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.