Due diligence is extremely important, regardless of the type of property you're thinking of buying. In development property and land deals, buyers start the fact-gathering process with their first encounter with the property and it continues until they either bail out of the deal or go to settlement.
Here's a list of sources of information (people, places & things) that are good starting points if you're trying to research a property.
Sales & Ownership Data
Tax assessor information is available in several forms. For every piece of data, there is a primary source. The primary source is likeliest to be the most accurate and current source of information. For real estate documents that are recorded, such as deeds, liens, restrictive covenants, easements and subdivision plans, the primary source is the actual record of filings maintained by the applicable governmental department as well as the documents themselves and the recording information shown on them. These are usually kept at the courthouse for the county in which the property is located (Recorder of Deeds or Tax Assessment Dept.). People usually use title insurance companies who send searchers to the various courthouses to look up records. The deed contains the legal description of the property, which sets forth the property's actual dimensions.
You can also search in free or fee-based databases that allow you to get information on properties nationwide or in a particular geographic area, such as: http://www.searchsystems.net; http://www.realquest.com; http://www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp. These are great tools as long as you remember a couple of things. They should never be used as a substitute for hands-on research and inspection if you need results that are current and absolutely accurate. No database, even a governmental one, is a primary source of information. The governmental database, however, may be the next best thing to the primary source depending on the manner in which it was created and the frequency with which it is updated. When title companies insure property title, they do not rely exclusively on databases. They send people to where the records are maintained to physically search them. Real estate appraisers do not just use databases. They conduct additional due diligence and physically inspect the properties involved.
For several reasons, the farther you move away from the primary source of information, the greater the likelihood that the information may not be current and accurate. There is the time factor. The information has to pass from the primary source down the line through other people or organizations. In addition, there is the “garbage in, garbage out” principle. The integrity of any database, governmental or not, hangs on the thoroughness and competence of the people responsible for compiling and maintaining it. Databases can save you a tremendous amount of time and effort. You can use them most effectively as screening tools and to gather information subject to confirmation and further research if the situation or property warrants it. In addition, they are invaluable in identifying contacts if you need additional details or clarification.
If you want to find out who owns the property but don't know the address, one way to be able to identify the property is to go to the municipal building and look at the tax maps or tax plats of properties in the municipality. By process of elimination, you should be able to identify the property (thus giving you the owner name, address, parcel identifying number). It's a good idea to take a copy of the tax map with you when you return to the property since this will help you to pinpoint its location by counting parcels on the map from intersecting streets or other landmarks, particularly if the property is vacant land. Again, be aware that some of the information in the database or on the tax maps may not be accurate, particularly the size & shape of parcel, zoning classification, and whether the property's serviced by public utilities.
New Construction Communities
If you want to find out who is or will be building in an area, take one municipality at a time and get the list of approved subdivisions and land developments from the municipality (manager's office, code enforcement or land development offices). Then you can visit the new construction sites, talk with the site agents and get brochures. If the jobs haven't started yet, you can go to the builders' websites for preview information.
You can identify properties that have applied for rezoning or subdivision & land development approval by requesting a list from the municipality of the properties. After you decide which properties you want to investigate further, make an appointment to review the development files and plans at the municipal office. This is public information, and anyone is entitled to review materials relating to actions taken by a municipality in public meetings and hearings. This can be an excellent source of information on owners who may be thinking of selling their properties.
Checking the street for manhole covers and hydrants won't necessarily give you correct information about whether a property can be serviced by public water and sewer. Instead, consult the mapping available through the municipal or regional sewer & water authorities, county or regional planning commission and private water companies.
Each municipality adopts a zoning ordinance and zoning map for the properties within its borders. This material is available for review or purchase at the municipal office or through private vendors. Always make sure you're looking at the most current ordinance and map since these are amended periodically. In addition, read the whole ordinance and not just the section on the particular zoning classification because the ordinance contains provisions that apply across the board on issues like definitions of terms used, accessory uses & structures, signage, and minimum frontage requirements.
The zoning officer (a/k/a code enforcement officer) at the municipality is the one to whom you should direct your questions about the zoning ordinance or map or if you want to find out anything about a property that may have happened in the past, like granting of variances, special exceptions or conditional uses.
Proposed Highways & Facilities
Depending on the nature (federal, state, local), you can access information through the municipality, county/regional planning commission, municipal comprehensive or “master plan” and federal or state agencies.
Profile Data of Area or Municipality
Municipalities and county or regional land planning agencies prepare comprehensive or master plans as a primary tool for their land planning. These plans contain a wealth of information pulled from various sources including US Census Bureau, Dept. of Labor, US Dept. of Agriculture soil surveys, FEMA floodplain mapping. In addition, you'll find data about natural resources, statistical data on housing stock and non-residential developments, existing and proposed roads, transportation facilities, utilities, plants, commercial operations, hospitals and schools. Be sure to check out the proposed land use map and accompanying text. Here you might find clues for future growth areas and even potential for successfully rezoning particular properties. The master plans are available at either the municipal office or the county/regional planning agency.
To determine if the property is in an area subject to flooding, consult floodplain maps. These are available through either the municipality, county/regional land planning agencies, or FEMA (http://www.fema.gov).