Research Can Be Revealing

Real estate transactions can be complex and often require the expertise of many different people, from lenders to licensed contractors. Realtors can help you navigate the whole experience by providing support within the scope of their license, and by referring you to others as needed.

Public Records Search

One way Realtors can support buyers is to accompany them on a public records search. Realtors should never do the research on behalf of their client, as you’ll see in a moment. Going to the county to review public records can bring to light important information, like a lack of building permits or whether any part of the property was ever red tagged (which is different than the information revealed by title companies).

In Mendocino County, during the 1970s a whole bunch of property files were misplaced. Understandably, county employees created new files for each missing property and added any new permits or relevant information to those files.

In 1985, a Realtor who worked for me offered to inspect county records on behalf of her client, rather than having the client view the information directly. In 1985, the folder for that particular property was clean. In 1988, her clients decided to sell. They didn’t disclose any red tags to their prospective buyers because they didn’t know of any. Come to find out, the county found some of those missing files and simply blended the old files with the new, and the property in question had a history of three red tags from 1978.

The new buyer cried foul, and because the Realtor did not require the buyer to accompany her to the public records inspection, the Realtor was at fault! And since California real estate law dictates that anything an agent knows, their broker should know and vice versa, this was also the broker’s fault (this is how I came to own this house).

So, if your Realtor refuses to do certain “favors,” it is probably because they know where their responsibilities and legal liabilities should end, and the buyers’ should begin.

Boundary Line Research

Another area that may require some research is boundary lines. Realtors cannot look at a property and tell you exactly where the edges are. Only a surveyor can do that. If you’re buying a house in a subdivision, there’s little risk in knowing exactly where the lines are, but in an undeveloped piece of property, be it commercial, industrial, agricultural, or residential, it can be a huge deal.

I once made a loan on brand new house for a guy who owned several acres outside of town. He built his house three feet from the property line, but the legal requirement was a six-foot setback. There was no fence between his property and the vacant lot next door, and it just so happened that the neighbor was an unhappy fellow who didn’t much like my client. The neighbor refused to allow a boundary line adjustment and instead, offered to sell his parcel to my client for double its value. Sadly, my client had no choice but to buy.

Sometimes, boundary lines are important not because of what is above ground (like a home or other structure), but because of what is below ground. If a property is for sale and there’s a well anywhere near the boundary line, I recommend a boundary line inspection, especially if the well serves as the only water source for that property.

All in all, Realtors can let you know which inspections you should order and what type of research you should do, but it’s up to you to follow their advice.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.

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