It seems almost negligent these days to go meet with a prospective employer, set your kid up on a sleep-over or even add an old friend on Facebook without first running the company's name, your kid's pal's parents or your old college chum through Google -- just to see. But it's nowhere near as common (yet) to Google or otherwise do an internet search for your home's address.
There are at least six compelling reasons it makes sense to do so, though -- especially if it's an address you're thinking of renting, buying or selling. Smart homeowners would do well to search for their addresses, too, and here's why:
#1. To See If Megan's Law Registrants Live Nearby
Safety first, folks. Megan's law requires law-enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders in their neighborhoods. Nearly every state that has a Megan's law-type sex offender registry has an online version that serves up the names, addresses, sex-offense history, and even photos in many cases, of convicted sex offenders who are registered as living at a certain address. Googling your address and "Megan's law" -- or even your city or zip code and "Megan's law" -- will turn up a quick list of nearby registrants. Alarmism is not a good look -- ever, but many homebuyers with young children highly value this information, especially while they are still in their contingency or objection period, before their home purchase is finalized.
#2. To Find Crime Reports and Data for Your Home and Environs
Cities, counties and state law enforcement agencies all post crime data online, but a Google search for your address or city and "crime reports" is most likely to turn up your local police or sheriff's office's crime map. Or, you can check out the crime stats around a specific property on Trulia’s Map & Nearby tab on the detailed page for your home's address. In my town, for example, you can see a crime map of recent incident reports for the whole city, by zip code, by neighborhood or by address. You can zoom in and out, and the map is in color and letter-coded with little icons representing different types of crimes: red is for violent, blue is for drug crimes, green is for property crimes; and the most common specific offenses reported get their own two-letter code. Whether you own or rent your home, if you hear a siren and wonder what happened, Google might be a good place to look.
This is also a good strategy for home buyers to leverage. In fact, when new homeowners Robert Quigley and Jennifer Friberg started developing headaches and other strange physical symptoms after moving into their first home, a neighbor dropped the informational bomb that the home's previous resident had been cooking methamphetamine in the home. In a panicky effort to suss out the truth, they Googled their address and - yikes! - found it listed on the Drug Enforcement Administration's database of meth labs! If you're considering buying a home, or moving to a neighborhood with which you are not completely familiar, doing a quick address search on Trulia or Google holds the potential to reveal some disturbing or comforting crime activity information.
#3. To Detect Scammers Trying to Rent or Sell Your House. In one of those if-only-they-would-use-their-powers-for-good-not-evil scenarios, Internet scammers have taken to ripping off home information and putting together fake listings offering other people's homes for rent or, often, lease-to-own. They often list the home on extremely cheap and easy terms, then ask the would-be-buyer or tenant to please wire or send the deposit money overseas, where the faux-seller can get it while they're traveling in -- you guessed it -- Nigeria. (And, BTW, I have friends from Nigeria who even distrust emails they get purporting to be from Nigeria!)
These scams come to light, most often, only after the homeowner or current resident notices all the bargain-hunting wanna-be tenants start peering in the windows and tramping through the backyard, checking the place out. If you are getting an inordinate amount of street or foot traffic to your home, or someone knocks on the door asking if they can see the place, you may want to Google your address. If you find a fraudulent listing, contact us, identify yourself as the home's rightful resident and ask us to take the scam posting down - stat!
# 4. To See What Your Neighbor's Place Sold for and Possibly Lower Your Property Taxes. In real estate, the value of your home is largely driven by what similar, nearby homes have recently sold for ("comparable sales," or "comps" for short). That gives every homeowner a valid reason for wanting to know what the neighbor's place sold for (on top of your purely voyeuristic need to know). If you search your address, Trulia will first surface some sort of image of your home, a map, the basic property details from the public records (see No. 5, below), and recent sales data for your own home before listing out the comps -- homes with similar numbers of bedrooms, bathrooms and square feet as yours, near yours, and what they recently sold for. Googling your address, in this instance, does double duty -- letting you satisfy your cat-killing curiosity to know what your new neighbor paid for their place, and track the value of your own home at the same time!
And as an added bonus, if you see a pattern of homes selling for lower than your home's assessed value, you can use those comps to petition your County to lower your own property taxes!
Three birds, one stone - you get the picture.
#5. To See Your Home's Property Records. It's a story as old as homes -- well, at least as old as websites that display home records and listings. Your home's records online are populated from the public records about your home, which are either so old they don't include the upgrades and additions that have been done over time, or they're just flat out wrong for a number of reasons. My last home, while large, certainly did not have the 25 bedrooms one site listed it as having. On the other hand, it also was not a boarding house, which is what that site listed as the property's County-designated use. If you Google your address, or search for it on Trulia, and find that your home's description is riddled with errors, contact us or your County public record agency to correct them; this is particularly important if you're planning to sell your home anytime soon.
#6. To See Your Home's Google Street Views. When you're selling your home, it's especially critical to see everything that prospective home buyers will see. That means checking out how your home's listing looks on all the online real estate sites (yes, even on Trulia), checking out the flier - even stopping by to check out any staging your broker or agent did if you've already moved out. One thing even most savvy sellers don't check out is the way Google Maps Street Views depicts your home. If you're unfamiliar, Google actually hitches up cameras to cars and sends them up and down public streets worldwide, so that Google Maps users can go from an overhead view of a street via satellite to seeing panoramic pics from the street from curb level with one click.
Trust me, home buyers know this, and do this. They often use Street Views as a shortcut for seeing whether a home's photos are just fuzzy, or whether it's next door to the local hoarder's house. Here's the problem: Sometimes, the street views can be outdated. I did a major remodel on my home a few years ago, and the photo was clearly taken mid-construction: with dumpster in front, unpainted siding and all. If you're about to sell your home, and you notice that the street view is outdated, mention it to your agent, and ask them to make a note of that fact in the listing information.
Note: This post first appeared on WalletPop.com on 12.13.2010.