• Real estate involves more than just the transaction -- preliminary research can eliminate roadblocks and alleviate headaches.
  • Don't overlook local municipal resources when conducting real estate research.
  • Always ask for help when your research raises more questions than it answers.

When buying real estate, there’s a pit-stop that many people overlook: the records center or permits desk of the local municipality.

Real estate is about planning for the future, and no one wants to buy a home only to learn that the zoning requirements prohibit them from making alterations they desire.

For eight years, I managed one of these pit-stops, a records center for the planning and development services arm of a local municipality serving around 300,000 people.

The crux of managing this center is that even the most seasoned real estate agents often either didn’t know my services were available, or they didn’t have the right information at hand to conduct research at the records center.

Every professional wants to know what he or she is doing, so let me guide you through some oft-neglected prep work you can do before you head into your local municipality to conduct research on a property for your client.

Start with a map

This sounds rudimentary, but too often, I was asked for information on properties for the wrong jurisdiction — even by agents who had been in the business for decades.

pins in map

In today’s world of digital technology, GIS (geographic information system) mapping systems are easily available through local municipalities’ sites. Not only are they a helpful tool for checking whether you are indeed contacting the right record center about the right jurisdiction, but they can also answer many of the questions you might have and negate the need for that contact.

When I conducted research, I began with the GIS mapping system for our community. It told me where a property was located and offered a link to our county’s assessor information, which gives the date that a structure was built, its property tax history and the current ownership information.

The one I worked with contained zoning and historical permitting layers. The zoning layer allows a user to see the zoning designation of a property.

If you’ve worked with finicky zoning designations before, you’re likely to know that these often create more questions than they answer, but knowing a zoning designation ahead of making an offer might alleviate a headache or two.

The historical permitting layer made available a list of all known permits — planning and zoning or building — for the history of the property. Those available online were hyperlinked to said permits.

Not all GIS systems are created equal, but many will allow you to create PDF maps of the properties you’re searching as well as print them. More than 50 percent of the time, it helped me assist an agent when we had a paper map in front of us.

Utilize a permit database

Once you’ve located a piece of property and confirmed it’s in the right jurisdiction, check out the online permit database. The bigger the jurisdiction, the more likely it is to have one of these. You can do this from the comfort of your office or your easy chair.

In some cases, you can see floor plans, future permits and permits issued by other departments, not just planning and zoning or building. Those permits are helpful if you want to show a client what’s going on in his potential new neighborhood.

There’s more to picking the perfect neighborhood than checking crime rates. Sometimes, a lot of surrounding construction can be disruptive, and you know not every client is going to be willing to wait that out for the perfect property.

Researching a permit database can also guide you to any potential problems for a client. Check permits’ expiration dates for red flags. If your client purchases a property, he or she might be liable for finishing expired or permits that have yet to be finalized, even in the residential real estate markets.

Checking permit databases might also uncover lesser-known data, depending on the jurisdiction. Some databases even store appraisal information above and beyond legally-required assessments.

Find someone

Anyone who’s worked in a service industry of any kind knows that when in doubt, find someone to help. You can do as much of this legwork yourself as possible, but when GIS and the permit databases start generating more questions than they answer, it’s time to make a visit to the proper municipality.

If you’ve done all the prep, asking your questions will be much easier.  Plus, you might run into a records manager or permit technician like me, someone who grew up in the area and has the insider knowledge on the planned unit development down the street from your client’s new house.

A records manager, tech or a permit clerk or technician can also direct you to fill out a public information or records request. These are similar to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and can be as specific or as comprehensive as you wish. When my parents bought new property recently, I completed one for them.

If you’re not sure these types of resources exist for you, it never hurts to ask. The worst question is the one that doesn’t get asked, and I was often able to help many a real estate agent over the phone.

Not every real estate transaction needs in-depth research, and using the resources available at local jurisdictions and the associated websites is often overlooked, even by seasoned agents and practitioners.

Taking just a few minutes to check any of these sources might save you and your client a big headache in the long-run.

Hattie is an independent writer and researcher living and working in Idaho’s Treasure Valley. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Email Hattie James.

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