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Study Hall: Using Public Records to Your Advantage

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This week, media organizations and other groups are celebrating Sunshine Week, an annual tribute to freedom of information, but public records don't just benefit nosy journalists, they're chock full of important real estate clues too – clues that can help you estimate the value of a property; draft a smarter purchase contract; decipher tax history; or uncover unpleasant skeletons in a home or homeowner's closet. Of course, it'll all require some digging. And there's lots to dig through.

Unlike in the olden days when this kind of research meant tireless leafing through stacks of dusty volumes and files at your local library or county courthouse, modern records (like pretty much everything else) have been largely digitized. Many sites offer aggregated real estate information collected from public records and other sources including estimated market value and property tax, sales listings and records, owner history, and neighborhood demographics, among other things. These free online resources – sites like, Zillow, Trulia, and – can give you a good ballpark range for area home values, and in some cases, detailed histories or red flags, but it's a good idea to compare what you find among several different sites as you don't know if the listings contain errors or are outdated.

Your local government can provide additional insight and you can now usually find those databases online too. The Cook County Assessor's office, for instance, is responsible for assessing the property values of the county's 1.8 million parcels to determine how much tax each property should pay. The office conducts its appraisals on a triennial cycle, which means it occurs every three years and those records are searchable on the department's site. Court records can reveal a seller who is going through a divorce, which can impact your offer strategy as he or she is more likely to be motivated to sell quickly; how frequently a property has been listed or taken off the market; whether a property is in foreclosure; or whether a seller is involved in litigation of some kind.

Of course, if doing your homework in three dimensions is more your style, physically visiting these and other local government offices, or your local library, can still garner results. Often staffed with knowledgeable personnel, these places can help you locate property deeds or encumbrances like liens or mortgage information that will give you a better idea of a house's background and standing.

Enlisting the expertise of a real estate agent or other specialist comes with a price but it may allow you to make the most of available records you may not have access to or familiarity with. For a small fee ($20-$30, sometimes more), background check companies like Chicago Serve & Investigations or ASG can determine whether a seller you're thinking of working with has filed for bankruptcy, past legal troubles, or unpaid debts. A real estate agent can arm you with information from the multiple listing service (MLS) such as a property's selling history, how long it's been on the market, price changes, and whether a seller has switched agents. They also sometimes subscribe to services that provide them with title company reports or tax records that they can put together for you. The more you know, the better.
·Curbed University [Curbed Chicago]