Getting the Back Story on a Vacant House

Getting_the_Back_Story_on_a_Vacant_HouseHave you ever driven past an abandoned property and wanted to get the back story on that vacant house? Who is the owner? Why did they let it go? Could it be a good deal to buy it? Even if you could figure out who owns it, how would you get a hold of the owner? In this training, you're going to discover how to uncover a tremendous amount of information on any house, for free, using public records. You'll learn how to go in depth into the records maintained by the tax collector, property appraiser, recorder's office and zoning commission to discover just about everything you'd ever want to know about a vacant house. Plus, you'll learn how to quickly and easily access the information as well as how to use it once you find it. Here's how to get the back story on a vacant house:

Getting the Back Story on a Vacant House


Have you ever driven past a vacant house and thought to yourself, "What's going on with that property? Who owns it? What got them into the position they're in now? What are they going to do with the property?


 Public Records


Looking up public records is the first step to finding out the status of a vacant house. They are absolutely free and help give an indication of who the owner probably is and provide basic information to help you draw some conclusions on the property. Public records can be broken up into four departments.


1. Tax collector


Every local government has departments at a county level. The tax collector might be called something else; depending on your state, but it is essentially the department that collects property taxes. When property taxes are unpaid they eventually become tax liens, and then after a certain amount of years as a tax lien, it can become a tax dead sale or get a quiet title in some states.


2. Property appraiser


A property appraiser is someone who determines the value of a property. They work hand in hand with the tax collecting department, because in order to determine what the property taxes are going to be, you need to know what the property is worth. There's a department that puts a value on every single piece of real estate in their jurisdiction. This includes: vacant land, commercial buildings, houses, businesses, and any other sort of real estate.


3. Recorded records


Recorded records is also called the clerk of court or register of deeds, depending on where you are located. This department keeps a recorded document against every piece of real estate, so every deed, mortgage, and deed of trust is kept on record. Each county will have a recorded records office with information on all of their local real estate.


4. Planning department


This department is also known as the planning/zoning department. They are responsible for all of the records of zoning for each individual property in their county.


How Each Department Can Help You


  • Tax Collector


There are two ways to track down and find the tax collector website for your jurisdiction. The first is Google. The problem is it's not always called the tax collector. The best way to get access to this information is to go to and then click "public records online" and choose your state and County. You can view the tax collector page and input the vacant house address for specific tax information on the property. The property tax page will show you who the current owner of the property is, which is important because real estate investors will want the house to be owned by a homeowner not by a bank.

It also gives you some other information like the legal description of the property, whether they are current on taxes or not, and a parcel ID. All of this information is crucial to understanding whether a vacant house could be a good investment deal or not.


  • Property Appraiser


The second public record  is the property appraiser. You can find a direct link to the property appraiser from the NETR website. All you have to do is search by owner name or parcel ID, which is why it is helpful to look up the tax collector website first. Once you pull up the property appraiser information you can find out what type of ownership the property is under, sales history of the property, and any transfers or ownership. You can look up what the sales price was each time the property was sold, which tells you what the value of the property was at the time it was purchased.


Other Useful Data From the Property Appraiser:

  • Bedrooms
  • Bathrooms
  • Electro heat source, dry walls
  • the floor plan measurements



The property appraiser doesn't tell you the exact market value, but it tells you the value that they're basing it on. Property appraisers have their own set of rules when they assess the value. If you learn the rules for a specific jurisdiction, it can help you get a better understanding of how a property appraiser determines value. For example, in the State of Michigan, they had SEV, state equalized values. They are typically, half of what the true value is so you can just double the SEV value and  get really close to what the market value might be.

Do not base a property's values on the property appraiser alone. I have a great video on how to determine property value, which can teach you exactly how to value a property.

Recorded records


The recorder's records provides all of the real estate documents pertaining to a particular piece of real estate. It can be used to find out if a property has a judgment against it such as foreclosure. This tells you that the owner is in pre-foreclosure so they haven't foreclosed yet but are at risk of foreclosing in the near future. Furthermore, you can find out who the owner is and what the latest deed of record on the property is.

This is big information to have, because it tells you what needs to happen to the property. If it is owned by a bank then you know it is gong to be difficult to make something happen, than if it was owned by an actual home owner.




Planning and Zoning becomes very important if a property is located near a major intersection with commercial zoning all around it. This could mean that the zoning has changed to commercial and the property will be torn down and replaced with a commercial building. The planning and zoning information is called the  GIS map. You can Google "GIS map" for whatever jurisdiction the property is located in to find this information. It will also include any recent sales in the vicinity of the property, which is helpful for valuation purposes.

Between a tax collector, property appraiser, recorded records and the planning and zoning maps, you can learn a tremendous amount about that property.


Paying for a Service


Many people choose to pay for a service as a shortcut to property research. There are companies you can pay to compile all of the public record data on a property into one easy to view format. The largest, most well known property record service company is CoreLogic with a product called RealQuest.




If you're a licensed real estate agent, the listing version of this is called RealList. RealList is typically only accessible through the local MLS.  Some  MLSs don't use RealList, but they might use a system called CRS a similar property research tool. If you have access to your local MLS you will instantly have access to whichever version your jurisdiction uses. These programs provide you with tons of data and information on a particular property and it is absolutely free if you have access to your local MLS.


Getting in Touch With the Owner


After you have accessed all of the useful information provided by the public records, you can consider contacting the property owner. The mailing addresses and property addresses of the owners will be listed on some of the public record platforms, so you can use them to mail out a handwritten letter. A handwritten letter can work well, because even if it doesn't go directly to the owner, it might be forwarded to them.

The next step is skip tracing, which is like a private detective's database used to look up people's information.  The service I typically use is called I am not sure if it is any better than other services, because there are so many of them, but it's the one I use.

I like because it provides a list of family members and their phone numbers. You can use it when you are having a difficult time tacking down a vacant house owner.


My top secret way to track down an owner of a vacant house:


Talk to the neighbors.  You'd be surprised how often neighbors can get a hold of the person that moved out, of whoever owned the property next door.  This can be a great way to track down who the owner is.






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  1. Sonia Salvatierra says

    Your shows are wonderful I learned a lot. I hope one day I can becomea real state investor.

    Thank you.


    I like your teaching !

  3. would you recommend propstream over realquest?

  4. Very informative.

  5. Selfless. Great information.

  6. Jay Smith says

    Enjoyed your video….

  7. Thanks Phil. I have watched some of your videos. They are very informative and clear. You are a great teacher. I plan to watch every one offered. Thanks for making them accessible.Your magnanimity is enormous and commendable.

  8. Tessie Lewis says

    Do you have to have your real estate license in order to be a real estate investor?

  9. Laura A Ash says

    Thank you Phil again for your advice and guidance. We are baby brand new at this. We’ve set up our foundation and are now searching for properties. Thank you for the info you provided. This will lead us into more informed decision making! You truly help those who want a chance too.

  10. I am a Realtor so I have access to a lot of information that you discussed, but the question I have, is how to find the vacants easily! Do you have any tips on that?? I am in San Diego, CA area!


  11. Cliff Fung says

    I just can’t wait to be doing some deals in couple of weeks. All the materials that I got which is very informative. As you have mentioned in one of your video . It is not too late to do the real Estate Businee.
    Thank you so much for sincerity GOD BLESS

  12. Thanks Phil, very informative!

  13. Mr. Phil great advice & tips you’re accurate & very helpful in all aspects of real estate, thanks I’m learning so much from your videos

  14. wayne smith says

    Phil pustejovsky may god bless you and your family,and bless you a 1000 times cause you could of easily with held this information and sold it for a profit,but it shows what kind of person you are a child of god.Thank you and god bless.

  15. Derrold says

    I just did this type of research before I saw this video. It is good to know that I did almost all you discussed.

    The property I was looking at was in a little community with private wells and septics. The planning department recommended that I contact the water master to determine if that office had information on the well. Without a viable well, a new well would have to be drilled ($7K-10K) if there were adequate spacing from approved skeptics. They also told me others were looking at the property. There were concerns with the septic because of the steepness of the property. They provide good information for preparing an offer based on not so obvious costs.

    Thanks, Phil

  16. Christopher Berggren says

    Hey Phil,

    Your video on researching vacant props is great, but you didn’t mention that Zillow has a ‘recent solds’ – yellow dot feature. Regarding a property I want to wholesale: I’m dealing with the owner, who is about to be foreclosed on:

    I’ve gone to Bronx Co. Courthouse Clerks office to research liens on property, but having trouble finding out the status of three LP’s filed years ago. People working in the office are little to no help. This is my first wholesale deal, have no cash, so have to do title due diligence myself before I sign offer. What would you do in this case?

    Thanks for your excellent videos.

    • Phil Pustejovsky says

      Bite the bullet and hire a professional title researcher to sort out the title mess.

  17. Phil,
    I have been listening to your videos for a few years now and absolutely enjoy them. You are easy to listen to and I always learn something new. Thank you for sharing!

  18. Cassondra Henke says

    Hi Phil, great info! What happens if a property has multiple tax liens, but is not bank owned? Is there a way to make an offer to our county tax assessor? The owner has passed but owned the property outright, there is no one else on the title but the property is behind on taxes, and vacant, and now has a tax lis pendins notice.

    • Phil Pustejovsky says

      Buy it at tax deed sale. OR track down the heirs, have it go through Probate and then buy from the heirs. Letting it go to tax foreclosure and buying at that tax foreclosure is much easier though.

  19. Phil,
    Thank you for the simple to the point advice. You explain everything & skip the b.s. Plan to watch all your emails.
    Thank you again.

  20. Shaun Hicks says

    Loved the video Phil! I live in Orange county Florida and know I can apply the examples…thanks!

  21. John Reid says

    1st video…peaked my interest.

  22. Anthony says

    Great Information Thanks

  23. Ray Hager says

    I love the information and look forward to working with you

  24. Virginia Haney says

    I love it.

  25. Madan Anand says

    Phil, Hats Off This information was priceless. I have no words to explain. It is the Treasure I was trying to learn N you made it simple. Once I wanted to be in your Circle but was not able to afford. However you are my GURU. I bow my head with respect. Thanks a million.

  26. Monique says

    With Freddy one has to buy and hold when in foreclosure. How does one get information on property sold on the court house steps? Does one go to the tax Financial office to inquiry about tax deeds that are free and clear for purchase?

    • Phil Pustejovsky says

      The recorder’s records will usually show the Sheriff’s Deed or other such conveyance instrument and oftentimes it shows the amount that the property went to foreclosure for. Although not always. Some counties have a separate Foreclosure Auction website, like Volusia County, and you can find the final auction through that system. As for the Tax Deed Sale properties, contact the Tax Collector. They have all that information.

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