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If you’ve spent any length of time living in a neighborhood or an apartment community, you’ve almost certainly had the experience of wondering just who, exactly, is that one oddball neighbor? Maybe they keep strange hours, maybe they’re the source of obnoxious noises, maybe they seem to have an unusual fondness for a particular type of sparkling water — whatever the case, sometimes you’d like to know more … but it feels weird to go knocking on doors.
In lieu of introducing yourself and striking up a conversation, it’s often possible to find out who owns property in your neighborhood (or anywhere else, for that matter) without a great deal of legwork. And since wondering who owns a house doesn’t always mean you’re just a nosy neighbor — sometimes this information is helpful for business opportunities or negotiation purposes — knowing how to look up ownership records can be a useful skill.
Let’s explore a few different ways to find out who owns what, no binoculars required.
We’re going public (records)
Public records are a treasure trove of information on so much more than just matters of real estate. Births and deaths, marriages and divorces, tax liens, bankruptcy rulings, and census data are just a few examples of information available to anyone who is willing to look it up.
When it comes to property records, you can find out about a home’s sales history, tax history, liens, easements, zoning information, lot size — all of it. In fact, when you purchase a home, a thorough title review is conducted as an essential component of the closing process. The title review functions as a background check on a property to make sure the deed is free and clear of any liens or ownership disputes that could impede your ability to complete your purchase.
Fortunately, an exhaustive (and potentially pricey) title review isn’t necessary when you’re simply curious about who owns a particular property.
Visit the assessor’s office
A county assessor’s office is a government entity responsible for identifying taxable properties and assessing the fair-market value for tax revenue purposes.
Assessors’ offices will generally have the following records available:
- Property tax bills
- Property values and tax estimates
- Land records
Some counties will offer a database of accessible information online, while others may require a phone call or an in-person visit to track down the details you’re searching for.
Finding the assessor’s office is easy: As long as you know the county in which you’re searching for property ownership info, simply run a Google search for “assessor’s office [county] [state],” and you’ll be able to get started.
Visit the recorder’s office
As the name suggests, the duty of a county recorder’s office is to publicly file official documents related to property and people.
These records include:
- Property sales
- Property liens
- Notices of mortgage default
- Births and deaths
- Marriages and divorces
Similar to the assessor’s office, you can Google to find the recorder’s office of your desired county. Some or all of these records may be available online (depending on how digitally savvy the county is), and more information is typically available by phone or in person.
Visit the tax collector’s office
Perhaps the most obviously named of the three, the tax collector’s office is responsible for collecting taxes. This office may sometimes share a building with the assessor’s office, but its operations differ.
Depending on location, the tax collector’s office in the county of your property in question may keep track of the following records:
- Property taxes (on both residential and commercial real estate)
- Motor vehicle registration
- Occupational licenses
- Recreational licenses (think hunting and fishing)
And yes, you guessed it — tax collection offices are easy to search for and often have records available online if you prefer not to spend more time than necessary at a government office.
Talk to your real estate agent
Another potential avenue for finding out who owns a house in your neighborhood is your real estate agent.
Not only are agents usually well-connected around town, they also have access to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) — the premier database of real estate professionals. The MLS has all the specific details of homes that have been listed for sale (such as bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, and so on), and it commonly contains information on tax records and previous owners, as well.
“I get everything from the MLS,” he says. “It has everything I need.”
Well … that is, everything except for the occasional piece of ultra-specific information that goes beyond a recorded name on the deed.
Ford explains that he once had a buyer who wanted a particular paint color on their new-construction home that wasn’t offered by the builder. “So,” says Ford, the buyer “showed me a house in that color, and I knocked on the door to ask them the name of the paint.”
Try receiving that level of service from a government agency!
Property look-up: For a purpose or as a pastime?
There are many reasons why someone might want to know who owns a particular property — human curiosities notwithstanding.
Professional reasons for researching ownership records may include:
- Business development. Home service providers (think landscapers, plumbers, roofers, and so on) looking to grow their business can reach out to homeowners to drum up new customers.
- Investments. Investors with an eye on a vacant property may want to find out who owns a place to see if they’re interested in selling.
- Direct purchase. A potential buyer can contact a homeowner whose house is not on the market to see if they’re willing to sell.
- Market trends. Keeping an eye on the occupants of commercial properties or watching who’s coming and going around new neighborhoods can offer valuable insight for housing professionals.
And sometimes, of course, it’s just interesting to know what’s happening.
April Blake, a freelance writer based in Columbia, South Carolina, admits to regularly nosing around public property records.
“I definitely look people up online,” she says. “Sometimes I want to know how much someone paid for their new house, and sometimes I want to know things for other reasons.”
Those reasons can certainly vary for a journalist, but Blake turns to the county for her more detailed inquiries. “I look at the county judicial index, which shows civil, criminal, and traffic offenses. It also often includes addresses,” she adds.
“Your mileage may vary depending on state and county laws, but it’s worth first looking up records on the government website for free.”
Additional record-finding resources
Aside from the government offices discussed here, there are numerous other resources you can consider during your search for property and personal records. Some are free, some are paid, some have access levels for both — it all depends on what you’re trying to find and how badly you want the information.
- Ancestry has a land records database.
- US Land Records offers information on a handful of states.
- If you’re digging way back, the National Archives or Bureau of Land Management may prove useful.
- Landgrid is a mobile phone app that offers free land parcel lookup, or, with their paid version — which starts at $10 per month or $100 for a year — you can also have access to census data, maps, surveys, enhanced filtering options, and more.
- PropertyShark starts at $59.95 per month, but this is one of the more in-depth real estate data websites around.
- Mashvisor is geared toward investors and starts at $17.99 per month for income and ROI analysis reports.
- Services like Data Tree and CoreLogic are high-level analysis platforms, but pricing is not transparent, and they’re geared more toward business or government professionals than everyday buyers.
For the common homebuyer, it won’t really matter who owns a particular property. If a home is on the market, your agent will already have access to pertinent information through the MLS. If a home isn’t on the market, and you’re interested in attempting to buy it, then sure, there’s merit in contacting the owner to get a feel for their willingness to sell.
Everything else, though, is mostly curiosity. Tidbits like how much someone paid for a home, how many times a home has been bought and sold, or what year a home was built is all readily accessible information if you know where to look — and now, you do!
Header Image Source: (Francisco Gonzalez / Unsplash)