If you’re in search of ownership info about a piece of real estate, you’re not alone: Thousands seek such data every day. Maybe you want to make an offer on that lake cabin you’ve had your eye on for years, even though it’s not currently listed on any MLS. Or perhaps you’ve spotted a “For Sale By Owner” sign on a cute home; you’re interested, but you want to make sure you’re negotiating with the real deal. Or maybe you see something unusual going on in or around a house, and feel the owner should be notified.

There are a few different ways to determine the owner of a home, a lot or piece of land. If you’re lucky, the entire process will take just a few minutes; even when you hit a snag, help is always available. Here are some ways house-hunters, potential homebuyers or inquisitive minds can conduct a search.

Public resources for finding a property owner

“The easiest way to find out who owns a property is to do a title search, because this is public information,” explains Lee Suryani, a senior real estate sales and leasing agent in San Diego. Of course, if you’re in contract with a home purchase, a title search is often standard operating procedure by your real estate lawyer. But even if you are not, you can do one yourself.

Believe it or not, a simple online search of the address may reveal who currently owns the property without having to pay a dime. If not, there are other public avenues to explore.

1. Consult the county clerk’s office

Since real property ownership is a matter of public record, info on sales, transactions and defaults — including the names of the parties involved — should be available at a particular department of your county or municipality: It’s often known as the office of land registry, property records or land records. You can get the data you need in person, on the phone, via email or even (in tech-savvy states) online.

2. Try the tax assessor

The person or company who currently owns a property is, presumably, paying property taxes on it. That means your county tax assessor will have a record of their identity and how much tax they pay. Google the name of the county where the property is plus “tax assessor” to get started. In some counties, you will need to pay a visit to City Hall to access the records. Other regions may provide online search databases. If you want a physical copy of the records, be prepared to pay a nominal fee. Otherwise, this is often a free option for discovering property ownership.

3. Pay a visit to the library

Your local library may also grant free access to public databases on their computers. Plus, the staff are prepared to direct patrons to reference materials related to property sales and ownership. If the home or building in question was sold a long time ago, your local librarian may be able to dig up physical records that are harder to come by.

Private resources for finding a property owner

If the public resources fail you, or you’re hitting a wall for some reason, you may want to go private, and pay a professional to get the info.

1. Consult a title search company

Suryani suggests reaching out to a property title company. These are the independent firms who do title searches during real estate transactions, to ensure there is no “cloud on the title” — that is, they “verify that there is no old claim against the property title, such as debts on the mortgage or a lien,” she says. While the company may charge you for their services, you’re guaranteed to come up with an answer. Any title company in your state can do an address search for you to discover sales records and the property’s current legal owner.

2. Talk to a real estate attorney

If the property is owned by an LLC or it is the subject of a probate dispute, finding the owner can get tricky. In situations where you just can’t seem to figure out who holds the title, a real estate attorney may be able to figure out why you’re hitting a snag and get to the bottom of ownership. This is a more expensive option than doing your own records search, to be sure. But if you’re really in a pickle it may be worth a shot.

3. Engage a real estate agent

Finally, don’t forget about how knowledgeable real estate agents are. Suryani says that anyone who works in real estate can run a title search for you. Many agents won’t charge for this service in the name of relationship-building; if they do, it might not cost that much.

4. Professional record-finding resources

If you’re in a position to regularly search for property owners — you’re beginning to develop a house-flipping business, say — you may want to sign up with a professional record search service. These firms sometimes charge a monthly subscription fee. In return, you gain access to fairly detailed data. You may even be able to track down the owner of a property who only has their PO Box listed. Some record-finding services include:

Final word on finding property owners

Finding out who owns a building or piece of land is usually simple, and has several advantages. It helps you guarantee that you only do business with the true, legal owner of the property. And you may be able to engage directly with a potential seller whose home is not listed, but who might be open to offers (in a hot market, every early advantage helps).

Often when you search, you can not only confirm who owns the property, but also unveil any existing liens or old debts. Public records will give you the name of the current owner and the current property taxes. You can also see when property transactions took place and an overall history of ownership.

Once you have the owner’s name, you may be able to turn to a grantor/grantee database (like this one for San Diego County) and see who the current mortgage holder is. You won’t be able to see how much money a property owner owes on their mortgage or what their payments look like, but you’ll be able to verify that there is a loan and who the lender is.

Of course, you’ll still want to get details about the property’s condition and eventually examine it firsthand. Still, finding the owner of a property is a good start if you want to make an offer or verify real estate facts.