How to Use Skip Tracing to Unearth Awesome Real Estate Deals

by | BiggerPockets.com

As a real estate investor, you know too well that some of the best deals can be unearthed from vacant or distressed properties. Problem is, sometimes finding the owners of these properties can be like digging up buried treasure without a map—futile at best.

If you have been down this road before, you will admit the usual outreach and marketing strategies most investors employ will rarely work, especially if the owners of these properties have skipped town.

And this is where skip tracing comes in.

What is Skip Tracing?

Skip tracing is the process of tracking down the whereabouts of a person who has “skipped town” (hence the name).

Typically, the manner of their departure means they left little clues behind as to where they may have gone, which explains the challenge in trying to hunt them down. Good thing is, there are professionals who specialize in this exact kind of work whose services you can hire as you aim to find the owners of these properties.

Known as skip tracers, they work like private investigators, although advancement in technology has allowed them to shift from a Sherlock Holmes-type of approach to one that relies more on modern tools. This involves carrying out an in-depth search through multiple databases holding information that is not normally available to the public.

find-deals-hot-market

Related: 3 Ways to Find Amazing Real Estate Deals on Craigslist

The harder it is to find the homeowner, the higher your chances of success are in that deal. This is due to the obvious reason that no other interested buyer has managed to establish contact with that homeowner, which means your chances of getting them to sell you the property are pretty bright.

Skip tracing normally involves taking that extra step in your search for abandoned property owners. But you might want to take heart in the fact that not many investors engage in skip tracing—they either do not want to or are unwilling to invest the time and resources it takes to find these property owners.

That can only be good news, especially at a time when competition for these hot properties has never been tougher.

How to Skip Trace

Skip tracing is a basic, but very effective concept to find property owners. The whole idea behind it is to get an alternate address for abandoned or vacant property owners whom you are having trouble finding.

Often the case, absentee property owners don’t leave behind details of their new address so it is virtually impossible to find them listed in the phonebook. However, in the event they left a forwarding address with the NCOA (National Change of Address), there is a way you can track them down.

Usually, the USPS is not obligated to furnish you with the forwarding address of a person you are trying to locate, no matter how valid your reasons may be. They only release these details to law enforcement officers, licensed private investigators, or any other entity under orders of the court.

All the same, there is a technique you can use to get an absentee homeowner’s new address. All you need to do is mail them and specify the following information on the envelope:

Do Not Forward

Return Service Requested

By including this information on your letter, the post office will not forward it, but rather return it back to you with a sticker bearing the new address.

Supposing details of the vacant property owner cannot be found in the USPS change-of-address file, what do you do?

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Related: How to Find Multifamily Deals in a Tight Market

Skip Tracing Services

In such cases, you will need to sign up for a skip tracing service. Fortunately, there are a number of companies who offer this service, and a quick search on your search engine of choice will yield multiple options.

The best skip tracing services, as with everything else in life, tend to be more expensive. Before you sign up for the first program that catches your eye, it is good to evaluate the value of this expense to your business first.

Sometimes, you find that a simple search engine or social network search can bear pertinent information about the homeowner you are trying to find. So, first see what you can come up with on your own before opting for the paid service if you cannot find what you are looking for.

Here are a few examples of online skip tracing tools popular with real estate investors:

Last Word

As a real estate investor who is always on the lookout for good deals (and who isn’t!), skip tracing gives you an edge over other investors.

As much as it may sound trite, using this service allows you to reach prospects that your competitors are not reaching. It involves going the extra mile, but the rewards are well worth it.

Have you used skip tracing to find great deals?

Weigh in below!

About Author

Nasar Elarabi

Nasar is a corporate failure who was saved by Real Estate. Nasar is now a Wholesaler, Rehabber and Landlord in the Charlotte area. Nasar may have just barely graduated college but can flip a house like an acrobat. Nasar’s work can also be found at RealEstateDoru.com.

12 Comments

  1. Larry Russell

    Nice article. I’ve been toying with the idea of using a skip tracer to track down some of the hidden jewels I’ve been coming across lately. You’re right, there are several companies out there to choose from which could be a little overwhelming within itself.

  2. Cody L.

    Oh man, I can’t believe there is money to be made by mass mailings and skip tracing. Every time I go visit my office in Houston (where all of my properties are), my team hands me a 2 foot tall stack of “I want to buy your property!” postcards and letters. I would be shocked if anyone with a property hasn’t already gotten 100 such letters.

    The way I buy off market deals (other than a network of brokers who send me properties since they know I’ll close) is contact the owner myself, tell them the SPECIFIC property I’m inquiring about, AND WHAT I’D PAY along with the terms (time to close, EM, etc.). That’ll at least let them know I’m serious and not just blasting out form letters.

    So for you guys spending $ to send those out, step up your game. As someone who gets a ton of them, I can’t imagine they work all that well. At least not in the mulitfamily space (though even my single family homes get a ton of them)

    • Ryan Akins

      This is good advice. It is probably a better investment to call the person. The phone seems to be the most underutilized tool these days. A voicemail that is not scripted and is sincere will certainly be taken more seriously than a robocall or a spam flyer.

  3. Ryan Akins

    As a former private investigator (and current criminal intelligence analyst) I would suggest hiring a PI. A skip trace is a service and my former company used to do them for a very reasonable rate ( I think it was $50). Many of those databases have controlled access but a PI will have access and more importantly, be able to interpret what is in the database which will often pull in a lot of data and not all of it will be useful.
    I personally trust TLO because it is tied to people’s credit. It is actually an Equifax product. I have found people a few days after they had utilities turned on in their name through TLO. This particular individual had skipped town from GA and I found him in a small apartment above a bookstore in MD with a simple TLO search.
    I would also suggest checking at the local register of deeds and county courthouse for free before hiring anyone to do a skip trace. AS much detail as you can provide will help them narrow down the search to an owner.

  4. Kevin Davy

    I’m definitely going to take a look at the list of tools you provide in this blog. I find when you go “googling” for certain Real Estate tools the search yields good results mixed with a lot of bad ones.

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