It happens all the time. I'm driving down a road I haven't been on in months, turn the corner and BOOM. There it is--a vacant house. Hmmmmm....this could be interesting, but I'll need to do a little checking before getting my hopes up.
My first stop is the tax assessor's office to determine who owns that vacant property. With an owner's name, I can head over to the recorder's office and figure out what they owe on the thing. Sometimes, it's easy. Here's a deed, there's a mortgage, and that's it.
Other times, it isn't quite that simple. There may be a bunch of documents to wade through. But that's okay, it's my job. If it takes an hour, I spend an hour. I know if it leads me to a bargain deal, it will be time well spent.
Once I've got a pretty good idea of what's owed, I take a long hard look at that property and determine in my own mind if there's any real value there. I need to see equity, and if it isn't there, I just forget about it and go on to the next one. But, if there's equity (and sometimes there's gobs of it), I get busy.
I know, in all likelihood, finding that homeowner is going to be the key ingredient needed to put a deal together on the property. Sometimes I can work it without the homeowner but, generally, it's a whole lot easier working together.
10 ways to find the vacant property owner
Here's how you find the owner of vacant property:
(1) Call Information. It's so obvious it's often overlooked. There's no need to jump through all the hoops when the operator may have their info right at her fingertips. Calling information is always my first stop.
(2) Visit the neighbors. The fastest way to find the owners is nearly always from a neighbor. I just knock and ask if they know anything about the vacant house next door. Often, the property has become a bit of an eyesore, and when a neighbor hears I'm interested in fixing that, they tell everything they know.
Listen carefully, because even though they may not know where the owners are now, they may know someone who does, or they may know where they worked or who they hung out with.
(3) Go To The Assessor's Office. I like to head back to the assessor's office to see where they've been sending the tax statements. I also want to see if they own any other property. If I find other addresses, I make a note of them.
(4) Visit The Recorder's Office. Back at the recorder's office, I pull up every document they've signed in the last few years and look for any other addresses. It might be on a deed or a mortgage or on something else, but I won't know that until I look.
If I find a VA loan, I'm guessing they got transferred. You may know that there are "locator" offices with each branch of the military and for a nominal fee, if you provide them with a name and social security number, they'll give you the owner's current location. If they're military, I put the locator to work for me.
(5) Look For Marriage License Applications. At the recorder's office they also file marriage license applications. When I see one, I glean whatever information from it I can. Ours include addresses, birth dates, social security info and, often, employment.
I gather that information on both the groom and the bride. The bride information is particularly important because with a unique maiden name or with a previous address, I can often find a family member who knows where they are now.
(6) Check Voter Records. Also at the recorder's office in my county is the "elections" department where voter records are kept. Yes, that info is public record and available for the asking. Just plug in a name and the computer spits out whatever they've got on them. Often, it's their current address.
(7) Search Courthouse Records. Next, I'm off to the courthouse. I pull everything I can find on the computer and look those files over for any leads they might contain. If they've been sued and garnished, I've got an employer.
If they've recently divorced, I've got more info than I want to know. Whatever cases are down there, I just pull the files and jump on in, looking for any piece of information that might lead me to their present whereabouts. On the same computer, I can pull up all the Probate information. It's always a good idea to check. Ditto for the Criminal courts (you have lived until you've made offers to guys in prison).
(8) Look For Motor Vehicle Records. Driver records in my state are confidential. No access, and that's probably a good thing. But, if you know what to ask for and where to get it, you can get motor vehicle records.
It's a little antiquated and you have to use the microfiche, but with a name, you get a list of every vehicle they own. Type those plate numbers into their computer and you get the state's most current address on them.
(9) Use CD ROM Phone Books. Those phone books on CD ROM are pretty good, but only if the owner has left town months and months (if not years) ago. I use them more to locate people with identical last names or earlier addresses.
(10) Hire A Skip Tracer. There are professional skip tracers who will, for a fifty dollar bill, run a couple national computer searches. When all else fails, I fax them a name and last known address and within twenty four hours, I know if they get a hit or not. They don't always get them, but definitely worth a shot.
Of course, this is how things work in my area with the various public records offices. Your situation and access will be different. Generally, the ideas are the same, you'll just have different ways to get at the info.
I know, it sometimes looks overwhelming. Really, there isn't much to it. I just gather the information and follow up with it as best I can. If I get a telephone number, I give them a call. With addresses, I send letters left and right (including to the property address) and hope to hit a current address or, at the very least, get back a forwarding order.
Do the same and you'll likely find whoever it is you're looking for. Still not convinced? Believe it...that's how I first tracked down the girl I later married (BWD 850 - blue Chevy Monza). But be careful here, I think they call it "stalking" nowadays!
About the Author:
Joseph M. Kaiser is a highly successful real estate investor who is a real doer. He is proud to be out, pounding the pavement nearly every single day, looking for the next bargain property to add to his investment portfolio.
Joe started investing in real estate in the mid-1980s and soon found his niche in foreclosures and lease options. He is the master at tracking down motivated sellers.