Anyone who has ever driven past an old, decrepit, abandoned property asks themselves how it ended up that way. Why is it vacant? Who owned it, and what happened? And, if you’re a real estate investor, you may even wonder if it’s a good real estate deal. But, how would you even get in touch with the owner if you decided you were interested in buying it? How do you even obtain the information on the house to see if you’d want to consider it? Actually, finding information on a vacant property isn’t all that difficult, and it won’t take up as much of your time as you may think it will. It’s pretty easy.
Here, you’ll be able to learn how to get that information for free, simply by accessing public records. Of course, if you’d rather pay someone to do it for you, you can do that as well. It depends on whether or not you feel like personally making the effort. You’ll discover how to go deep enough to obtain the records kept by the property appraiser, zoning commission, and tax collector. You’ll learn how to find out just anything you want to regarding just about any vacant home. You’ll also learn how to use that information once you’re able to get ahold of it. So, if you’ve ever wondered what happened to the old owner, what got them into such a position that they had to completely abandon a house, and how to contact them, read on. Here’s how to get the story on an empty home.
Accessing public records
The first step to finding out the status on a vacant home is searching through public records. Public records are 100% free, and they are what will give you an idea of who the owner likely is. They’ll also give you information that will help you decide whether or not you’d even want the property. Of course, the information will be basic, so you aren’t going to be able to make a firm decision based on it, but it will let you know if you even want to bother. After all, you don’t want to go through all the trouble of looking up the owner before you even decide if you want the property or not. Public records can be separated into the following departments:
The tax collector: Tax collectors are a department that each local government has (at a county level) that collects taxes on property. Just about as simple as it sounds. Depending on your state, they may be called something other than “tax collector.” No matter what it’s called, that’s what they do. They collect taxes on property. When these taxes go unpaid, they turn into tax liens. After remaining as a tax lean for a specific number of years, the property becomes a tax dead sale (sometimes called a quiet title, depending on location).
The property appraiser: Property appraisers determine the value of any given property. They work directly with the tax collectors. Why? Because the only way to determine what the property tax on a house will be is based upon what the property is actually worth. Every jurisdiction has a department that puts a value on every piece of property in that location. This includes (but is not limited to): commercial properties, homes, and lots of land. Before considering a house, you’ll want to know what the property itself is actually worth. That way, you can determine if it’s worth your time.
The recorded records department: What is the recorded records department? This department is better known as the “clerk of court,” or, “the register of deeds.” Like the first two departments, the title will depend based on where you live. This department literally keeps recorded documents on file against every piece of property. This means that every single deed of trust, every deed, and every mortgage is kept on file. Every county is going to have a recorded records office that holds information on every local piece of real estate property.
The planning department: The planning/zoning department holds all records of zoning for each piece of real estate in their own This department is also known as the planning/zoning department. They are responsible for all of the records of zoning for each individual property in their county.
How Can Each of These Departments Prove of Use to You?
The Tax Collector
You can find the tax collector website for your jurisdiction in two ways. It is going to take a little bit of digging. Reason being, that the department is not always called “tax collector” in every area, as mentioned above. The first way you can try to track them down is on Google. However, the best way to find this website is by going to NETR and typing in “public records online.” You’ll then have the option to select your state and county. There you can view the tax collector page on the vacant house after typing in the address. That is where you will find who the current property owner is. This is extremely important, because real estate investors prefer that a house be owned by the actual homeowner rather than a bank.
This public record will give you other information as well such as a legal description of the house, a parcel ID, and let you know if they’re current on their taxes or not. This information is not only valuable to, but crucial to, deciding if the investment is a good deal or not. You don’t want to do a deal without knowing the legalities involving a particular real estate investment.
The Property Appraiser
The website link to the property appraiser website can also be found from the NETR website as mentioned above. When you arrive at the website, search by the parcel ID or owner name. This is why it makes sense to look up the tax collector information first, to find that parcel ID number, or the owner. You have to have one of these in order to find the information. The property appraiser link is going to tell you exactly what type of ownership the property is under. It will also give you the history of the property regarding previous owners, sales, and any transfers. You’ll see what the sale price for every time the property sold, AND what the property was actually worth when that person bought it at that price. Useful, right? Other useful information that you’ll find from the property appraiser information is the number of bathrooms, the measurements of the floor plan, and the number of bedrooms.
More than likely, the property appraisal is not going to give you the precise market value of the house. A lot of them aren’t quite up to date. But they will let you know the value of the house that they’re actually basing it on. A specific set of rules are in place when it comes to determining property value. It wouldn’t hurt to learn what the rules are for a certain jurisdiction, as those specific rules will play a key role in showing you exactly how the property appraiser determines the value. Be sure to never use the property value alone to determine the value of the property.
This department holds any and all real estate documents that have to do with any given piece of real estate property. You can use this information to see if a house has a judgment on it, like foreclosure for example. Obtaining the real estate documents regarding the house is very important. You may find that it’s owned by the bank, not an actual owner. If that’s the case, you’ll know it probably might not be worth fooling with. Working with the bank is a lot tougher than dealing with an actual homeowner. And, if they’re in foreclosure, you’ll still be dealing with the bank. Dealing with a bank in a real estate deal isn’t ideal. It can be a huge pain. When possible, you’ll want to deal with the actual seller rather than a bank.
The Planning/Zoning Department
This is very important. If, for example, a property is located by a huge intersection in the middle of commercial zoning, it’s highly likely that the zoning has shifted into the commercial category. In this event, the house will probably be knocked down soon, to be replaced by a big commercial property. The GIS map is where you can find the zoning and planning information. You can literally google for the jurisdiction the house is in, or simply type in GIS map to find it. This site will also list the recent sales of property around the area which will be extremely useful to you in order to decide if the house is a good deal or not. In conclusion, those are the three places where you’ll want to look: the tax collector, recorded records, and the planning and zoning maps. So, between the records from those three departments, you are going to find out a whole lot of information about that property that will be extremely helpful.
Getting someone else to find the records for you:
Many people don’t feel like doing the due diligence to find out the information about a property, so they’ll look pay for it. And that’s fine, too. Many investors don’t have the time to sit there to do it because they’ve got so many properties, and others. Or, they just don’t like to do it in general. If you want to pay for the public data, the property record service company with the best reputation is CoreLogic. They have an app called RealQuest. Well, it’s actually a website, but once you pay for the service, the app is extremely useful and easy to navigate.
Another way to gain access to public record information is through the company RealList. In order to access RealList you’ve got to be a licensed real estate agent. This website is only able to be accessed through the MLS (Multiple Listing Service). And, in order to have that, you’ve got to be a licensed real estate agent. If you are licensed, and therefore able to gain access to the MLS, RealList is a great tool to use. They’ve got unlimited data to information about properties in your jurisdiction that will really be able to help you differentiate between a good deal, and a bad one.
So, how can you get in contact with the owner?
Only consider calling the owner of the house after you’ve looked up the public records. When you’re ready to contact them, you’ll find that at least one of their contact forms is listed in the public records. Handwritten letters are by far the best contact form to start out with. Mostly because it gets forwarded to them. They may be pretty caught off guard by a phone call, and get defensive immediately as they’ll wonder how you tracked them down. Plus, they are probably bitter already about the house in general. A handwritten letter is the best way to go.
Next, you can try “skip tracking.” What this is, is another way to look up someone’s information, but it digs a little deeper than public records do. The best service to use to dig deeper is called PeopleSearchNow. This particular website also lists members of their family’s phone numbers. So, if you’re having a tough time nailing down the owner, you can call one of their family members to try to find them. Finding a vacant owner can prove difficult, so unfortunately, sometimes you do have to go this route. The best way to find a vacant property owner is to knock on their neighbor’s door. Many people don’t do this. It’s so simple, that it’s surprising how many people don’t think to do this. Don’t be intimidated to ask a neighbor. Chances are, they’re not going to shut the door in your face. Instead, they’ll likely give you the owner’s phone number (if they’ve got it).