A “Cheat Sheet” OF RESOURCES
An essential part of any real estate agent or appraiser’s job is mastering the ability to quickly and readily research and learn everything that they possibly can about a prospective listing, the subject of a new appraisal assignment or another property of interest. Outside of the industry, a surprising amount of people love to play amateur real estate detective and do their own research, while others just want to get answers to specific questions like “Who owns this property?”
and “How much did that property sell for?”
For the real estate newbie learning the basics and those playing along at home, here is a “cheat sheet” of resources that I use on a regular basis.
Local Government Assessment Data or Geographic Information System (GIS) Website—Many people are aware of this resource and are already using it to answer ownership and sales history questions. The level of data provided varies depending on the City or County, but typical data available includes tax parcel number, site size (acreage), assessment data, improvements size, sales history, floor plan, GIS view, local historic districts and overlays, zoning information and the most recent deed document number, which will be a starting point for further research in the local courthouse/deed room.
Local Courthouse/Clerk’s Office/Deed Room—At the courthouse, a researcher can find recorded documents such as deeds, legal descriptions, liens/mortgages, plats, restrictions, declarations and easements. The real pros of the courthouse are the title researchers digging deep into old records on behalf of title companies.
Zoning Information on Local City/County Website—A local jurisdiction’s website typically provides a zoning map and zoning ordinance, which can be used to determine a property’s zoning. The zoning code will lay out the site regulations, setbacks and uses allowed by right and by special use permit for that district as well as general parking and use requirements, while the zoning office will keep records on rezoning information and for specific projects.
Census Data at factfinder.census.gov—When considering a new or proposed project, commercial and residential developers will often analyze area demographic data such as population and income statistics.
Traffic Data from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)—VDOT publishes traffic data annually that can be searched by jurisdiction and by roadway. A major data point is AADT (Average Annual Daily Traffic). For example, the AADT for a major retail corridor could range from 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles per day, while secondary roadways may range from 1,000 to 5,000. Traffic counts are an important consideration for retail users, such as gas stations and restaurants that seek out and thrive in highly trafficked areas.
FEMA Flood Maps from msc.fema.gov—The researcher will use this site and the map to determine whether a property is in a floodplain and to what extent. Floodplains strongly impact new development possibilities as well as insurance rates and availability.
Real Estate Professional Websites: Local MLS, Loopnet, CoStar—These sites are often partially or totally restricted from public view and only available to subscribers. For example, the Lynchburg MLS allows anyone to view all active listings, but only members can view expired listings, sold listings, pricing history and a variety of other data. Subscription-based commercial real estate sites like Loopnet and CoStar keep a majority of their data about active listings, historical information, sales comparables and leases behind a paywall.
Virginia SCC at www.scc.virginia.gov—If the real estate that you are researching is held in a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or corporation, this site can be used to find additional information about these business entities, such as attorney information, the registered agent and the principal address. This resource is most helpful in finding contact information for the property owner in order to ask questions or make an inquiry.
Google/Search Engines—Google the property address, the owner, the tenant, etc. and see what turns up. While always a good source for contact information, you may also discover news articles about the recently proposed shopping center going in next door or potentially negative items that don’t often make it on to marketing flyers. If the top search results for your prospective retail tenant include “credit rating downgraded,” “brink of bankruptcy” or “layoffs and store closings,” you know that, at the very least, more homework is needed and that you should proceed with caution.
Drive-By/Walking Tour—One of the most reliable ways of gathering public information is to drive-by the property or walk the block and inspect the current physical condition and occupancy yourself. While Google Earth, Street View or the local GIS may show an old industrial building on the property, a drive-by lets you verify that the industrial building has not been remodeled, demolished or otherwise altered.
Interviews—Sometimes, picking up the phone and talking to a live person is the only way to get the answer that you need. Interviews and conversations with owners, tenants, neighbors, real estate professionals, attorneys and local government staff can yield a wealth of new information and insight about the property while also giving you a chance to confirm data.
Since the Who, What, When and Where of real estate are now easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, the value of the real estate professional is no longer in the doling out of closely-guarded information. The value of today’s real estate professional is in being able to make sense of this abundance of raw data and provide clients with insight and wisdom into the Why and the What’s Next.
By Billy Hansen