Buying & Selling Houses

5 Ways to Find the Owner of a Seemingly Vacant Property

Expertise: Real Estate News & Commentary
20 Articles Written
Unmowed lawn in front of a foreclosed Cape Cod style house in Suburban Maryland

When you've been in real estate for more than six months, you gain a superpower. There is no fanfare, no announcement or email from your local superhero association. You may not even realize it at first. It's not x-ray vision or time travel or super strength. It's the seemingly boring ability to spot an abandoned house just by driving by.

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It isn’t the last house on the left, some dark vacant haunted house, or the falling-down house from the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s subtle clues that tell your brain, “This house is empty and nobody has lived there for a while.”

Case in point, my neighbors moved when I was away from home last week. When I drove up to my house, I could instantly tell their house was empty. Their personal items were removed from the porch, planters empty. It just felt different from every other house in the neighborhood. They were gone; they had moved out earlier that day.

The signs range from what I mentioned above to the more obvious: an overgrown yard, mail or newspapers piling up, blinds left open with no furniture or decorations inside, or everything shut with no lights on ever.

But what’s important is less about spotting abandoned properties and much more about what do you, as an investor, do now? How do you find the owners of that abandoned property so you can help them by buying the now-vacant and forgotten house?

I have five strategies you can use to find those owners.

1. Tax Records

Have you ever wished that someone recorded the owner’s mailing address for every property in your area in one central location or website?  If so, I have some great news for you! One of the easiest ways to look up the owner of a property is to look on your city or county website for the tax records or property records.

Most counties have this available online, but some more rural counties might require you to visit in person for this data. A quick search for the property address can lead you to the owner’s name and tell you whether their mailing address is different from the property address.

Keep in mind, there are some counties where this information is hard to find or unavailable for the general public, but the extra work is worth the reward. Also, this information might be outdated or not updated at all; if the owner never notified the county of their new address, you are working off of old or bad data.

spreadsheet, calculator and magnifying glass on desktop

2. Skip Trace

What does a dollar buy you these days? A gas station coffee? One-third of an energy drink? A pack of gum?

Not much, it seems. What if I told you it could buy a scary amount of data on a person?

Skip tracing lets you pay a service to pull information on a person, typically running around $1-$5, depending on the service and the amount of information you need. Some of the big skip tracing services are actually run by credit bureaus.

In a skip trace report, you will find the absentee owner’s most recent address, their phone numbers (seriously, some have 20+ phone numbers attached to the name), email addresses, names of relatives, and sometimes the contact information for those relatives. If you want a surefire way to find someone’s most recent information in order to contact them, this is it.

Related: 3 Reasons to Always Buy Distressed Property (& How to Find One)

3. Going Door-to-Door

While this method might seem too old-school to work, it’s very effective. Oftentimes, the owner of an abandoned home had some kind of relationship with the neighbors before leaving for good.

I’ve knocked on doors to be told that, “Jim went to go live with his sister in South Dakota and asked me to keep an eye on the place,” or, “Ginny went to go live in a senior living care center across town, and the kids aren’t sure what to do with the place.”

These are two direct examples out of the few dozen I’ve experienced over the years. The neighbors know about their neighborhood, and most want to help and preserve the area. Some are sick of looking at the 6-foot-tall weeds next door. Some don’t want their home value to be affected by the blight down the street.

Finding neighbors who have contact with the owners is the goal. In the two encounters above, I was able to get the phone numbers and names of the owner or their kids. If you are truly there to help and are genuine, neighbors still want to help their neighbors, even if the neighbor’s house is half falling down.

person on laptop searching real estate listings

4. Internet Research

Once you have the name of the owner of the abandoned property, you can plug that into your favorite search engine and see what you can find out. I typically enter their full name followed by the city and state for more relevant search results.

I’ve found Facebook accounts, Instagram, White Pages, company websites, LinkedIn profiles, mentions in the local newspaper, awards at 4-H Club meetings, online reviews they’ve written, and sometimes, obituaries of the owner. I’ve also found absolutely nothing on certain sellers; these are typically older sellers who never got online at all and have no social media presence.

Once you have a few leads, poke around anything you’ve found to get to the next step: sending messages on social media, finding their siblings and sending them messages, etc. Don’t be afraid to dig for information that you can use to contact the seller to help them with their abandoned property. The harder they are to find, the less competition you will have.

Related: 6 Ways to Locate Distressed Properties Online

5. Physical Notes

Not all abandoned properties are forgotten, as I’ve found out many times by leaving a note on the door. Either the neighbor or sometimes a family member who still lives in town and is checking in on the property will find it.

I like to leave the note a little open, so their curiosity is piqued and they call me. Something like, “Bob, I need to urgently speak with you! Please call me as soon as you get this. 555-555-5555.” I will then come back in a week to see if the note is still there. If it’s not still there, someone got the message.

Whether it’s there or not, I’ll leave another note, this time bigger so that it can be seen from the street easily, usually on a 1-foot by 2-foot red poster board. Sometimes a curious neighbor calls; sometimes the owner, next of kin, or lawyer calls. Either way, you get a reaction and are one step closer to your goal of buying the property.

So, your superpowers helped you find the abandoned property, and these five methods will help you get the contact information for the owners. What you do with that information from there is completely up to you and your targeted marketing strategy.

I’ve led you to water. Now it’s time to drink, take action, and go help some people.

Have you ever tried to find the owner of a vacant property? How did it go?

Tell us about your experience in the comments.

Anson Young is the owner of Anson Property Group based in Denver, Colorado, which specializes in distressed property purchases, and author of...
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    Darrel Plank
    Replied 7 days ago
    What are good skip tracing sites? There is a house down the street that has been vacant for quite some time. The tax records indicate the owner lives their, but clearly it is vacant.
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 6 days ago
    Darrel, IDI, and spokeo.com are both great resources!
    Andrew Jurinka Rental Property Investor from Portland, OR
    Replied 7 days ago
    Love it!
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 6 days ago
    Thanks Andrew!
    Carlos Garcia Investor from Florida
    Replied 6 days ago
    Good stuff. I like to kill two birds with one stone and jump on my gravel bike sometimes where I will magically just find some potentials!
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 6 days ago
    Biking for dollars!!! Awesome!!
    Reggie Davis
    Replied 6 days ago
    Great content Anson! You gave some very creative, free, & practical ideas that I will definitely implement.
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 6 days ago
    Reggie, thanks so much!! I appreciate the kind words!! Good luck out there!
    Anthony O. Porter Rental Property Investor from Atlanta, GA
    Replied 6 days ago
    @ Anson Young - Great article and very timely. Never thought of some of these creative and practical ways of locating the owner of vacant properties. Will definately be implementing. Thank you for posting. Porter's Property, LLC
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 6 days ago
    Anthony, thanks for the kind words!!
    Rebecca Rodriguez Rental Property Investor from Houston, TX
    Replied 6 days ago
    Thanks for reminding me of these great tips and letting me know I have super powers!
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 days ago
    You do!! Its a bird! Its a plane! Its a vacant house!!
    Ron Kumara Rental Property Investor from Toronto, Ontario
    Replied 4 days ago
    Awesome tips Anson! I love the one about leaving a 1x2 ft red poster board...LOL, that'll get a lawyer calling quick! Ha!
    Anson Young Flipper/Rehabber from Denver, CO
    Replied 3 days ago
    I wanted to add something like that, but thought better of it for the wide BP audience!