The title search is the key word. You have to do a title search to know who is the owner (individual or a bank) and study the financial status of the home (mortgage balance, liens, back taxes among another debts)
It's a lot easier to just use a title company, especially when it's a higher-end property that requires a major investment and you have money to spare. Before closing, you can purchase a good title insurance policy will cover all of possible title problems for the owner.
If you want to find out yourself, you can get an online title report within few minutes on website such as http://www.nextace.com or http://www.searchq.com then you should exam the title and verify the records on your own.