Having worked with many buyers over the years to find the perfect place to call home, I'm often surprised at one small step that they hadn't considered as part of the purchase process-- a visit to the Town (or City) Hall Building Department. I know this is not a very sexy topic but let's face it, these folks are the keepers of all of the public documents- applications, permits, complaints, plot plans, etc., related to every single property in town. A wealth of information can be determined about the property under consideration in one quick visit.
Granted, it can be a hassle to get to the local town hall during regular business hours. However, keep in mind that you are making one of the biggest financial investments in your life, so it's worth the trip. I would caution anyone plannig to make the trek to check with the appropriate town hall (either via phone or on-line) to determine current business hours before hopping in the car. With the budget diliemmas faced by many municipalities, hours have been reduced or in some cases altered (late evening hours on Thursdays and half-days on Fridays, for example) to be more customer-friendly. I learned this lesson the hard way one Friday when I drove 30 minutes to do a property check for my buyer-clients only to find out that the town hall was closed on Fridays.
Once there, simply ask to see the property file. You can reveiw the complete file and make copies of any pertinent documents while you are there (usually for a nominal fee). Some documents may be stored on micro-fiche and you'll be required to use an archaic piece of equipment called a "microfiche reader" which was obviously invented prior to the digital age. The data collected can also be useful to your home inspector (age of roof, heating/cooling systems, hot water heaters, additions, electrical upgrates, etc.) It can also prevent problems at the closing table when you might discover that improvements to the property you are about to purchase have not been properly permitted.
One other benefit - town Hall staff can usually provide insights about neighborhoods that may not be otherwise readily available (i.e., is there a pending application for a cell tower next door, or a subdivision planned for the beautiful wooded area around the property you're considering?) While you're there stop in at the Zoning Office also (usually located close-by) to see if there's any unusual zoning restrictions or complaints in the area.
Buying a home, whether it's your first or your retirement home, can be stressful. Need help? Contact me for additional tips in the homebuying process.