There is an amazing amount of publicly available information on homeowners and properties in the city of Boston. Here’s how to find out what you need to know:
WHO PAID WHAT?
The easiest way to find out what someone paid for a property in the city of Boston (or anywhere in Suffolk County) is to go to the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds website (www.suffolkdeeds.com). Click on "Document Search". You can search by name or by property address. You can find out what someone paid for a property, plus how much they’ve borrowed from the bank to pay for it. It can take a fair amount of sleuthing to follow the paper trail, especially if the owner bought the property with someone else, or the address can be spelled out a lot of different ways.
CONDO DOCS – UNIT DEEDS AND MASTER DEEDS
If you’re buying a condo, you should always check out the condo docs. These include the Master Trust, the Master Deed, and the Unit Deed. Go to the Suffolk Deeds website to research these, as well. You don’t want to buy a condo only to find out after you move in that they don’t allow pets, now, do you?
WHO OWNS IT AND ARE THEY PAYING THEIR PROPERTY TAXES?
The city of Boston has a crummy website. Ugly to look at and hard to navigate (I dare you to try to find the Boston Redevelopment Authority pages within it).
It does a fairly good job of keeping track of who owns a piece of property, however. The web address is www.cityofboston.gov/assessing/search. You can type in an owner’s name or property address. This way you can find out who owns the property, as well as its assessed value, as well as whether or not the current owner has been paying his/her property tax bill.
Trouble is, the data is only updated when property tax bills are prepared, at the start of the fiscal year (July 1st). If a property is sold anytime after that, the City’s website is not updated. The old owner’s name will still appear as the current owner.
HAS ANY RENOVATION OR CONSTRUCTION WORK BEEN DONE ON THE HOME?
Just a couple years ago, the City put all of their building permit information online. This is a huge help to anyone looking to find out the history of a building and any renovations / construction that may have taken place over the years. Go to: www.cityofboston.gov/isd/docroom/docsearch.htm (unfortunately, it appears to only work with Internet Explorer, if you use Firefox, it’ll just bring back a blank page).
It is very important that past owners have filed building permits for any work on a property you are buying or own. If permits were pulled, the City will have had to approve any work completed, meaning you can be more comfortable that the work was completed, satisfactorily, and is "up to code".
You will be amazed at what else you find out. I had clients who bought on Dartmouth Street, in the South End. I wanted to make sure there was nothing in the building’s history to be concerned about. I researched the ISD site, only to find a very disturbing piece of history. There was a police report on file from 1931. The police had been called to the building, then a rooming house, because a woman had been found dead in an upstairs apartment. She had killed herself, by asphyxiation. She was "despondend (sic) because she was out of work and without funds". The city sent out a building inspector to make sure the gas piping was working correctly.
In fact, I’ve found two such reports, over the years.