Historical property records tell you things about a house that listings and inspections can’t. Instead of a snapshot of a house as it exists today, you can use records to see how repairs and improvements were done over time.

We've gathered the records from an example house in South Florida to illustrate just how useful the records can be for anyone buying a new house. They include everything from permit applications and inspections to architectural plans, and detailed diagrams done by licensed contractors. Here's everything we learned:

  1. Original construction materials
  2. Status of the electrical, HVAC, and roof
  3. Age and specifications of the pool
  4. Locations of buried gas and electrical wiring
  5. Presence of low voltage wiring
  6. Project plans and contractor names for past renovations

Keep reading to see how.

1. What's the house made of?

75% of houses in the U.S. are more than 25 years old. This pre-digital building record confirms what the property listing says and fills in things that the listing might leave out.

Original construction documents reveal and confirm all of the house's core components. This property card from the original appraisal tells about the sub-structure style and materials, framing, wall, and floor materials, sheathing, and type of roof. It also tells us about the house's original plumbing, heating, and electric systems.

2. Does it need new electrical work?

The most recent permit obtained for the electrical system tells us when the wiring was replaced (so we know it's not original), available amperage, and the actual location of buried wires.

Knowing the name of the contractor who performed the work can also be useful if anything breaks with the system and you need to fix it or file an insurance claim.

The permit application tells us that a licensed electrician redid the wiring, who did it, when it was done, and its specifications

The accompanying diagram shows where the wiring, metal and panel are - helpful for making additional upgrades or simply if you plan on doing any digging

3. Is the roof up to par?

Home inspectors will inspect the roof visually, but the full permit application can also tell you what the roof is made of, who manufactured the roof materials so you can confirm the quality, and the results of weatherproofing tests run on the roof after installation.

The roofing installation summary form is part of the most recent permit application for a roof replacement.

This diagram from the most recent roof replacement shows how each part of the roof performed in a weatherproofing test

4. How does the pool work and when will it need updating?

Detailed specifications about your pool may not seem useful at first, but you will want them if it ever stops working or if you want to change the pool in any way. Diagrams can help troubleshoot pool maintenance issues or simply tell you how old your pool is.

The pool project plans tells you about dimensions, materials, and plumbing components that make the pool work

Knowing where the gas lines to heat the pool are buried is also useful in case you want to do any digging.

The drawing submitted by the contractor tells you how the pool is heated and where the underground natural gas lines were laid

5. When were the cooling units installed?

HVAC equipment needs to be updated every 10-15 years and serviced annually. Before buying a house, knowing that a licensed HVAC technician did the full installation and when they did it lowers the chances of discovering major problems with the system after the closing date.

Diagrams showing the locations of air handlers and vents are nice to have for homeowners with questions about ventilation or HVAC improvements.

Location of air handling units, return air vents, vent sizes, and specifications of condensers along with installation dates and who installed them.

6. Were any major renovations done?

Knowing about additions can help explain disparities in materials used or quality of workmanship between different parts of the house. Permitting history for this house shows that a bathroom and laundry room were remodeled, who did the remodeling, when, and exactly what they did. This drastically lowers the chances of problems with the affected parts of the house arising after their closing date.

Plans like these tell prospective buyers that remodeling work was done by licensed contractors, approved by city officials, and that key components like the dryer vents and drains for laundry room were all professionally installed as part of the remodel

7. Has low-voltage wiring been installed? Where and how?

Rather than having to start from scratch if we want to set up our own security system or add home automation devices, we can see that the home already has low-voltage wiring. One control with five devices was added initially. Three more devices were added four years later.

Next steps

Every day, someone buys a house without ever verifying that the electrical wiring was installed by a licensed electrician, the plumbing is up to code, or simply knowing how to turn all the lights on. Sellers aren't much help once a deal has closed, but you can find out a lot about a house by digging up its public records.

Not every house will have records with the same level of detail as this example - but keep in mind that the absence of records can be a red flag in itself since it means that work was done without permits - and possibly without unlicensed contractors.

Ready to get your property records? Caretaker's property records service can gather the records from local officials on your behalf.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susannah Vila is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Caretaker. She is a problem solver, a writer, and an aspiring engineer.


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