How-To: Navigate and Understand Public Records

Yesterday a reader emailed me asking how to look up public foreclosure documents. Since it’s been over a year since I covered the topic of researching public records, I thought this would be a good time to review the process. In this post we’ll be discussing the process and providing links for King County. For other counties hit the Real Estate Resources page.

For the purposes of this post, let’s say you’ve found a home on Redfin, and as you’re looking at the listing photos, the obviously-vacant state of the home tips you off that this home just might be a bank-owned foreclosure. As an example, we’ll use 11715 7th Ave NE, listed last week at an asking price of $332,000.

First, let’s head over to the King County Parcel Search, click “Search by Address,” and put in the address in the required format (i.e. – 11715 in the “House Number” box and 7th in the “Street Name” box). That will pull up a map on the right side with the parcel outlined in purple, as well as a list of details and a series of links on the lower-left.

If you’re interested in how much the property last sold for (in a non-foreclosure), click the “Get Property Report” link to pull up the assessor parcel information page. Look through the list of “Sales/Quit Claims/Transfers” for sales with an instrument type of “Statutory Warranty Deed,” which usually indicates a standard sale. In this case, we see that the property sold for $210k in July 2001, and then sold for $400k in March 2006.

Grab the “Parcel Number” from the lower-left. In this case, our parcel number is 6413100232. Now, head over to King County Records and click the big “Records Search” box. Accept the disclaimer, then click the big “Search” link next to the text “Official Public Records.”

In order to find all the relevant documents, we’ll put in some recent date range (like 01/01/2008 to 02/15/2010) and down in the “Tax Parcel” box put the parcel number in the from and to boxes. Leave document type and everything else blank.

Here are a few of the possible document types that will be returned:

  • “Warranty Deed” is usually filed with a normal sale transaction.
  • “Deed of Trust” is the document usually filed that describes a mortgage or refinance. These are not available to be viewed online in King County but if you take the document # down to the records office in Seattle you can view it in person.
  • “Notice of Trustee Sale” is the document filed by the bank giving the mortgage-holder a 90-day notice that their home will be foreclosed.
  • “Trustee Deed” gets filed when a bank forecloses on a home at the public auction at the courthouse.
  • “Deed” can be a variety of types of deeds, including a “Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure,” which means the owner “handed the keys” to the bank without going through the full foreclosure process.

For this particular property we get two results: a Notice of Trustee Sale on 07/23/2009, followed by a Trustee Deed on 11/03/2009. Sure enough, this home was foreclosed by the bank in November.

If you click the icon in the “Image” column on the right for either entry, you can view a pdf file of the public records. The Notice of Trustee Sale indicates that the borrower was $16k behind on their payments on a mortgage of $453k. The Trustee Deed indicates that the bank (Aurora Loan Services) paid $392,476 at the public courthouse auction on 10/23/2009.

We definitely learned some interesting information about this particular home from the public records. At their current asking price of $332,000, the bank here is already accepting a 15% loss on what they paid at the foreclosure auction, and a 27% loss on the total mortgage amount. We also learned that the asking price represents roughly a 5% annual rate of appreciation from the 2001 sale, and a 17% discount from the early 2006 price.

Armed with the information that you dig out of the public records, you will hopefully be able to make better decisions about how to approach the possible purchase of a bank-owned home.

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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. Tim also hosts the weekly improv comedy sci-fi podcast Dispatches from the Multiverse.


  1. 1
    S-Crow says:

    Or, there are a couple video tutorials that address this at our company which may be helpful vs. reading text. Go Here

    It is particularly important to search by parcel ID vs. just a specific document, otherwise you’ll alienate potential documents that would be of interest to you that will not show otherwise.

    In addition, escrow has access to documents that are not available in a general search, such as IRS liens or judments etc..

    Happy searching!

  2. 2
    Hello says:

    Good info. Thanks, Tim.
    I googled around for the Snohomish County and found 2 sites with which you can do the same for that County.

  3. 3
    The Tim says:

    RE: Hello @ 2 – Um, from the first paragraph of the post:

    In this post we’ll be discussing the process and providing links for King County. For other counties hit the Real Estate Resources page.

  4. 4
    James Welle says:

    I noticed a home down the street from us was foreclosed. The address is 4141 SW Monroe ST in Seattle which has a parcel # of 3013300170. I noticed the foreclosure noticed on the door in December and I think it was auctioned off in early January.

    Zillow lists the house as worth $374K.

    The last purchase was 07-28-2005 for $316,600.

    However, a King County records search shows a “Trustee Deed” on 1/27/2010 and the amount on the document is $63,320.

    So does that indicate someone bought the house for only $63K. Or can a Trusteed Deed indicate something other than purchasing the property?

  5. 5
    Mark says:

    Lenders file a deed of trust when someone takes a mortgage out against a property. When the mortgage has been paid off, a full reconveyance is filed indicating that the deed of trust is no longer valid.

    Question: After a foreclosure when a trustee deed has been filed against the property, why isn’t there a full reconveyance also filed?

  6. 6
    Chris says:

    Short of going to the assessor’s office, is there a way to view CC&Rs on a potential property? I’m not interested in purchasing a property that has an HOA and would like a way to easily weed those out.


  7. 7
    JimN says:

    Hi Tim.
    Do we also learn from this example that the homedebtor also enjoyed $53k in equity since the mortgage was $453k and bought the house for $400? Would this be something the lender could go after them for in the future?

    If not, $53k’s not a bad trade for a few years of credit damage, although presumably some of this was closing costs rolled into the note.

    Hopefully they used any cash out to payoff their cars and credit cards etc, rather than plow it into the house. In any case, bubbleheads might be wrong after all – renters are just throwing their money away!

  8. 8
    Haybaler says:

    RE: James Welle @ 4
    Seems likely to have been a Second lien that foreclosed….My reasoning is that if the property was in good repair purchase bids would have been higher than 63K on a house that was worth 300K +….. So this foreclosed note probably was done subordinate to a larger one in First position.

  9. 9

    I sort of wonder whether you’re doing anyone a favor telling them how to do this. If they don’t know this, and a lot more, they probably shouldn’t be buying foreclosure properties.

  10. 10
    whatever says:

    Another good site for free data is

    (listing data is provided electronically by participating foreclosure trustees, attorney firms, and loan servicers.)

    You can search by current sale date, listings with minimum bids, what amount of $$ the bank accepted the offer or if it was reverted back to the lender, etc.

    Cool feature is the email notifications you can set-up for each property.

    After following a few dozen properties I’m surprised at the amount of properties that are not sold and reverted back to the lender — likely from what I can see it’s because the bank had an unrealistic high bid compared to the nearby comps.

  11. 11
    Everett_Tom says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 9 – I’m not sure if this is just used for foreclosed properties, though the example is one..

    I’ve used similar techniques when I was house hunting. (in other words, you could look at the size of the mortgage related to the price of the house, or to see if the owner was a serial refinancer). It was just another tool to use to look at a home you might like to purchase.

    We’ve also used it with the house we rent now to figure out how low our landlord could go on rent a still pencil even on the mortgage.

    I know not everything ends up filed, and the paperwork isn’t always perfect.. and it can be very difficult to understand.. but it’s nice to have another place to look and see if it lines up with what folks are telling you. bottom line, I feel more comfortable in a transaction when at least two or three sources of data seem to line up.

  12. 12
    wreckingbull says:

    RE: Everett_Tom @ 11 – Bingo. You can use information gleaned from these records to help you formulate the most effective offer.

    Also – don’t forget a permit search. This can save you a massive headache – especially since a lot of crappy DIY work accompanied the recent housing bubble.

    For example:

  13. 13
    ivan says:

    How far back do the King County electronic records go?

  14. 14
    ivan says:

    RE: ivan @ 13

    I guess I could have read the FAQs:

    I tried to request a document from 1971 but got no results. Am I doing something wrong?
    No, there are images and data from 1991 to present but before 1991, only maps and some marriage certificates have been back-scanned and indexed. In addition, data-only results can be obtained for recordings from 1976 to 1991. Images for these documents and any others are on microfilm and may be requested by mail or in person.

  15. 15

    RE: Everett_Tom @ 11 – I was just speaking in the context of foreclosures. As far as knowing how to use the public records is concerned, that can be a good thing. It’s just that purchasing at foreclosures can poses a lot of risks.

  16. 16
    BillE says:

    One way I use the public records is to look up pictures of houses in a neighborhood of interest. I pull up Snohomish County’s interactive map all the time to check out areas I’m not familiar with. There’s no guarantee that the photos are recent but in many cases it’s easy to get an idea what the neighborhood is like. Looking at the property details and clicking on Detailed Structure Information is a lot easier than driving 30 minutes to see the weeds and broken down cars in person. It also comes in handy when a listing is new and doesn’t have any photos yet.

  17. 17

    Bille, you can also use Google Streetview for that purpose.

  18. 18
    anonymous says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 15 – It’s also a good way to check houses you are considering visiting or showing the listing to a spouse, if you want to rule out the short sales. A lot of places won’t say anything about it in the public comments, but a quick search reveals notices of trustee sales with amounts bigger than the list price.

    I would also use it to check a place I want to rent, since a few rentals are being threatened with foreclosure. The landlord likely won’t tell you that there have been notices of trustee sales filed, but it could certainly affect you.

  19. 19
    Everett_Tom says:

    RE: BillE @ 16 – It’s also nice to see the house before it’s been “prettied up”. Once in a while we’d see stuff that had been covered over because the photo in the records was before they’d made over the front to hide issues.

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 15 – Then we’re on the same page :)

  20. 20
    Raj says:

    I just saw on public records ‘LIEN’ under document type. what does it mean?

  21. 21

    […] your fancy.First, head over to your local county records website. Using the steps outlined in this guide, search the last month (or the last two or three months) for all documents of type “Notice of […]

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