Most home searches start online these days. Sorting through listings, photos, floor plans and descriptions are a great way to feel out the market and engage yourself as you think about making a purchase.

Once you’ve zeroed in one or more properties, going online can help you obtain even more background information. The Internet is full of data on past home sales, recorded sales prices, and the history of each sale, plus information that may not be as obvious — such as the safety of the neighborhood you’re considering buying into.

Here are three ways to use the Internet and real estate mobile apps to get more details about the home you want.

1. Research building records

Nearly all public information and documentation is now available online. Most municipalities provide web access to building permit history. Though most sellers are required to disclose the work that was done on the property, there may be a history of earlier work the seller didn’t know about. For example, if there is a newly renovated bathroom or kitchen but no history of a permit for the work, there is a chance it was done without a permit — and potentially not to code. If you can discover this on your own, be sure to have your property inspector take a close look at that bathroom to make sure it’s safe and sound. Otherwise, once you are the owner, it becomes your responsibility. To begin your search, type “building record,” plus your city’s name into your favorite search engine. Example: “building record Seattle.” Here is the first result, which is pretty thorough.

2. Use Google Street View

Researching an address using Google’s Street View can be one of the most revealing things a potential home buyer can do. Google’s Street View provides a snapshot of a property in a particular moment in time, which can provide insight into the recent history of the building or activities. As a matter of fact, most of Zillow’s home details pages — the place where you might live and own a home — offer Google Street Views. Enter your address on Zillow and scroll down to “Maps and Views” section. (See photo above).

For example, there was a home for sale in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood a few years back. The bedrooms were at street level, not far from the sidewalk. The seller had planted a beautiful garden area to create a buffer between the sidewalk and the windows. A search for the property on Google Street View revealed the windows with bars on them and no garden. Clearly, the seller had removed the bars to make the property look more inviting. But seeing the windows with bars on them in Google Street View raised questions for the buyer: Is the neighborhood unsafe? Was there a history of crime in the neighborhood or on the property? Are the street level windows safe?

3. Use a neighborhood crime app

The free CrimeReports app for iPhones and iPads displays on a map recent crimes that have been reported, including assault, theft, robbery, homicide, vehicle theft, sex offenders, and quality of life (which often means noise complaints). It’s an easy way to get a quick overview of how safe or unsafe a neighborhood is.

Bottom line: There is so much information available to a buyer these days.  You don’t need to rely solely on the seller’s or the real estate agent’s disclosures.  Use the Internet to find out as much background information on a property as you can, either before making an offer or during your contingency period. It is best to do as much research as possible, in order to make an informed final decision.

Brendon DeSimone is a Realtor® and real estate expert based in San Francisco and New York. He is a contributor to Zillow Blog, has collaborated on multiple real estate books and is often quoted by major media outlets. Follow Brendon on Twitter.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.


About the Author

Brendon DeSimone is the author of "Next Generation Real Estate: New Rules for Smarter Home Buying & Faster Selling," the go-to insider’s guide for navigating and better understanding the complex and ever-evolving world of buying and selling a home. DeSimone is the founder and principal of DeSimone & Co, an independent NYC real estate brokerage providing individualized services and a fresh, hands-on approach. Bringing more than a decade of residential real estate experience, DeSimone is a recognized national real estate expert and has appeared on top media outlets including CNBC, Good Morning America, FOX Business, HGTV, FOX News and Bloomberg. Consumers often call on Brendon for advice and to help them find a real estate agent. You can follow him on Twitter.

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