The New Search Tools

By: , Editor

It used to be that searching on your own for information about real property was a mysterious journey through government agencies, and sending letters of enquiry that might never be answered. By the time you learned anything, the opportunity you saw might have passed. With the invention of the World Wide Web, things improved, and have recently taken another leap forward with more public records online and more advanced aerial photography sites.

With as little information as the cross streets nearest a property, you can now find maps, photos and records as quickly as anything else on the internet. Use public records and aerial photography sites when you are:

• assessing communities for livability or zoning.
• assessing a community for the rate of appreciation.
• interested in a property not listed for sale.
• about to make an offer on a property.

The Parcel Map

A parcel map gives you some important data that makes other searches easier. In King County, the most useful is the 10-digit parcel number. You can get a map of the property in question with its parcel number and those of its neighbors. Go to the King County GIS Center Parcel Viewer. Click on the name of the search method you want to use, and again on the page where you see the viewer application.

You get a map showing the parcel with its number, as well as the parcels surrounding it. Note the parcel numbers of properties nearby that may pose a concern, such as large parcels that could be subdivided or rezoned in the future. You can click on the map with the Identify tool to get the full parcel number and links to the Property Report, the Districts Report, and-possibly-search results for permits from the Department of Development and Environmental Services.

The Property Report

On a property report, at a glance, you can see the appraised value for the last two years, the present use designation, and some details about improvements to the land. If you didn't follow the link at the parcel map, go to the King County Assessor Property Characteristics Report search page and enter the parcel number or address. Click Search. At the bottom of the report you will find links to other reports. The eRealProperty report shows the tax roll history with assessed valuations for the last ten years.

Aerial Photography

Now go to an aerial photography site such as Windows Live Local and see whether there's an image of the property you want to look at. Type the address into the "Where" field and click the arrow button. A roadmap appears with the location flagged. You may also see the address added to the "Scratchpad" palette on the right side of the browser window.

Tip: If typing in the address doesn't work, try the name of a nearby landmark such as a lake.

Then you can click and drag on the map to scroll to the area you want to see. Or, type in the city name to get a large map, then right-click near your destination and zoom to street level.

If there are aerial photographs, the Bird's Eye Notification appears under the compass in the upper-left corner of the browser window. Click on the Bird's Eye Notification. When the photograph has loaded, compare the image to your parcel map. If the location of the flagged property in the photograph doesn't match the parcel on your map, continue to look for the property that corresponds with the parcel map.

In Windows Live Local, the compass shows you the directions from which you can view photographs of the property. The zoom box may give you a second magnification option. You can click around until you have seen the property from every available point of view.

The limits of the aerial Seattle-area photos in Windows Live Local are bounded irregularly by these approximate locations: Seattle north to Woodway, east to Mountlake Terrace and Fall City, south to a point between Issaquah and Preston, Highway 18, west to Petrovitsky Road , a point north of Kent, and a point south of Des Moines. For areas outside Windows Live Local's zone, has fairly recent satellite/aerial photos.

Also in Windows Live Local, you can click the images in the thumbnail grid to see what else is in the neighborhood. For example, you may get an idea of the proximity of parks, schools, businesses, trees that might block the view, or other features that might affect values. Large cleared areas around squared rooftops may indicate industrial activity, the nearness of which tends to lower the value of homes. The age of nearby homes may give clues. If older homes are not being replaced with newer ones, the lots may be vulnerable to a zoning change. Large wooded parcels should be identified for their availability to developers. If a developer plans to build single-family homes, it can enhance the value of other homes in the community. Other types of developments may be less desirable from the standpoint of existing home values.

Aerial photographs on the web are generally assembled from small sections of a larger image. You can print what you see in the browser window, or you can save the image with a screen capture. To capture your browser window and its contents:

1. Launch your favorite image editing program.
2. Go to the browser window with the image you want to capture. Adjust the window size to show the area you want to capture.
3. Press Alt+PrntScrn.
4. Switch to the image editing program and open a new file.
5. Choose Paste from the Edit menu.
6. You will probably want to adjust the image size and resolution for optimal printing.

Zoning and Development

Zoning changes occur most frequently in highly congested areas or where arterial streets intersect. You may want to study how zoning trends that cater to nearby multi-family complexes and businesses may affect single-family residence values.

You can download pages from the King County Zoning Atlas. This information is general, so you should look up reports on specific properties for finer detail. You may want to find out how many and what types of building permits have been granted in the vicinity of the property that interests you. Here is where the parcel numbers from neighboring properties become useful. With a parcel number, you can search for unincorporated King County building permit information at the Online Search and Reports on Permits Applications page. Enter a parcel number, check "Available Historical Records," and click Search.

For advice on searching for building permits for parcels inside incorporated cities, contact us at

Rates of appreciation

Go to for approximate valuations. For sold prices as recorded by the County Assessor, you can use the King County Residential Sales Search. This system shows prices for general areas or specific parcels sold within the timeframe you enter. For example, you can select "Single Family Res Use/Zone" for West Kirkland from October 2005 to January 2006, and see the sold prices for more than 130 homes, four to a page. You can click on a parcel number to see the tax roll history with total values going back to 1996.

Generally, there is a 60- to 90-day delay before public records appear in online systems. If the information you want is not available online, contact your real estate agent who can obtain the information from other sources.

Making an offer

An attractive offer must cover all debts the owner has set against the property. You can search through all public records for liens against it, but there can be no guarantee that you have found them all. Your real estate agent has access to other search tools that can show the assembled financing history of a property, and has the third-party network resources to confirm the accuracy of the information you gather.

But most importantly, your preliminary investigation of properties using public search tools will enable you to discuss purchase scenarios with your real estate agent as an optimally informed buyer.

Return to The Search