Get ready… get set… hold on?
Don’t put an offer down on that house quite yet. Have you done your homework on the home? Did you have it inspected? Have you checked that it is zoned properly? Are all of the improvements up to code–and were they installed with a building permit? There are volumes of information available online to help you decide whether or not you want to actually purchase a house, so make sure to take advantage of them.
Look at aerial-view maps
Don’t forget to check out the house on a map. Using one of several free online map tools, you can see a bird’s-eye view of the actual neighborhood, captured via satellite. If possible, try to look at the residence from different angles to make an informed decision. The online view may tell a different story than what you can see on the street.
In person, the house might look perfect from the front. But looks can be deceiving. Even driving around the block might not reveal the whole picture. However, the online aerial view can show buyers important information, like a junkyard in the adjacent property in back, or a ravine half a block away that is actually a train line that operates 24 hours a day.
Check zoning maps
Another important online resource for researching your potential new home is the local zoning map, which is updated in real time. Just find the city’s website and check its zoning and planning office section. If possible, look for the long-term planning maps, and see what’s in store for that vacant field a block away. The sleepy two-lane street a block away might be scheduled to become a major thoroughfare.
If you can’t locate these maps online, contact the office by phone or email. In the meantime, if you still can’t find the info you need but love the house, put down a conditional offer to protect yourself from surprise developments. State that you reserve the right to get out of the contract if there are any discrepancies between the seller’s representations about the house, and what the local government has to say about things.
Ask about permits
While you’re looking for zoning maps on the city’s website, check out the page for the building or code enforcement office. See if building permits are available online, and whether or not the city maintains a list of properties with known code violations. If the seller says everything is fine, but you see there’s a room addition in back that was never permitted, you could be walking into an expensive problem–one that you might have to solve after you close the sale.
Demand that the seller get the property inspected by the city, especially if the work was completed without a permit. Also, get an up-to-date occupancy permit from the city. If the seller balks–walk.
Contact the Tax Assessor’s office
Next, turn to the county offices, specifically that of the Tax Assessor. The Tax Assessor’s office maintains a record of what they think is built on the property. If the Assessor’s records don’t correspond with the reality of what is standing on the land, ask the seller about the discrepancy. A sale of the property will more than likely trigger a visit from the Assessor, at least for an exterior inspection. You could potentially face a revaluation that could cause the real estate taxes to go from manageable to unbearable. This probably indicates that the seller, or his predecessor, did major work on the property without getting the proper building permits from the city.
Protect your interests before and after placing an offer on a house. Whether the seller and his agent misunderstand the real value of the home, or they’re trying to hide something, you need to do your diligence.