Where to Get the Dirt on the House You Might Buy

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By Christine DiGangi

Prepare to go down a rabbit hole: Real estate data company RealtyTrac has just released the beta version of Home Disclosure, a new tool that puts a treasure trove of public data -- on more than 115 million homes in the U.S. -- at your fingertips.

There's a ton of data, including estimated property values, environmental risks, public and private school rankings, tax history, neighborhood demographics and crime. In all, Home Disclosure explores 42 factors that can impact a homeowner's "health, safety and financial security," the company says.

Home shoppers could always access much of this info through government databases and other websites, but Home Disclosure puts it all in one place. For now, the tool is free, though RealtyTrac says there will be a "full launch early next year." Currently, users can store reports for 30 days and print PDFs for comparison shopping.

The tool is designed to help homebuyers make educated decisions, but it's fun even if you're not looking (or don't have enough cash yet). I now know how much my landlord paid for my building and that he borrowed more than its current estimated value. I also know how much he's been paying in annual property taxes and where all the sex offenders live within a mile -- and what they look like. Other fun facts: There are dozens of reports on environmental hazards and my apartment has never served as a drug lab.

You can have a field day searching loan information on your neighbors' home, seeing how much your former house is worth and exploring the sex offender registry in your hometown. It's like the real estate version of Facebook -- and you may never want to log off.

If you're looking to buy a home, there's a lot of information you can harness to make your decision beyond home comparisons. You should know how much money you have saved for a down payment, how much house you can afford and where your credit stands. You can check your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

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