Real Estate Homework: Get online before you close

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So you think you’ve found the ideal home or the perfect commercial property. Now what? Do you accept what the realtor tells you and prepare for the closing? Of course not. There’s still a bit of homework for you to do if you want to avoid an expensive mistake. Fortunately, much of this work can be done at your personal computer. Many city and county governments have put real estate records online which taxpayers can access for free. 

For example, if you were researching properties in New York City, you could visit the City Register’s office and use its public computers. However, the PCs there are often in high demand and printouts will cost you. You can get the same information at your home or office PC by linking to the city’s Automated City Register Information System (www.nyc.gov/acris), which provides free 24-hour access to city property records filed since 1966.

Let’s say you were interested in the Manhattan townhouse at 17 East 79th St.  Entering the address into ACRIS would soon reveal that the owner is listed as “Michael R. Bloomberg,” who happens to be the mayor of New York. According to ACRIS, Bloomberg acquired the property in April 1986, took out a $3.7 million mortgage in February 1994 and satisfied the mortgage as of November 2001.

You can also search for a property using “block” and “lot” numbers, which are often used on real estate documents instead of street addresses. ACRIS provides basic deed and mortgage summaries and you can view scanned documents on your PC and print them out yourself.

New York City’s Building Information System (start at www.nyc.gov) provides data on various types of building inspections and code violations. Here again, you can search for a building with an address or a block and lot number. In addition to active and resolved violations, the BIS offers data on complaints made about a property. For example, one complaint against a Brooklyn co-op stated that a resident was running a manufacturing business from his apartment—in violation of local zoning laws.

Some private Web sites aggregate property data from a number of government online services and package the results in an easy-to-view format. Property Research Partners LLC’s PropertyShark Web site (www.propertyshark.com) pulls together property data for various areas in New York State, including New York City, Nassau County and a stretch of the state from Albany to Yonkers. PropertyShark provides a history of a property’s owners, as well as links to data on neighboring properties. A map pinpoints the property you’re researching on a map. Data on current and old violations are listed as well. According to PropertyShark, Bloomberg linked the second floor of his townhouse to the second floor of the adjoining one at 19 E. 79th St in 2000.

ProperyShark also provides links to crime statistics, school information and demographic data. Clicking on the link for “schools” takes you to GreatSchools Inc.’s Web site (www.greatschools.net) and generates a list of public and private schools in the area near a property. A “radius” search function generates a report on nearby properties that have recently changed hands. You can perform up to eight property searches a day at no cost on PropertyShark, but a paid subscription adds more functionality.

If you want a bird’s-eye view of a property before you visit it, the Google Web search engine (www. google.com) now offers satellite images. Entering an address into the Google search bar brings up a link to a street map. Once the street map comes up, you’ll note a link on the far right edge of the screen that says “Satellite.” Clicking on that link replaces the street map with a satellite image. You can move the satellite image around by clicking on it and you can zoom in and out. No, you won’t be able to count the people in your neighbor’s pool, but you will be able to pick out specific rooftops and chimneys. If you want to know how to get to the property, you can enter a starting point and Google will draw a map—on the satellite image—of the route.

Remember the 1960s TV sitcom Green Acres? The series begins with Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert) getting stuck with a ramshackle farmhouse that starts to fall apart almost before the ink dries on his property deed. A little online research will prevent you from ending up in the same condition.

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