction, property size, initial value, and additional information about your structure can be found in your building's permits and blueprints, via the records kept at your building and safety department. Visit the department's website for information on how to request these records.
15. Unit Features
Interested in moving, but want to make sure your prospective unit has all the features you need? Take a look at real estate websites like Zillow, which can have detailed information about the appliances and heating and cooling systems in your apartment.
To find out how much utilities might cost — before you even move — you can look up your state's residential electricity and gas (for both your home and car) data through the U.S. Energy Information Administration. For phone, trash, internet, and all other bills, look up companies that service the area and call for an estimate. They may even have special promotions for new customers.
17. Parking Information and Restrictions
This is especially valuable for people living in larger cities with strict parking regulations. For more information about local parking laws, you can visit your department of transportation. To learn more about a specific building's parking situation, look up the property on a real estate site.
18. Street Name History
Your local history department or organization might have records (and fun facts) on how your street name has changed over time, and how it first got its name.