This article is by By D. Bruce Heakes, Underwriting Counsel, TitlePLUS
For the most part, gone are the days when real estate lawyers and clerks knew all of their clients personally and were familiar with all of the properties with which they were dealing. In order to run a viable real estate practice, today’s real estate practitioners often have to provide expert opinions on properties using only the data with which they are provided. This data may include an Agreement of Purchase and Sale, the title search, and perhaps a real estate listing. When questions arise or clarification is required, the quickest and least expensive tool in the real estate practitioner’s arsenal is an internet image, mapping, and/or word search.
If you are not familiar with a particular property, an aerial view can be extremely useful. An aerial view can show the local topography, access routes, the presence of any unusual structures, and the general layout of the property. A complex “together with” legal description becomes easily understood when you see that there is a dog-leg laneway servicing the rear of the property. Plowed fields or large orchards might indicate that there is a farming or commercial component to the property which was never mentioned to you.
The Google Street View (a feature of Google Maps that lets you zoom right down to the street level view) of a property can be even more revealing. It enables you to virtually walk around in front of the dwelling. It is far easier to see the actual physical extent of an encroachment when you are (virtually) looking right at it. You can quickly determine if a ten foot easement covers half of the property, or a tiny portion of the property. If the Street View of the dwelling shows three mail boxes and three hydro meters, that is a fairly strong indication that the property is being used as a multiple unit dwelling, regardless of what the Agreement of Purchase and Sale disclosed.
By entering a property’s address into a search engine, the results can provide you with information which cannot be easily gleaned from the information with which you were provided. A hit for “Apartment in Triplex for Rent” is another good indication that the property is being used as a multiple unit dwelling. Finding newspaper articles or information indicating that the property was once used as a major grow house, or pictures of a house-gutting fire might explain the “As Is” condition contained in the listing and Agreement of Purchase and Sale.
If you have concerns about the identity of any of the parties to a transaction, try searching their names or company names, and then viewing the related images and websites. You might not be successful, and the results may not be entirely reliable, but it only takes a few minutes and can sometimes yield useful information.
Finally, when using these investigative tools, you must always keep in mind the limitations of these searches. What you are seeing may not be up to date or be entirely accurate. Properties change. Still, these searches can be done in a matter of minutes, and can potentially provide you with a much clearer picture of the property with which you are dealing.