One of the most frustrating parts of being a real estate investor is trying to find owners who are interested in selling their properties. It can be especially frustrating when you notice an empty home that’s just ripe with potential, but has no one interested in taking care of it. The owners seem to be long gone yet the house isn’t listed anywhere—likely because it’s not fixed up enough to sell on the MLS.
So how do you get the process started for closing an investment deal when the owner is nowhere to be found? I’ve come up with a few strategies that I’ve found to be effective, but may be out of reach for new or part-time investors. However, there is one method I’ve found that can be free, or at the very least, low cost. So if you’re on a budget then keep reading, as this is the best way I’ve come across on how to find absentee owners for free.
What Is an Absentee Owner?
Let’s start at the beginning and define what I mean when I say “absentee owner.” An absentee owner is a homeowner who is absent from the property and does not live there full-time. This could be a homeowner who’s invested in this house as a second home or has held onto it as an investment property. Some times the owner will live out of the state or even the country, but many will live in-state despite not occupying the house as their primary residence.
This may also include rental properties that are being occupied by renters, but I find that it’s normally easier to go for a vacant house than it is a currently-occupied rental home.
A Few Caveats About Finding Empty Homes for Sale
Before we dive into how to get owner information on a property, I want to make sure you’re putting your effort in the right places so let’s address this first.
One trap I see new investors fall into while driving for dollars is that they’ll go to the wrong areas to find investment opportunities or they’ll jump right to finding the owner without doing due diligence. Now granted, these rules aren’t set in stone, but here are the guidelines that I go by when looking for empty homes that I can jump on as a real estate investor.
- Don’t go after second homes – If you’re in an area that has a lot of houses that are traditionally used as vacation or second homes (like lake houses), then you’re going to have a difficult time finding interested or motivated sellers. While the appeal of becoming an investor in a market that relies on tourist rentals is high especially thanks to things like AirBnB, it’s way more of a hassle than its worth when you could go 10 miles further and find a plethora of better investment properties that have eager sellers.
- Avoid high-end houses – Again, while the appeal to invest in property that’s in a well-to-do area can be high, I find it’s better to go into other less affluent neighborhoods to find a good deal. Remember that you’re looking for empty houses that have sellers who are eager to unload the property and would be interested in hearing your pitch. It’s usually more difficult to do this when you have homeowners who don’t need the liquidity as badly, so avoid zip codes and neighborhoods that are seen as “upper class” or overly affluent.
- Make sure you do a preliminary walk around the property – While it might be tempting to jump on the first vacant house you find, save yourself the time and aggravation of finding out how costly this venture could be by inspecting the property grounds and the home before reaching out. Don’t act creepy by staying long or peering through windows, but give yourself a solid preliminary assessment on if you think there’s value here. Believe me, you don’t want to go through all the work of finding and contacting an owner just to realize that the property is way more hassle than its worth.
- Double-check that this property is worth the effort – Make sure you’re aware ahead of time whether or not there are any roadblocks that could turn this into a costly headache. Check for liens, city ordinances, or zoning laws that may affect you as this home could very well be empty for a reason. The more research you do before reaching out to the owner, the better.
How to Find Absentee Owners for Free
So you’ve found a few properties that are most likely not second homes and that might be a little unkempt (telling you that there’s most likely an absentee owner who’s not around), and everything looks to be on the level, financially. What do you do next on how to find absentee owners for free?
The easiest route I’ve found is to go to the county tax assessors office and request copies of tax notices for the property. Not only will this give you information as to where the owner might be, but it can also help you qualify whether this home is owner-occupied or not.
Inspect the address of where the tax notices are sent. If the property tax notices records shows that they’re sent to property in question, you should consider that home to be owner-occupied and move on or try a different approach in your sales pitch.
If, however, the notices are sent elsewhere, there’s a pretty good chance you’re dealing with an absentee owner. Once you verify that the owner lives elsewhere, prepare your offer letter or first point of contact materials and start reaching out.
Now, there is one caveat here that I want to make and that’s about what is “free.” Depending on the tax assessors’ office policies, you may be charged for the physical copies you request. This might run you $50 or so, depending on how many you’re looking for and how much work they’ll need to put into getting these records for you. In my opinion, it’s well worth the cost if you’re using the time and resources of their office but since there’s no hard and fast rule as to what these costs may run, we’ve found this to be the “free” method that we most prefer and recommend.
What If I Can’t Access Records?
If you’re getting pushback from the tax assessor, consider using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to your advantage. This might take some time and will most likely involve more paperwork than if you have an Assessor who’s more liberal with the records (also it’s not guaranteed that your request will be granted), but the FOIA is there for you to use and can be a way to circumvent a stingy tax office.
When it comes down to it, there are much easier ways to find absentee owners (like using our Real Estate Investment Software) but for those who are willing to sacrifice time for saving money, there isn’t a cheaper way that’s this effective. Give this method a try for finding absentee homeowners and let us know how it works out for you.