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Citizen Investigations: Digging up Property Records

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Land Ownership Records: Useful But Hard to Find 

Researching property records is mainly a local game.

In some countries, learning who owns a piece of land or a house is easily done via online searching, but in other places you’ll need to visit government offices and dig through records. That is, if the records exist. In most parts of the world, property records are not kept. Or they may be confidential to protect property owners.

So there are many hurdles. To figure out what records are available, you’ll want to learn about the laws and regulations governing property. Potential sources are local officials, real estate brokers, and lawyers. 

In many places, “titles” on land are the official records on ownership, kept in land registries. The boundaries and location of land are described in what’s called “cadaster” records. These records systems may be combined or separate. Records on land value, taxes, land use, and information on buildings often exists somewhere else.

Activism and Investigation in Guatemala
Rodrigo Tot, a 60-year-old farmer and an indigenous land rights activist from Guatemala, won one of the world’s most prestigious activism awards, the Goldman Environmental Prize. The beginning of his work was pure investigation, gathering evidence to secure legal ownership over communal lands.

What You Might Find

Despite all the variations and complications, government records can be rich sources. 

Potential finds include:

  • name of the owner;
  • address and parcel number;
  • geographic description of the property boundaries;
  • description of buildings and features on the property;
  • price last paid for the property;
  • records of previous sales;
  • tax assessments now and in the past;
  • allowable uses and restrictions for the property; 
  • details on the owner’s rights and restrictions to the land;
  • liens placed on the property by a court;
  • legal disputes about the property;
  • records related to construction on the property, such as building permits;
  • mortgage loans that encumber a property;
  • servitudes, encumbrances, public right restrictions.

There may be barriers to getting information. In many countries, privacy laws restrict access to the name of the landowner. Fees may be charged for the information. The accuracy and quality of the information may be suspect. The real ownership may be disguised, perhaps with the name of a relative or a shell corporation, setting up another research challenge.

Where Else to Look

Land records are not the only potential sources of information.

Scouring court records about property disputes may prove productive. 

Some researchers have had luck with official gazettes and government publications of record. They may reveal requests for land use changes and building permits. Records about different types of land rights, such as mining rights, may exist. Information about farm subsidy payments may be helpful. 

Besides relying on government records, researchers suggest checking out company reports and websites, media reports, advertisements, and social media. Aerial images may be available.

Listings of properties for sale also may provide good information. Check out national sites such as Zillow in the US, for commercial US properties, Windeed in South Africa, Lianjia in China, Magic Bricks in India, and many, many more.

Real estate brokers, banks, insurance companies, lawyers, and others have a vested interest in knowing who’s buying and selling and could be potential sources. Nongovernmental organizations concerned with land rights issues might also be helpful. 

Site visits also may pay dividends. What can you see? Ask around. 

For more detailed information, see GIJN’s Resource Page on researching property records.

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