That vacant house down the street has been vandalized more than once with no response from the owner. So for the protection of the neighborhood, you want to know how to find out who owns a property for free. That's one possible reason you might need to know how to find out who owns a property; another is that you may want to buy the house, and to do that, you need to contact the owner. To consider a third possibility, you may be interested in purchasing a property, and you know the current owner has been struggling financially and hasn't paid property tax for several years. Is that person still the legal owner?
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Tracking down the current owner of a property is part of the due diligence that must precede the legal sale of a property because for reasons of nonpayment of taxes or problems in the title history, the seller may not actually be the legal owner, and that will void the sale. Municipal works departments need to find owners of vacant lots when planning new streets or public thoroughfares, but when private citizens need property information, it's usually for purposes of potential real estate deals. Since discovery needs to happen before any type of transaction can be planned, let alone initiated, it makes sense to know how to find out who owns a property for free so that money isn't wasted unnecessarily.
How to Find Out Who Owns a Property for Free
Property ownership is public information, and you can find it in a number of public records that you can search for free. In days gone by, you used to have to visit the county offices and request the information from a clerk or search the records yourself, but these days, most of that information is available online. Determining property ownership can thus be conducted either virtually or in person.
Step 1: Visit the County Assessor
You can pay a visit to the assessor's office in person and get information directly from the clerk, which is as straightforward as things get. If you prefer to search online, enter the name of the county in which the property is located followed by "assessor." Some counties allow you to search by address, but in most cases, it's easier if you first find the assessor's identification number (AIN), which you can often do on the county's website, although you'll probably have to navigate to a separate page to do it. There is little consistency among counties when it comes to online tools, so the website may be clear about how to do this, or it may not. If the process is too confusing, there are alternatives.
Step 2: Visit the County Recorder
The person or entity recorded on the property deed is the owner, and this information is a matter of public record and is maintained in the county recorder offices. The county recorder also maintains records of births, deaths, marriages and the like, so searching for property ownership information could be complicated, and the search may not be free, especially if you request printed documents.
Step 3: Visit the County Tax Collector
Someone has to be paying taxes on the property in question, and that person is almost certainly the owner. Whether you look up the property online or go to the office, you'll need the AIN, which is known variously as the assessor's property number (APN); the section-township-range-area-block-lot (STRABL); or the section, township, range, area and parcel number (STRAP).
Step 4: Ask a Real Estate Agent
It's a real estate agent's job to be up on the details of local properties, and a well-established one may have a detailed knowledge of the history of the property in question, including the name of the property owner and perhaps even the contact information you need. On the other hand, the real estate agent may not have the information but may be able to direct you to someone who does. A local real estate appraiser or title company may also be familiar with the property and may have the information you need.
Step 5: Ask the Neighbors
You might want to do this first if you're in the area because it's the most obvious way to get information about a property in the neighborhood. Again, if the neighbors don't know, they may know someone who does. If this is the last thing you try after failing to find the information in public records, be careful. The information may have been suppressed for some legal reason, such as participation in the witness protection program, and your search may be considered obtrusive and could trigger legal action.
Ways to Pay for the Information
In some cases, the title to a property can be clouded by past history that includes unofficial property transfers, corporate ownership, outstanding liens and unpaid taxes. In such cases, the most reliable way to track down the owner is to hire a title company to conduct a title search, which typically costs around $200. The title search may not give you the contact information of the owner, so you may have to do some follow up detective work to find that information.
If you don't suspect problems with the title and you want the information more quickly than you can get it by searching public records, you can use a service like PropertyShark, which maintains a nationwide database of property information. You generally have to sign up and pay a one-time or monthly fee to use the service, but once you do, all you have to do is enter the property address, and you'll get the owner's name and, if available, the contact information.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.