Completing a free title search for a title on a property and other public records can be labor intensive. Over the last few years, many state governments have mechanized the title search process and put some public records online, but in many jurisdictions, a complete search still requires a little legwork. Since properties aren't assessed every year, in some circumstances, the electronic records don't reflect issues that are critical to the property's value.
Title Information Online
Basic title searches can be done online for most U.S. jurisdictions. States maintain one website for titles that will list the names of the most recent owners, but not everyone who has owned the property. Collect the names of all of the recent owners along with any identifying account numbers that might be relevant to the state in a paper search, either by hand or by printing the page.
Searching Judicial Records
The electronic court records associated with the property are on the state's judicial website under the name of the former owner. Search the civil record for each of the owners by last and first names. If there were any civil actions against that person while they owned the home, make note of the case number and disposition. This should also contain the contact information of all of the people involved with the suit. Make note of all the relevant information, but especially the case numbers.
Inspect the Property
Room additions and roof replacement, or storm damage that has left a property in disrepair might not be accounted for on the electronic version of the title. Indeed, it might not be accounted for anywhere, but will affect a home's value and selling disposition. Moreover, if work was done recently on a home, there may still be outstanding invoices for construction work. Make note of any apparent new work done to the home. If permits are visible, note the permit number and information about the issuing authority.
Visit Various Departments
Armed with all of the online information you have collected, visit each of the places the paper records are stored. Some courthouses have a ban on electronics, so bring a paper and pencil and valid identification. Town hall or the county hall of records likely will have the land records as well as the names of people who were issued building permits for the property. The district court probably has any civil records or can direct you to the proper court. Verify the online information with the paper records.
Tony Russo has been a general assignment reporter and an editor for weekly and daily community newspapers since 2004. He is a business blogger for several regional websites and produces a weekly news and entertainment podcast.