How do you find out who owns a vacant property?


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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I’d like to buy the empty property that’s three lots down from my parents’ home and build a small home on it to be close to my family. How would I go about finding out who owns it, the cost of the land and who I’d contact to make that happen? I already have a builder lined up.
— Jacie J.

Dear Jacie,
Before you set out to find the owner, make sure you’ll be able to build the house you had in mind there.

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First, call your city’s planning or zoning department to check whether there are any right-of-way, setback, easement or other issues that would keep you from building what you want.

Then, try knocking on the doors of the neighbors on each side of the lot to see if they know who and where the owner is and why the lot remains vacant. If they can’t help you, type the address of the lot into a search engine.

Check government records

If you still draw a blank, county tax or property records will give you the owner’s name and address and possibly phone number. Most such records are online, but if they aren’t you’ll have to visit city/town hall or the county government building personally.

Since so many people have deep-sixed their land lines, you may not find an up-to-date phone number. In that case, you’ll have to mail your property inquiry to the address of the person indicated or stop by and leave a note.

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As a rule, the value of residential land is worth about a quarter of the home that’s on it, so you could gauge the lot’s approximate value by researching the taxable value of lots in the neighborhood that are of similar size, then doing the math.

A buyer’s real estate agent also could help you find the owner and negotiate the purchase, but I suggest you pay any agent on a fee basis, not a commission.

Could be lender-owned

Don’t be surprised if the property is owned by a lender. If it is, contact the bank’s REO (real-estate-owned) department or asset management department, and go from there. If the subdivision is relatively new, there’s a chance the property is still owned by a builder, which should be listed in tax records.

Realize you might come off as a motivated buyer, which could give the owner pricing leverage. Stress that you’re only considering the lot as an option, and keep your eye on other properties and homes in the area in the meantime. Ask the owner if the mineral and water rights transfer to you if you buy.

It’s also possible that the land is simply not for sale and belongs to a former homeowner who lived, or still lives, in a house nearby and is either banking it for later use or a later sale, or less likely, keeping it vacant in deference to a relative or friend.

Hire a surveyor

If your deal progresses, you’d be wise to have a title search done to be sure there aren’t any tax liens or other liens on the title. Then you can hire a surveyor to clearly define the property line, unless a recent survey has been done (unlikely).

Look for property pins or survey stakes on the periphery of the land just in case. A new survey could set you back $400 to $1,000.

One lot-buying obstacle that you don’t have to face is utility infrastructure, because the block already has it. But there will be utility connection fees to pay if you do build. Your builder would simply connect the lines. There also may be separate “impact fees” to pay to the city.

Odds are that the lot is for sale — for the right price. And if isn’t, keep an eye peeled for for-sale signs on or near the block.

Good luck!