House hunting on a whole new level
"Why is this gorgeous, restored Craftsman so cheap? " I ask my wife. We're playing the "what's wrong with this house" game. She can't come up...
Special to The Seattle Times
"Why is this gorgeous, restored Craftsman so cheap?" I ask my wife.
We're playing the "what's wrong with this house" game. She can't come up with a reason either for the low price tag on the Greenwood-area home with four bedrooms and a Greene-and-Greene pitch-perfect interior.
I fire up my laptop, bring up a browser, and visit Terraserver, a mapping Web site. I punch in the street address and have an answer from a close-up satellite image centered on the house: There's a fire station practically next door to the 3,000-square-foot lot.
My wife and I have been searching for a home since our little boy turned 6 months old. We quickly developed a kit of online tools that provides information on a home before we ask our agent to show us the 50th — or is it 70th? — home so far.
Online tools for street and satellite mapping are easily available. Couple them with city and county resources that let you find out the permit, tax and other details about a home, and you can quickly dismiss unpromising homes — or find an overlooked gem.
And you can peer into the future by examining permits that have been issued for projects in the vicinity of your potential new home.
King County for Geographic Information Systems Viewer Map Center
Department of Planning and Development (DPD)
Personal eye in the sky
Microsoft made waves several years ago through Terraserver (www.terraserver-usa.com), a massive searchable database of satellite imagery. They intended it as a demonstration of their computing might, but it's awfully useful for those with no interest in machines. (The company no longer operates it directly, but it still hosts the Web site, which is regularly updated.)
Terraserver lets you enter a street address to pin a dot on their maps or enter an exact latitude and longitude such as you might gather from a GPS (global positioning satellite) receiver.
For Seattle and its environs, Terraserver typically shows three matches for any address: a set of 2002 close-in maps of urban areas at about 20 meters to the inch, a set of 1994 aerial photos at 75 meters to the inch, and topographical maps that show schematic features, terrain elevation, and landmarks.
Terraserver isn't the only mapping option: Google Maps (www.maps.google.com) can pull up street maps and satellite maps, with a link that you click to switch back and forth. But Google's satellite maps have much less detail.
Using a satellite map lets you see the context of a house you might buy that driving around might not reveal. Commercial buildings might be obvious from a car, but a landfill over a nearby ridge or a school a block away past a dead-end street would be harder to see.
It's also a terrific way to preview a house from the air. You can't examine house features, but you can see whether the house is in proximity to elements you're not interested in, such as a busy arterial or large parking lots.
Much of this information is also available from King County and the city of Seattle's Web sites but the learning curve for those tools is a bit steeper.
King County has a little treasure in its GIS Viewer Map Center. GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, which is a way of attaching information to maps, more or less.
GIS is typically rather elaborate and requires special expertise. King County has removed much of the complexity, but you still have to learn to follow the system's conventions.
If you visit the GIS Center by starting at www.metrokc.gov/gis/mapportal, you can quickly locate a potential house's parcel number by clicking the green "Start" arrow next to "Search by Address."
Instead of entering a street address and city, you simply enter the house number and the street name — the system is clever enough to find the right match among all the addresses in its database. If more than one address matches, you can click on the correct one.
For a single match or when you select one of a set of multiples, the map to the right of the screen updates to show that particular parcel, or county-defined section of property, along with all nearby properties. On the lower left of the Web browser, you see the current owner and links for property reports.
If you want to navigate through the map, you can click on tools at the right. I find the "Identify" tool highly useful. With this tool, I can click on any parcel in view, and the information in the lower left of the screen changes to show the owner and street address. Gathering information about nearby houses will be helpful when you try to plot out whether there's upcoming construction happening nearby.
The GIS Center also offers broader mapping tools that combine topographic data with aerial maps and parcel information: Click the Maps link on the main GIS Center page, then click the iMap link. On the iMap page, click "Start iMap."
By entering a parcel number or using a street address, you can zoom in to see detail that might help you understand a neighborhood.
For instance, enter the address of a house you might buy, and check the "Property sales in the last 3 years" box in the "Map Layers" list on the right side of the Web page. Click "Refresh Map" at the bottom. Use the "Zoom Out" tool to get a view with more properties in it.
In my Montlake neighborhood, it looks as if one quarter of all homes have been sold in three years: The blue outlines of sold property tell a story, and they can help you know if a neighborhood is in transition.
Tax and lot records
Now we move on from visual records to the more tedious but detailed property records. The city of Seattle and King County make available detailed public information about the past and present of a given lot.
By using the GIS Center described above, you can select any parcel and follow links to the Assessor's Data Report. This report shows the current owner, the last two years' of assessments and property taxes, and a fair amount of detail on the home, including interior square footage, number of baths by type (full, 1/2 and 3/4) and lot size.
You can find the last few years' worth of property tax detail by clicking the Property Tax Information link at the bottom of the assessor's report page.
The county's information isn't always up to date: My house is supposedly heated by oil, which has been untrue since at least 1980. But it's a good starting point to see what's on the tax rolls for size and find out any discrepancies between the listing, what you see in a potential house, and what the county thinks it's taxing.
Working back through the tax records lets you see how fast the house appreciated or how previous renovations or additions affected the value — up or down.
Permits by place
Househunters should be urban archaeologists who try to unearth the particular history of a home they plan to buy because so many houses in Seattle are an accretion of change and detail. My current home has had the basement stairs moved, a cantilevered room added, and we think, several interior doors moved around.
Seattle residents have access to a wealth of permit and citation information dating back to 1993. The data is provided by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Web site. These permits don't have long descriptions of projects, but it allows you to view a condensed history of legally approved changes.
It can alert you to changes that weren't carried out under permit and might require additional inspections for electrical, plumbing, or carpentry work. It can also disclose whether previous owners have been cited for zoning problems at the house.
Start at www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research and click the first link under "Permits" to make an exact search. The city requires that you separate out each part of the address into a separate field, including street number, directionals (like NE or S before and after the street name), and street type like Ave. or St.
All of the permits issued are listed, if any, and you can click through to read the details on each.
If you'd like to review the neighborhood and see what projects have been done, citations issued, and other contextual information, the DPD offers its own GIS service, but it requires Windows and Internet Explorer to operate.
From the DPD "Research" page, click "Maps," and the click DPD GIS. Enter the address of the house you're interested in, and then in the upper right of the window under "Using this tool" select "Select by rectangle." This lets you draw a rectangle around several parcels and receive summary information for them that you can then click through to see details.
Because so many homes in the Seattle area are being sold with no contingency for inspection — requiring either no inspection at all or a quick pre-inspection — it's more critical than ever to use every bit of research that you can have at your fingertips.
The King County and Seattle resources can't tell you whether or not to buy a house, but they can give you as much insight into the character and development of the home and neighborhood as possible.
Glenn Fleishman: email@example.com