Locating Vacant Properties and Owners


Editors' Reply:
We don't know of a foolproof way to locate vacant properties. Perhaps you will be lucky and live in a city that has a good reliable database of such properties. But a determined owner can do many things to make a house look occupied. Unless you have some unusually good access to utility disconnection information or something, you're probably going to need to find vacant homes the old-fashioned way: drive around looking for the signs.

What are the typical signs of a vacant home? It could be anything from the lawn not being mowed, to multiple flyers stuck in the door, windows boarded up, no curtains or blinds, the same junk mail sticking out of the mailbox day after day.

Smarter owners will have someone nearby looking out for these things, so it will be more difficult to determine if the home is truly vacant or if someone is temporarily away. In these cases, you may be able to ask neighbors, although perhaps in suburbia, people are going to be more protective of their former neighbors than of you.

A house listed for sale with a real estate agent will be the exception. Often the agent thinks that if the house looks vacant, it will attract more visits from people who want to move quickly.

If you are looking for vacant property in your own neighborhood, of course a good tactic would be to see if there are ever any lights on in the evening, say on a Thursday or a Monday or another good night for staying home.

Some cities are now requiring property owners to register their vacant properties, especially business properties. See more about this on our vacant building registration page. Of course in that case the vacant building registration will be a public record.

Let's jump ahead and pretend that you've been able to guess with a fair degree of certainty that a particular dwelling is vacant.

The next step, as your question suggests, is locating the owner. Most counties now have placed their property owner database on line. We didn't check, but surely Orange County would have done that. A few places allow famous or locally famous owners to opt out of the public listing, but usually that isn't the case.

Generally it will be the assessor or other officer associated with real estate property taxation that will be maintaining the records. Sometimes it will be a recorder of deeds or other public officials. Most places in the U.S., it will be at the county level where you will find these records. Sometimes cities will maintain these legal records instead of, or in addition to, the county.

The same public data that allows you to find the legal name of the owner also gives an address. If you are lucky, it will be the actual owner's residence, but in many cases you will find that the tax bill is sent to a mortgage company, attorney, or owner's post office box, so that may not be of much help. However, it is an official contact method, so if you write a letter to the owner at the tax bill address, in due time you should receive an answer.

When you locate the property owner name, check for signs of foreclosure. If it's a bank, a mortgage company, a name such as "Realtors Something-or-Other," then you may have located a foreclosure.

That's good or bad, depending on your aims. Foreclosures may be good bargains, but your ability to perform inspections may be limited, your negotiating options few, and your response times greater than if you are dealing with a private owner. If you're up for the extra trouble and think you can rent or renovate the property to the good of the neighborhood, by all means, go for it.

Foreclosures also are likely to hide deferred maintenance issues. Sometimes the owners remove anything of value from the house, up to and including the kitchen sink, toilet, light fixtures, dishwashers, kitchen islands, towel racks, and more.

If the vacant home is in the hands of a private individual, you can try writing a polite letter, or an attention-grabbing one, to the address listed in the public records. If it's a post office box in some other city, be aware that you might have a long wait on your hands.

We would recommend getting on the internet and trying to locate a telephone number or e-mail address for the person as well. These methods are more direct and quicker than regular mail. If it's a well-heeled neighborhood you may even be able to find the owner through search engines and business directories on the web.

Sometimes vacant properties are owned by people who don't particularly want to be found, you know. The reasons for abandoned homes could be several, but usually it simply means the owner was "underwater," in that the loan is more than the current value of the home, so he/she/they decided to walk away.

You just need to beef up your detective work if you have someone who doesn't want to be found, someone who has moved around a bit themselves, or some entity with complex business arrangements. Don't underestimate the value of asking neighbors what they know either. Sometimes you might learn of an owner who is in jail, in a mental institution, or in a rehab or long-term care facility. Maybe the owner is in another city caring for a loved one and ultimately intends to return to the home and thus hasn't sold it.

Perhaps you intended your question to aim at discovering neighborhoods with unusually high percentages of vacant properties. Until recently, the U.S. Postal Service was collecting data on number of total residences and vacant homes, and making that data available by census tract. That wouldn't help you identify a particular vacant property but it would help you narrow down likely neighborhoods if you're an investor. As of now, this service does not seem to be active. If your goal was to locate neighborhoods with high number of vacancies, ask your city government or do some of your own sleuthing by driving around after dusk.

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