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Property Research Pointers for Diligent Renters & Buyers

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Just as you might take to the pages of Facebook or Google to verify your online dating match didn't leave out any important details, like, say, a criminal record, from his or her profile, learning as much background as you can about a prospective property before you commit is never a bad idea. But where to start?

Whether you'll be renting or owning, the Internet has plenty of dirt for your digging pleasure if you know where to click. We've covered how home owners might go about using public property records to their advantage in the past — homes' accessed values, court records, aggregated real estate data sites, etc. — and those aren't the only sites to search once you've settled on a place you'd like to call home. David McQuown, a research and policy analyst at DePaul University's Institute of Housing Studies, suggests utilizing the Cook County Recorder of Deeds database for building transaction history and any foreclosure filings (the online data only dates back to 1985 but ledgers in the office itself have earlier records available) or the Cook County Property Tax Portal for its user-friendlier interface.

Renters are advised to check with the Better Business Bureau or the city's Department of Buildings to see if any complaints have been filed against your landlord or management company or violations are on record for your building. Crime statistics in your new neighborhood might be worth looking into as well.

Review sites like Yelp can also offer some helpful insight in terms of past tenants' experiences in your place, just be sure to take posters' feedback with a grain of salt – look for overall trends, one reviewer's grudge is no reason to keep you from your dream residence. Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, and other data aggregation sites will give you an idea of whether you're being ripped off rent-wise, among lots of other findings to compare.

And it's not all startling skeletons you may be looking to uncover in your future home's closets – there are plenty of resources if you're just curious about your building's history too. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks step-by-step guide, "Your House Has a History" is a good place to start. Even the Art Institute has put together a list of sites the budding home historian might find useful.

While it may be tempting in our web-savvy world to keep your quandaries to your keyboard, David Vivero, vice president of rentals at real estate data site Zillow, stresses the importance of doing some investigating in three dimensions (i.e. in person) as well. "The goal [behind this kind of research] is getting a good deal but also getting the context that you need for your lifestyle," Vivero says. A few of his other tips:

--When touring a building, check for general upkeep. "If the hallways or elevators are dirty, it is a sign that the landlord may take a long time to make any repairs," Vivero says.

--If you're renting a unit in a multi-family property, ask around about the landlord and property management company. Residents may be able to alert you of the overpowering stench that wafts in from the burger joint next door, or the upstairs tenants that seem to be avid tap dancers. They may also have words of praise.

--Observe your prospective landlord's demeanor carefully in your initial interactions like showings. You'll be depending on him and her for maintenance and repairs, so you'll want to be sure he or she seems positive and open to helping residents.

--Safety considerations are a priority no matter where you'll be living, but they especially come into play if you're going to be renting or owning a detached single-family house. "With a single family house security becomes especially important since you aren't on the third or 20th floor," Vivero says. "And there's no doorman except you." Find out as much as you can about the safety of the neighborhood and who your neighbors may be.

--Explore the few block radius around your new home. Are there garbage dumpsters that will be collected outside your bedroom window? Will a new construction project wake you up? Visiting the area at different times throughout the day can also help you decide, for example, whether you feel safe walking home at night.

In today's wireless environment, we don't even have to choose between online and I.R.L. research. If you want to check out the building in person, you can reference the area's Walk Score or average rental prices on mobile apps at the same time. "Mobile apps have really shined a spotlight on the fact that we can be useful as a technology company while you're also cruising around the neighborhood or seeing what it's like to walk around the block," Vivero says. "I would encourage anyone who's going to rent a unit to use a mobile app to find a rental but also to take with them and maybe go get a cup of coffee in the morning across the street."
·Institute for Housing Studies [DePaul]