Public records are a good resource for determining whether your dream house is located in a safe neighborhood.

How to Use Public Records to Check Out a Neighborhood

You’ve found your dream home. It’s got the right number of bathrooms and bedrooms, and the living areas are just what you’ve always pictured. There’s just one thing: you haven’t checked out the neighborhood. Houses are moving fast and you need a quick way to assess the safety of your potential new street. Accessing public records can give you the insight you need, fast.

What’s Public, and What’s Not. If you’re not familiar with public records, you may be surprised just how much you can learn about a potential neighbor just by doing a bit of digging. Everything from marriages to divorces, bankruptcies and convictions are all available through public records. You can also find out employment histories and traffic tickets, and even hunting licenses and properties owned.

What’s not available through public records are items like communications between attorneys and their clients, as well as criminal investigation records.

It’s important to remember that while arrests are in the public record, it doesn’t mean that the person was convicted. Public records provide a lot of clues about people, but there are often situations where it’s necessary to dig a little deeper.

Check the Sex Offender Database. Every state is required to make available convicted sex offender records. You only need to enter your address or zip code and you’ll see a map or listing for the registered sex offenders in the vicinity. The site will list the specific charges the offender was convicted on and the date of that conviction. While you may never think it’s a good idea to live near a convicted sex offender, these concerns can be heightened depending on how close they’re living to your new house, and whether you have children or even grandchildren that visit frequently.

Some Records Are Confidential. You won’t be able to access the income levels of your neighbors through public records, nor will you be able to view their tax returns. You can’t determine whether they’re on Medicare or if their kids are good students. Academic achievement is not included in public records.

Try a Crime Mapping Service. If you don’t know the names of specific neighbors to conduct a search on public records, there are more general ways to assess the safety of a particular neighborhood. You can try an online service that maps crime in the area to see what the concentration is like in your neighborhood and those surrounding your potential new house. Take time to compare the rates in the street you’re considering versus averages for the area or neighboring areas.

Talk With People Who Live There. Your crime mapping site may have made your eyes bug out, but maybe there’s a lot happening in the neighborhood that’s cause for optimism. Talk to a couple of people that live there. Is there a new neighborhood watch program that has a lot of enthusiasm behind it? Or maybe there’s been a lot of crime in recent years, but a new set of laws is currently turning things around and the neighbors are excited to see changes happening.

Look at Recent Home Sales in the Area. Has there been a mass exodus from the street you’re hoping to call home, or has the neighborhood suddenly had a lot of homes for sale? It may be that when you look into those sales, you find that the homes were sold for well under the market value. It may begin to look like you’re getting your dream home for a price that’s suspiciously low, too.

Look at the Houses Themselves. Are houses in the area well-maintained? Check to be sure there aren’t any abandoned homes or houses that look like they’ve been in disrepair for several years. Don’t dismiss a neighborhood because of one house that tends a tiny bit toward the shabby; that may just be a sign that someone is having a short-term employment challenge.

In a safe, thriving neighborhood, the residents tend to take pride in the neat appearance of their homes and will probably spend time beautifying them with attractive landscaping and well-maintained lawns.

The housing market is hot, and you may feel there’s not enough time to investigate a street before you make an offer. That may have been true before the days of DirtSearch, where you can access an array of public records through a simple inquiry on the site.

Otherwise, you’ll have to apply in person and possibly pay a fee to access court documents, marriage records and employment histories from a local courthouse. Why wait in line and fill out paperwork when an inquiry on DirtSearch is so fast and convenient?

Don’t make an offer on that house before you use the public records resources listed on DirtSearch. Check out our easy and convenient tools for ensuring the biggest investment you’ll likely ever make is one you’ll never regret.