Many of the tools discussed in this toolkit require communication with the owner of the property. Sometimes finding the owner is as easy as a knock on the door. Often, however, neglected properties have been abandoned, leaving no trace of ownership. Even when someone is living in a home or using a commercial space, the true owner may be difficult to track down.
“Finding the Owner” is a significant challenge when addressing neglected properties according to all nine communities formally interviewed for this toolkit.
Examples of Hard-to-Locate Property Owners:
- A foreclosed property is owned by an out-of-state or out-of-country bank.
- A property has been abandoned.
- The owner passed away with no will, and heirs have not been identified.
- The owner is in a nursing home, and the property has been placed with a caretaker who pays taxes but is otherwise uninvolved and unknown.
- Ownership may be unclear. Multiple organizations and families may own the same piece of property.
Strategies to Find the Property Owner
The first step when trying to locate an owner of a neglected property is a visit to the property. For instance, renters may have information on the whereabouts of their landlord, the property owner.
Weston, West Virginia, uses certified mail as a first step to locate property owners. For example, with the United States Postal Service (USPS), certain mail (including certified mail and priority mail) may be accompanied by “Ancillary Services,” which include an “Address Correction Service” and “Address Service Requested.” 1 With “Address Service Requests,” the sender may receive notice of the addressee’s new address if it is actively on file with USPS. The sender prints “Address Service Requested” on qualifying pieces of mail, then USPS will forward undeliverable-as-addressed mail to the new address and provide the sender notice of the new address. 2
Ashley Carr, the Building Inspector for Summersville, West Virginia, often asks neighbors whether they know the owner of a certain property. “Better to use sugar than salt,” he says.
An address search via the online Yellow Book or reverse White Pages may provide additional clues.
Public Records Search
In some counties, online tax records can be searched by physical address to determine the name of the person paying property taxes.
In other counties, a visit to the County Assessor’s Office is needed to obtain the same tax information. In the Map Room, the staff can help identify the map and parcel number for the property. With the map and parcel number, staff can provide a tax ticket. The tax ticket will identify the owner of the property, or the tax ticket may provide a deed book and page number that can be used to find the deed to the property.
Records available in the County Record Room:
Once the property owner’s name or the deed book and page number have been identified, the County’s Record Room can provide more information. For example, with only the deed book number and page, the deed can be located to determine who last sold the property to whom. With the owner’s name, a search can be conducted using the Grantor Index to determine whether the owner granted or sold the relevant property and to whom. Searching the owner’s name in a Deed of Trust Index might help determine if a bank holds a mortgage on the property. Knowing the bank’s name is helpful if it is suspected that the property is a foreclosure and the bank needs to be contacted about its responsibility for maintaining the property, including mowing the property.
An informal search of public records may be useful in tracking down property owners to communicate with them about the property. However, an informal search is not a reliable way to confirm ownership of the property. To fully understand the ownership interests in the property, it may be necessary to hire an attorney who can conduct a certified title opinion. In Part 3, the “Title Opinion” tool provides more detail on searching title in a record room and the type of detail analyzed during a title opinion.
- Quick Service Guide 507: Additional Services and Ancillary Service Endorsements, U.S. Postal Serv., available at http://pe.usps.com/text/qsg300/Q507.htm (last visited July 15, 2015).
- 507 Mailer Services, U.S. Postal Serv., available at http://pe.usps.com/text/dmm300/507.htm#xd_507_1_5 (last visited July 15, 2015).