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A CARFAX for homebuyers

By Jay MacDonald ·
Friday, June 10, 2011
Posted: 9 am ET

I recently bowed out of a home purchase because of what I couldn't see as opposed to what I could. A previous owner had installed a new roof over a portion of the old one, leaving no room for an inspector to peer between the two. When active termites were discovered in an adjoining exterior wall, I had a pretty good idea where they were coming from.

Like CARFAX, BuildFax gives you a snapshot of a home's repair history.

Most homebuyers brace themselves for the odd DIY touch: the creatively wired appliance, the hinky plumbing job, the vents to nowhere. And we're often willing to overlook these flags as long as they're inexpensive to correct and don't affect the structural integrity of the home.

But I wasn't willing to take this particular lady-or-the-termite gamble. Lacking any documentation on who performed the work (best guess: a previous owner), I had no intention of paying for someone else's mistake.

So I was pleased to learn this week that the data crunchers at Equifax were partnering with the commercial and residential permitting database company BuildFax to provide homeowners insurance agents and homebuyers with a ready snapshot of a building's permit history.

Think of it as the CARFAX for houses.

For $39.95, I could have had a complete history of the home's building permits: the nature of the work, the contractor who performed it, permits approved, inspection results and the approximate value of each project to the home. As a result, I would have bought or not with more confidence in my decision. Had I purchased the place, it also would have helped my homeowners insurance agent more accurately set my rates.

BuildFax claims to have the 411 on more than 70 million properties in 4,000-plus cities and counties nationwide representing 60 percent of the nation's building permit volume. If you've ever dropped by your county courthouse to check a building permit, you can appreciate what a laborious and thankless task it is to collect that data.

And it's about time. For too long, homebuyers have been piggy in the middle: Many real estate agents can't be bothered to turn up accurate permit records and homeowners insurance agents will always err on the high side when setting rates, figuring someone's brother-in-law performed some DIY work somewhere along the line.

Like CARFAX, I'm jazzed that the widespread use of BuildFax can only improve our chances of buying a reasonably nonbooby-trapped house and obtaining a fair premium on its homeowners insurance.

What do you think?

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Jay MacDonald
June 28, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Thanks, Debra. I'd be curious to hear how it comes out for you. Best of luck with your home purchase.

Debra James
June 28, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Thank you for sharing this information. I am under contract to purchase a house in GA, and since I currently reside in CA cannot get the records on the house from the county (they are only available to GA residents). I have submitted a request through BuildFax, and am keeping my fingers crossed that I can the information that I want. The real cool part is that the BuildFax reports are free until July 31, 2011.