In today’s economy, every dollar needs to count. That is especially true for land use or neighbor disputes, which can rack up thousands of dollars in legal bills very quickly. However, by utilizing efficient title and deed research techniques and taking advantage of numerous free Internet resources, it’s possible to save money when doing property title research, especially early in a dispute before active litigation.
How to Find out Who Owns a Property
It’s a simple question: who owns a particular piece of property? But it’s not always easy to find out. Here’s how you can get the property owner’s name quickly: first, find the Assessor’s Parcel Number (APN) for the property. You can find this by going to Zillow.com. After you look up the property by address, then click on “more facts” and you will find the APN.
Most counties have a County Recorder’s office which has a website where you can look up property tax information on the property by APN number, or sometimes by address (in which case you can skip step #1). For Marin county, it is the Marin County Assessor-Recorder’s office. Enter the APN number. This will provide you with the name of the record owner.
Sometimes property is titled in the name of a LLC, a trust, or a Corporation as the record owner. If you go to the California Secretary of State’s website, you can look up LLCs or Corporations. You can try calling the Agent for Service of Process for more information. You may also try googling the name of the LLC or Corporation.
How to Find out More Information on the Property Owner
Once you find out the name of the property owner, you may want to find out more information about this person. Two popular resources are pipl.com and 123people.com, both of which collect personal information from public records, social media websites, public agency websites and other people-related documents stored in databases. It can actually be frightening how much information is available from these sources.
How to Find Out the Market Value of a Property
There are a number of free resources to determine a very rough estimate of the value of a property. Realtors tend to hate these resources because they are based on computer algorithms and do not take into account unique attributes of a property which may affect the property’s value.
I usually use Zillow.com, which generates an estimated home value pulled from data, including recent comparable sales in the area and the asking price of properties currently listed for sale. They have a free iphone app which is even better. If you see a property for sale, you can whip out your iphone, open the app, and pull up a property profile including interior pictures. No need to write down the address and look it up later at home or the office. Zillow also provides information about foreclosures in a particular area.
Eppraisal.com and Homegain.com also provide estimated property values using similar algorithms based on publicly available data. These three services can provide wildly different values. In mid-December, one modest Sacramento single family residence was valued at $211,000 on zillow.com, $127,000 on eppraisal.com, and $134,000 on Homegain.com.
Another website I really like is Redfin.com. Redfin doesn’t produce an estimated value, but it does provide volumes of information on recent sales in the area and similar properties currently for sale. The “value” will be the last sale price, but you can usually estimate a ballpark price based on other comparable sales that are close by and recently sold. Redfin also has an iphone app which is handy.
How to Find out if the Property is in a HOA and Subject to CC&Rs
Sometimes property owners don’t even know if their property is a member of a Homeowners’ Association (“HOA”) and subject to Conditions, Covenants & Restrictions (“CC&Rs”), which are the common set of rules which govern a HOA.
If you don’t have access to a preliminary title report or don’t have time to go to the county Recorder’s office, here’s a quick trick to find out if the property is a member of a HOA. Go to Redfin.com. Look up the property address of the property you are researching. Next, search through a few of the Nearby Similar Listings, which will have a lot of information about the property. Look for properties that are very close by, and find out if they are members of a HOA.
In the far left column, there should be information about whether the property is a member of a homeowners association, along with a phone number for the HOA. You can now call the HOAs and simply ask them if the property in question is a member of their HOA.
If one or a couple close by properties are members of the same HOA, then there’s a good chance your property is a member as well. Keep in mind that even if the property is one or two streets over, it could be subject to a different HOA so you may need to check out a few listings.
Of course, you could get mistaken information from the HOA and it may turn out the property is not actually a valid member, but at least it will get you started with some preliminary information.
A previous version of this article appeared in The Marin Lawyer.
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