How accurate are the County Assessor’s Records on your San Carlos home?
October 7, 2009
If I asked you to describe the basic specifications of your home (square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and lot size) could you do it? Sure you could. But the real question here is this: Would your answer be correct? How would you know? It all depends on where you get your information. Let's take a look at where most people get information about their homes…
The County Assessor's Records.
Probably the most common source of information about our homes resides in the San Mateo County Assessor's Records. When a home is listed on the Multiple Listing Service, the specifications of the home are most often taken from the Assessor's records. Why? Convenience and impartiality. Generally speaking, when the County Assessor's data is used as the source of specifications, the seller (and their agent) can't be held liable if the Assessor's data turns out to be inaccurate (disclaimer time: I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. So take this as a general guideline. Be sure to consult a real estate attorney if you have additional questions on this. ) So if the Assessor's records are being used as the default, how accurate are they?
“Reliable, but not guaranteed accurate.”
Over time, the real estate industry's dependence on the County Assessor's Records has led to a mythical notion that these records are somehow the “legal” or “official” description of the home, and therefore they're 100% accurate. In reality, they're neither. The Assessor's Office will be the first to tell you that the specifications they keep on our homes are for taxation purposes only. From those three words, you can safely assume that they aren't going to fret over whether the square footage of your home is accurate down to the square foot. So this means there may be a discrepancy between what the County believes your home is, and what you do.
Where do most of the discrepancies show up? Bedroom/bathroom count, and square footage of the home. To understand why this happens, you first need to know how the County gets information on your home. In incorporated areas like San Carlos, they rely heavily on outside sources — primarily the City building department. As a matter of course, the County gets copied on permits where work is completed for home modifications, so at least in theory they're kept “in the loop.” But if there's a mistake in the translation of the permit, OR the homeowner had work done without getting required permits, you can see how disconnects can happen.
When you're looking at a home on the MLS, how can you tell if the seller's specs (square footage and bedroom/bath count) actually correlate with what the County has on file? The answer is that you can't — short of running down to the County office and pulling the record on the home, it's not readily obvious to you. The public version of the MLS doesn't quote the source of the information. However, the agent-version of the MLS does contain this data, and any Realtor worth his or her salt should be automatically cross-checking this information to confirm the source of the information. On top of that, the seller (and their agent) are required to be forthcoming in their disclosure documents if they're stating the home is different from what is recorded in the County records. Does it always happen? No, and that's why you need to be aware as a buyer and ask that question of your agent.
Why does it matter?
Why should you care about a discrepancy in the County records? There are two key reasons why you should:
- Value. Square footage and bedroom/bath count have a direct correlation on the value of a home, even if the square footage is equal. For example, a 4BR/3BA home is generally worth more than a 3BR/2BA house of the same size. Bedroom count is especially critical, and it's important to remember this: A bedroom isn't a bedroom unless the City/County says it is. The seller cannot randomly refer to any room in the home as a “bedroom” — in San Carlos there are very specific guidelines on what is required for a room to be recognized as a bedroom.
- Liability: As we discussed earlier, discrepancies in the specs may arise due to un-permitted work that was done to the home. The buyer generally takes on that liability when they purchase the home, so it's important to fully understand what you're inheriting.
Remember that you may be a buyer today, but at some point in the future you'll be a seller — and it's important for you to know up front how you'll be able to represent your home.
How to find out.
It's not the end of the world if the seller's claims don't match the County records. Figuring out why is simply a matter of a little detective work. The records that are kept at the City and County level are all accessible to the public. Regardless of whether you're a buyer or a seller, it's not a bad idea to check both — especially if the home has been modified. Ultimately, if you're going to ask for changes to be made to the records, allow yourself plenty of time.