How To Find Your Dream Home
TThis will be an in-depth guide to help you find information exclusive to the house you wish to research and how to obtain this information. This guide was inspired by an assignment from an old professor of mine David Cuillier. The class had to do with accessing government information and familiarizing ourselves with the law. So what information are we talking about? When you decide to buy a house you want to find all potential problems, anything that would make it less desirable to live there or hurt the property value now or in the future. So we will look at everything from crime or nuisance problems in the neighborhood to natural disasters where we'll obtain flood plain and earthquake fault line maps. Other things we'll find might include nearby zoning and road development plans, airport noise maps, school districts and even bad restaurants.
Online or In-Person
Some of these items will be impossible to find online so I will differentiate between what you can find online or what you have to find in-person. Remember these are public records and you are entitled to see and obtain copies.
Property Tax Records
Visit the county assessor’s office or treasurer’s office at the courthouse to look up property tax and deed information. Find out details of the house, including the names of all previous owners, the square footage, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. Get the deed, lot map, and check if there are easements on the property or flood plain designations (often only available at the office, not online). Also look up neighboring properties to find out what they are assessed at. Is the price they are asking fair?
Development Zoning and Plans
Visit the city planning department (http://www.(city,state).gov/planning/ at first then in person) to look at zoning maps and comprehensive plans for the area to see if a Wal-Mart or apartment complex could be built next- door (most detailed zoning maps are best looked at in person, not online). Check out some of the county permits and zoning at http://www.pimaxpress.com/ and then in person to see if there are any building plans for the area and what is planned to be built.
What crime has occurred in the neighborhood recently? Get examples of nearby crimes. You can get a basic list of crimes (e.g., date, location, type of crime). Note that some police will be reluctant to give these out – know the law and seek one where the investigation is closed. These incident reports are typically not online and available only in person. Also, are there any other nuisances (noise complaints, barking dogs, junky yards, etc.)?
Registered Sex Offenders
The Department of Public Safety provides the state sex offender registry online, searchable by name, address or zip code. For registries for all states, see http://www.publicrecordfinder.com/criminal.html.
The parks department should have documents describing plans for existing and future trails, parks, pools, etc. Go to the agency and ask for their future development plans, rather than relying on brochures and online information.
Find restaurants nearby and check to see how well their most recent health inspections went (county or city health department, often available online). Try to get actual hand-written inspection reports and not just the summarized rating that’s online.
Road Plans and Traffic
Visit public works or transportation offices to examine road plans, traffic counts, and dangerous intersections.
Identify the public schools your children would attend (elementary, middle and high school). Check test scores, percentage of students who are on free or reduced lunches, criminal incidents, suspension rates, and drop-out rates. Compare to other schools and districts. This is another example of information that is primarily online, but if you visit the school district office you might get more (e.g., bus routes, weapons incidents at the school). Want your kids to go there?
Check with the airport, if there is one nearby, to see flight patterns and decibel levels, as well as future runway changes that might affect the area. Some of this is online, but more detailed information is at the airport or a government agency that monitors the airport.
Are the sellers in court records? Check criminal and civil records to find out if there are any problems. Are they being sued for not paying their bills (desperate to sell their house)? Have they been convicted of manufacturing drugs (meth lab in the den)? Go to your county courthouse and check.
Check flood plain maps, earthquake fault lines, weather patterns, shaky slopes and other potential problems Mother Nature might throw at you.
Find out where the closest fire station is and the number of minutes they would take to respond to a fire (check response time reports held by the government agencies). Sometimes 911 records are available to see what happens nearby.
You can find demographic data at the census tract level, including age, sex, income, and race. The site www.census.gov is difficult to navigate, but the information is there. You would need to get details at the neighborhood level (census tract), not at the city level or zip code level.
Often a city will coordinate neighborhood associations and print their newsletters, keeping them on file. These are invaluable for providing insights into issues in the neighborhood.
Any pitbulls licensed nearby or dog bites reported recently in the area by Animal Control?
Check environmental agency records for hazardous waste sites, leaking gas tanks and tainted wells.
Red Tags/ Noisy Neighbors
Is the house near a noisy red-tagged house? Often police keep these records. Cities often also monitor other types of nuisances, including cockroach complaints, graffiti, abandoned cars, overgrown weeds, etc. All of those are recorded in reports at agency offices.
If the house is near a landfill or sewage treatment plant, have there been lots of complaints to the county regarding smells? Many agencies record such complaints.