Anyone wishing to put together a complete picture of your assets will first locate and value any property that you own. Until recently, a comprehensive and accurate search such as this was difficult or impossible. Even six or seven years ago, there were no statewide or national database listings of real estate owners. Deeds to property were filed in the recorder’s office in the county where the property was located. The deed was manually indexed by the clerks. If someone wanted to find out what property you owned, he would have to go to the local recorder’s office and look in the Grantee Index under your name. (Grantee is a legal term for the purchaser in a real estate transaction.) That index would show any property, located in that county, which had been deeded to you. Property in a different county would not be found in that index.

An investigator attempting to find all real estate which you owned had the daunting task of searching the index for every county. To make sure that all of your real estate was discovered, an investigator had to search every county in the country. He, or someone working for him, had to personally go to the recorder’s office to look up the information. If he had good sources, he might be able to call on the phone and get a clerk to check the records. In either case, it was a time-consuming, expensive, and inefficient process.

Some time ago, we had a client who was trying to collect a $1 million judgment from a former business partner we’ll call Jake. Wisely, Jake was staying out of sight to avoid our subpoena. We wanted to bring him into court for a debtor’s examination to make him tell us what he owned. We knew he had substantial assets, but we couldn’t find him or any of his property. A search of all of the county real estate records in Los Angeles—where he lived—and each surrounding county showed nothing. Since there was a lot of money involved, we paid thousands of dollars to search every county in California, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon. Still nothing.

One day, after five or six years of basically futile efforts, we received a call from a former secretary who used to work in our office. She had left the firm to open an art gallery in Vail, Colorado. “Are you still looking for that Jake guy?” she asked. “I just saw him on the ski slopes.” That was a great tip. We checked the county records and found a house in his name that he had purchased for $3.6 million in cash. We immediately entered our judgment in Colorado and filed a lien on the property. Jake settled quickly, and our client ended up with about $2.7 million, covering the judgment, interest, and court costs. Jake had figured we would never find the property, and without our lucky break, he would have been right.

It doesn’t take luck anymore to find somebody’s real estate. Almost every county has computerized its records, and the information has been linked to a national database. Instead of visiting every county recorder or trying to guess where property is located, with a single query, a computer search retrieves all of the real estate records in your name—compiled from every state and county in the country. The report identifies the cost of the property, the loan balance, and the type of property. There are at least hundreds of Web sites offering these search services. The information is produced in minutes, and the cost is nominal.

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