How To: Research Property & Loan Records

There are many reasons you might want to do some research into the loan documents and other public records for a certain property.

  1. You’re thinking of buying a house and want to know how much the seller owes when crafting your offer.
  2. You’re looking at a home for rent and want to know if the landlord is at risk of foreclosure.
  3. You’re considering buying a bank-owned home and are curious how much the bank was owed when they took possession.

What follows below is a simple step-by-step guide to help you do this kind of research on your own.

First, you’ll need to find out the legal owner of the property in question. The best way to do this is to head over to your county’s parcel viewer website. I have conveniently linked the parcel viewers for King, Snohomish, Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston, Island, Skagit, and Whatcom counties on the Real Estate Resources page. Simply enter the house number and street number of the property and you’ll be able to get the county’s property report.

On the property report page you’ll see either “taxpayer name” or a record of the most recent sale which will tell you the name of the current owner, usually in the form of last name first. This page will also usually tell you how much the property was most recently sold for, although with all the equity extraction that has gone on in the last five years, that number is not as useful as it might seem.

Armed with the legal owner’s name, you’ll now need to head over to the county records search website, which is also conveniently linked for you on the Real Estate Resources page.

To search for loan documents, put in the owner’s name, a date range beginning with the most recent sale of the property and ending on today’s date, and search for document type “Deed of Trust.” The deeds of trust will state which property they are for (pay attention to this, because the owner may have more than one property) and the loan amount. For King County, you won’t be able to view Deeds of Trust online, but will instead need to write down the document number and go to the records office to request them in person.

If the home is bank-owned or already in foreclosure, you can search for the document type “Notice of Trustee Sale” or just “Trustee Sale,” which will show you how much was owed on the property at the time of the notice. These are viewable online for King.

By doing a little bit of digging through the county records, you should be able to paint an accurate picture of the property owner’s loan picture. The only trouble you might run into is if a property was purchased prior to the late ’70s (as far back as most online county records go). In that case if you really want to find out the loan information you’ll probably have to go to the county records office and shuffle through papers. Of course, the main reason for doing a search like this is to find out if the property owner in question treated their home like an ATM, and if there aren’t any records since the ’70s, you’ve got your answer anyway.


About The Tim

Tim Ellis is the founder of Seattle Bubble. His background in engineering and computer / internet technology, a fondness of data-based analysis of problems, and an addiction to spreadsheets all influence his perspective on the Seattle-area real estate market.

36 comments:

  1. 1
    Plymster says:

    Hi Tim,

    When I click on the “how-to” tag, I get a “500 Internal Server Error”. It might be that hyphen, but I think this is a section of your blog with a heap of potential. Thanks!

  2. 2
    softwarengineer says:

    PROFESSOR TIM

    You have done well this year; be proud of yourself and enjoy your holidays much!

  3. 3
    Yesler Hill says:

    First, thanks for all your work on SB, The Tim. It’s been fascinating reading all year.

    Question abt records:

    My apt building is owned by the landlord via a company they’ve set up; XXX and Associates, for instance. I can’t seem to search under that type of ownership name. And when I search using their exact name I get no results for this building (I know it was refi-ed a few months ago). Could the records be under the name of one of the “officers” of this front company? Or would I better served just going down to the King County offices and looking this stuff in person. I do worry abt the owners propensity to refi to use it as an ATM.

    Thank you to anyone who has any clear info on this.

  4. 4
    mukoh says:

    Yesler have you tried wildcard search not XXX and associates but just XXX?

  5. 5
    singliac says:

    I think you are bound to get some interesting results whenever you search XXX
    :)

  6. 6
    The Tim says:

    Plymster @ 1,

    I don’t get that error in either browser. Could have been something transitory. Could you try it again?

  7. 7
    Peckhammer says:

    SPEAKING OF PROFESSOR TIM, I wrote to you the other day in hopes of a reply. Please contact me ASAP.

  8. 8
    David Losh says:

    For your apartment building there may be an address associated with the building as a mailing address. You can research the mailing address.

    Commercial is tough but you may want to go to the Washington Secratary of State web site and research Corporate records. It will give you the person who is on record. You can then research that person or call them.

    If you are really stuck for commercial records you can look up lawsuit records at the Court House. Many properties have eviction claims or lawsuits that will name a person in charge as an et al, such as John Smith et al. Then you have a name.

    When researching, be careful. You should know what you’re looking at. You may think you know something, but Real Estate is a highly professional business once you get past the picket fence. You may think you’re smart, cool. and tough only to be beaten into the ground by a huckster. Be prepared to fight back. Kill or be killed, and remember it’s only money.

  9. 9
    anony says:

    For King Co., you can also search court records by the parcel number, which shows up on the parcel viewer website. It isn’t quite as ambiguous as a name or address. This is particularly useful if the owner has a name like bob smith, which will give the divorce records for about 1000 people if you search by name. It might work for apartments owned by commercial owners as well, but I haven’t tried.

  10. 10
    Andy says:

    Woo-hoo,

    This is great Thanks Tim. Now I can figure out what people paid; bid way less. Usually, Real Estate Agents keep this data close to the hip. It adds “value” to their over paid jobs.

    If buyers can get all their own data; why do we need Real Estate Agents??? They are like floor traders at the NYSE – freaking dinosaurs.

    Keep sending out as much information as possible. Keep educating everyone. This way, the brokers will not be able to blow sunshine up the sellers/banks arses…lol!

    If we can inform as many buyers as possible, they will understand the Seattle Real Estate RIP OFF!!

  11. 11
    Plymster says:

    Yup. Seems to be working now. Nevermind…

  12. 12
    Yesler Hill says:

    Thanks much everyone! Those are all great leads, just what I needed.

  13. 13
    Eastsider says:

    This is useful info — thanks.

    Can anyone request a copy of the “Deed of Trust” from the King county’s record office OR do they limit access (maybe, by checking the IDs of the requestor)?

  14. 14
    David Losh says:

    Everything is Public Record at the Assesors office. There is a tunnel that runs under the street to the Court House.

    When I started in the Real Estate business in the 1970s you would go to the Assesor’s office and see the same guys there every day. They would go back and forth from the Assesors Records to the Court House to research a bargain.

    Real Estate agents have a Realist set of records on the NWMLS. Many people get a Real Estate license then pay a desk fee to get access to this information that is now on line in most cases. It’s no secret, it is Public Record.

    You can pull up all the data you want for the price of the copies.

    Now that the gold rush for properties is over, and properties sit on the market for weeks, and months, you have more time to research. What I do is find a property by neighborhood. It all comes down to location. I drive the neighborhood.

    I think the biggest problem today is that the “delisted” properties are going to be the best bargains. Those people who didn’t or couldn’t sell are going to be the most receptive to an offer. While they are out of listing contract they are fair game to any one. That takes your six percent commission and puts it on the table.

  15. 15
    TJ_98370 says:

    Wow! I’m glad you featured your Real Estate Resources page, Tim. I have been completely overlooking it. There is alot of useful info there.

  16. 16
    S-Crow says:

    May I make a comment/suggestion?

    The online information (if available) gives a very broad snapshot of how a parcel is encumbered (what is owed). If the idea is looking for a bargain, this is probably more helpful to buyers if they are looking at a home that has sold within the last few years, but not so meaningful if the home was purchased several years ago, has good equity and has not been re-encumbered (serial refinanced).

    A Deed of Trust gives you limited information. Often, the lender will post the loan amount, sometimes not. If it posts the loan amount it tells you what the initial borrowed amount was (the starting point), not the payoff amount (amount outstanding) of the loan. It could be substantially less or more than the starting point depending upon the borrower and terms of the Note.

    Promissory Notes are held by the lender and borrower and are rarely if ever recorded. Therefore, you will have no access to promissory notes online AND at the county recorders office, unless there is a posted Adjustable Rate Rider, pre-payment penalty Rider attached to the Deed of Trust which mimics the Note. Many counties have disabled the online access to even the recorded DOT and other documents.

    Many municipalities have no online access. Unless you are in the title and escrow business, you have very limited capacity of obtaining certain records.

    If you want information on liens, judgments, court documents, etc…which may impact the salability of a property you can get this information (for a modest fee in many cases) from a title co. or escrow company. To be sure, you may have online access that says, “yes, there is a lien or judgment of some sort on said property.” But without the other pertinent information it is the same as saying “I own a car, and it’s black in color.” If you want to know the mileage, it’s age, if it has leather, Navigation package, etc….you have to have the information title and escrow has access to.

    Much of the “veil” has been opened and the transparency is a good thing. Most of the information regarding the recent chain of title and sales activity via Redfin is enough for people to get a general idea of a property.

    Save yourself a trip to the county records office. I’ve been there uncountable times in King and Snohomish county and I’d much rather be somewhere else and I think most people would probably feel the same…….especially with all the recent cutbacks, county staff is palpably more grumpy. Very grumpy.

  17. 17
    David Losh says:

    True county records are a pain. Title reports are also a pain. You pay for some one else’s research to sell you a Title Policy. As an escrow agent or Real Estate agent these reports are easier to get.

    As far as the broad strokes go you can get better information by contacting an escrow agent you will be working with who can get you the Title Information you want. You are going to need Title Insurance also and I think the time has come for the consumer to be involved in getting what they are paying for.

    In plain english I think that rather than have a Real Estate company direct your Title and Escrow you should shop it yourself. Take some suggestion by all means, but the choice should make sense to you.

  18. 18
    David Losh says:

    Let me add as a comment to never trust any information from a company like a radfun in a real estate transaction. Go someplace that you are paying directly to get honest information when doing research.

    If you hire some one you want to trust, great, but an online rebate brokerage is a far step below local Real Estate company.

  19. 19
    mark says:

    Some properties have more than one loan. When a notice of trustee sale is filed it means that they are foreclosing on the first loan. There may be a substantial amount owed on the second note that never appears on the notice of trustee sale.

  20. 20
    deejayoh says:

    David,
    I think you should take the redfin hating act elsewhere, like your own blog…

  21. 21
  22. 22
    jonness says:

    This is an excellent article with excellent resources. If you don’t want others knowing about your personal finances, it might annoy you though.

    What amazes me most is the number of homeowners who have pulled every single penny of their equity. In many cases, I think this results from making impulsive decisions based on emotions instead of logic. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why the emotion of fear seems to have been completely absent in these cases. Interestingly, the banks appear to have preyed on the homeowners’ impulsivity and greed right before the banks fell victim to their own unchecked impulsivity and greed. Fortunately for the banks, they need only ask the government for a bailout. People so far have not been so fortunate.

  23. 23
    S-Crow says:

    Marc,

    Excellent point. To take your point further, the 2nd would not appear on the 1st Trustee Sale because if it were in default, the “trustee” would file it’s own Notice on behalf of the “beneficiary” (commonly the lender). When a 1st DOT is foreclosed, the 2nd is for the most part wiped out.

    Of the short sales our office has closed, the 2nd is effectively wiped out. Some of the short sales have been enormous losses for the 2nd’s or HELOC’s. I have refrained from talking much about business for a long time and for a variety of reasons, but the losses are eye popping for many lenders—you’ve read about several of them in the news.

    Not to change The Tim’s subject here, but I think I’ve moved from anger and discouragement about how the real estate and lending community let this get away from us….to now a sentiment somewhere between “ambivalent” to “I don’t care anymore.” Neither is probably too healthy.

  24. 24
    Andy says:

    Jonness,

    Pulling equity from your home (using it like an ATM) amazes me. Think about it, how did we as a culture begin to encumber our properties with additional debt (based on UNREALIZED price appreciation).

    I wonder why banks did not offer 2nd Liens on personal vehicles. Both homes and cars/trucks are depreciating assets. While we are at it, perhaps we can mortgage the family dog.

    Absolutely nuts. This debt bomb is so ugly . Also, amazing how the Federal Government is attempting to replicate the same behavior that got us into this mess (low rates/additional borrowing) to stimulate the economy…

  25. 25
    mukoh says:

    Andy,
    There is a difference an ATM or as a leveraged vehicle. I have a $250k credit line on one of rentals that I own a multi unit. It is at 9%. Whenever I need a quick movement of funds to cover a purchase I use the credit line to accomplish it. Then payoff the credit line. That is the way most multi unit investors do it. Its not a cash machine, its called funds availability.
    90% of the time that credit line is paid off and is free and clear of any payments.

  26. 26
    EconE says:

    Metro KC records are ok.

    Redfin is da “brown stuff”.

    For example. I know that I’m using L.A. for my example but we are a little further along. Not as much as you might think other than very subpar areas. However, here are two examples that will demonstrate the sheer insanity of the bubble near the peak, and one that shows a person that has seemingly “marked” to market with a true non bubble price.

    Make sure that you check out the birds eye views of the properties to get the best views for comparison and the google street view.

    I’m very familiar with L.A. proper Real Estate FWIW.

    Example 1. A 750+/- sf shack on a not very nice street with no parking (I have seen it in person) Purchased near the height of the L.A. mania in a good neighborhood at 625k. It’s one what you would call “the worst home in the best neighborhood you can afford” type of home. Or was it Real Estate Agents that said that? Anyhow…

    I give you….on the market for a blistering 553 days and listed as a short sale for 500k…still waiting (probably forever) for a buyer.

    http://www.redfin.com/CA/LOS-ANGELES/6215-GLEN-OAK-St-90068/home/7130346

    Example number 2 shows us why example number 1 is never going to sell…until pigs grow wings…as it is a house that was recently sold by an owner that paid $9,000 in 1967.

    Most likely it was a fixer (still a good deal regardless) as it was originally built in 1926 (good bones!), and the $9,000 “fixer” price would be in line as I actually saw old mimeographed listings recently from 1970-71 for comps in the 25-30k range. It recently sold for $520,500, yet appears to never have been listed on the MLS as there are no records for it on Redfin for listings. (Perhaps a pocket listing? A RE agent door knocking flipper?) However…the person had a a pretty decent return if as you will see. But oooooh the difference in the house.

    http://www.redfin.com/CA/Los-Angeles/2910-Belden-Dr-90068/home/7130034

    Now remember.

    1. use birds eye and street views to compare the homes.
    2. do a search for all the houses in 90068 and you will see how many delusional sellers (Bank, Homeowner, RE Agent…take your pice) You’ll also see a few knife catchers.

    Whoever has a buy side agent that can get them a non bubble deal such as example #2 has an agent that has truly earned their commission on a 500k+ sale and probably deserves a bonus and a medal from the N.A.R.

  27. 27
    EconE says:

    ooops…sorry…not $625k for example #1 but just over $600k purchase price.
    Regardless…that’s what a bubble looks like.

  28. 28
    softwarengineer says:

    DEBT IS DEBT

    I agree with Mukoh that lines of credit, even with 18% credit cards, paid back before the interest grace period ends, is a great way to track your expenses and pay them too [plus get cash back]. But buying a newer rental property for 50-100% above the monthly rent is like buying a time share you hardly use, so I assume your rentals were purchased before the early 90s, before the bubble inflation “investment” losses and I do hope you’re not losing mass money on your “investments” like the rest of us [i.e., negative stock market or dinky CD/MM rates] or have an ex-con in your rental unit destroying the place.

    Americans bought too many expensive automobiles and remodeling projects with their home equity, only to find out their vehicles and home remodeling projects are worth 30 cents on the dollar a few years later [or right after they contracted them], but the home equity loans keep going on forever and to think dim-witted accountants encouraged us to use home equity loans to buy bad “investment” cars with no title [many are still paying home equity interest for the old trade-in car they bought after buying two more later using even more home equity interest, etc, etc….].

    Its complete insanity.

  29. 29
    Stephen says:

    S-Crow

    In reference to post 23. I’m confused. You own a title company, didn’t you witness on a daily basis what was obviously just plain ol fraud?

    It just does not seem like this ‘got away from’ anyone. I’m not in the business and I had constant conversations with others (also not in the business) about the blatant fraud going on. If everyone outside the financial community saw it I think it’s reasonable to assume those inside the industry saw it as well.

  30. 30
    mukoh says:

    Stephen,
    Can you explain please the fraud with Title? Seems you might be unclear about what title companies do.

  31. 31
    Buceri says:

    Also, amazing how the Federal Government is attempting to replicate the same behavior that got us into this mess (low rates/additional borrowing) to stimulate the economy…

    Andy; we are addicts. Die or keep us alive with more credit. Politicians work for themselves, and the next election. “My re-election first”….err, I mean “Country first”.

  32. 32
    Stephen says:

    I certainly did not mean that the title company was committing fraud, very sorry for the way that came out. I meant literally witnessed what was clearly fraud being committed on a daily basis.

    For a title company owner to say ‘it got away from the industry” seemed a bit of a stretch. That’s all I meant, really.

  33. 33

    Stephen,
    S-Crow doesn’t own a title company. It’s an escrow company. While some title companies do escrow work, escrow companies just do escrow work.
    I can’t speak for s-crow, but in my opinion the real estate and lending communities “let it get away from us” partially as a result of fraud being committed by folks within the industry.

  34. 34
    Stephen says:

    Hi Ira,

    I thought his was both title & escrow, although I realize neither are, in any way that I can immage, responsible for this mess beyond having front row seats and I hope I did not offend :-)

    I just took exception to the phrase as it seemed to be very understated.

  35. 35
    Gene says:

    Contrary to what some commenters have said here, real estate agents do not keep this information from their clients. The key word is “client”. If you just walk into some open house then yes, they probably wouldn’t share this information with you. Why should they? But if you HIRE them as your agent, then they will get all this information for you, at no initial cost. Yes, they would hope that you would eventually find a house and buy it (and therefore pay for their time), but if that never happens, you’ve got your information for free. Redfin gives you a big reduction in fees with the understanding that you will do this research yourself. If you are not inclined to do that, the major companies such as Windermere, JL Scott and Coldwell Banker will all do that research for you, included in their price.

  36. 36
    Lee says:

    Hi Tim

    I just came across your blog. Thanks for the helpful information. Perhaps you or someone can help me. I have been researching county records on foreclosures. What I have been trying to find out is which bank is the current lender on the property? Because so many mortgage brokers have the loan transferred after the closing process and with all the bank closings, mergers and takeovers, the original bank listed on the Deed of Trust is not the current lender. If anyone can advise me, I would really appreciate it.

    Lee

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