Maybe you like a parcel of property and are interested in buying it; maybe you want to report a dangerous condition. There are a number of reasons you might have to look for the owner of a building or plot of land, and that information is public record. In some instances, you can find that information online; however, especially in small towns or rural counties, you may need to walk into the clerk's office and ask for help.
Try the Tax Assessor's Office
Taxing real property brings big bucks to a state's coffers when tax time rolls round. Therefore, every state has a system in place to assess real property within its borders.
Sometimes the office is called the Assessor, sometimes the County Clerk or simply Office of Real Property Taxation. The name of the office varies by state but retains the same duties: to value the personal and commercial property within its borders for tax purposes. The records available at the Assessor's office will show you who owns the parcel, because the owner is responsible for the taxes.
In California, for example, the office is termed the Assessor-Recorder's Office and is maintained on a county-wide basis. Thus, valuation documents about California real property located in San Francisco are recorded with the City and County of San Francisco Assessor and Recorder.
To determine the name of the property assessment office in your state, consult the Public Records website. It contains links to the relevant offices in each state.
The Register of Deeds or Recorder of Deeds
The register of deeds, sometimes called the recorder of deeds, is the office where all deeds, mortgages and other real estate documents are recorded. Many but not all counties provide the public with online access to recorder of deeds property records. Often you can search these records from your own computer, searching by property address, property ID number and sometimes, by owner name.
If you see a building you are curious about, you can probably use an online search engine to determine who owns that building, its valuation for tax purposes and its sales history. Some offices, like the Assessor and Recorder in San Francisco, offer mapping applications. With these, you don't even need to know the street address. Pull up the map of the city, find the house by its relationship to a street or a landmark and click on it.
If for some reason the owner isn't listed in the search response, look at the documents associated with the property. One is likely to be the deed that will contain the owner's name.
Finding Out Who Owns a Building Without an Online Search
Manual searching seems excessively time consuming in this technological age, but do whatever it takes to get the job done. If your property recording jurisdiction doesn't have an online search engine, go to the office in person.
Give the clerk the street address of the property and ask for assistance in learning the name of the owner. You'll find out who owns the building in no time. If you go to the clerk or recorder's office, they will likely charge a fee for conducting a search, and then they'll charge you per page for copies of any documents you want to take with you.
You can determine who owns a building by reviewing the land records for the city or county in which the building is located. You can try the tax assessor's office or the recorder of deeds. Many cities and counties offer online searchable databases that you can access from your computer, but sometimes you must go into the property records office.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.