When tax money flows between people and government, it often leaves a “public record,” a trail. You can use this public record to discover who owns a building. Realtors follow these trails for every house we handle, looking for back taxes, foreclosure motions, sibling squabbles, snarly divorces, and other afflictions.

To find your own trail, start at the Assessor’s Office in your town. Here’s Portland’s.

Input the street and/or street number you’re curious about. Screenshot (61) You’ll get a list of properties and tax accounts on that street; if you have the street number you’ll get just that property.Screenshot (62)

Click the account number at the left of the property you’re interested in, which will take you to that property’s “assessor’s card.” Cumby’s card, for instance, looks like this, and will contain allllll manner of info, including when it last changed hands, and for how much money. And a pretty picture, so you can be sure you’re looking at the right thing.

Screenshot (63)

Now write down the “Book and Page” Screenshot (64)numbers from the card. We’re going to find the deed for this property at the Registry of Deeds. Here’s Cumberland County’s.

Search settings:

Office: Recorded Land

Search Type: Volume

Volume (Book): 7282

Page Number: 348Screenshot (65)

GO! Up comes the result list, from which you select that tiny magnifying glass image labeled, “View img.”

And voila. There’s the deed, the public record of the last time that property changed hands.

Screenshot (66)

It gets a lot funner than that, but also a lot more wordy. But just for fun, click one of those names that appears to the right of the deed…


[PD] wikimedia

[PD] wikimedia

What is Zillow, exactly, and… why?

Well, back in the day, all real estate agents worked for sellers. In Maine, anyway, the seller’s agent collected a commission from the seller, then either found a buyer herself, or paid part of the commission to any “sub-agent” who could rope in a buyer. Maine, anyway, now does a good job of giving buyers a chance to retain their own advocate.

But a hangover furrows the brow of the industry still.

For one thing, the seller’s agent still usually collects the entire commission, out of long habit. The buyer’s agent is still typically paid by the seller’s agent, in Maine. Just out of habit. It works; it’s just peculiar.

And then there’s a headache known as Zillow. (And Trulia, etc.) Now that buyers are choosing agents of their own, those buyers have become a valuable commodity. Everybody and his uncle is trying to catch them, and then sell them to real estate agents.

And that’s what Zillow does. Now that buyers are free to take their own path to a house for sale, Zillow has done a particularly good job of making the path wide and easy to navigate on a smart phone. Zillow sells advertising space to real estate agents who want their smiling face to pop up beside your search results.

So that’s a Zillow: It collects house-hunters and sells them to agents.

Real estate agents resent the Zillows of the world for various reasons. Old-school agents see Zillow as a poacher, stealing buyers who used to be forced to deal directly with the seller’s agent.

Busy agents resent Zillow for telling their buyer clients that 234 School Street is available, when it is long gone. Zillow’s data is famously dirty, which wastes everybody’s time.

Me? I think the customer is always right: Home hunters want decent searching tools. Zillow solved a problem, and if it’s not yet perfect, it’s pretty good.

And now, to recapture those free-range buyers, agents are getting creative.

Some are now getting their own apps. (Scan the QRC below to test-drive my very own, built by Keller Williams. I’d love to hear reviews. It’s easy to delete if you don’t like it.)

Agents are also exploring the value of their proprietary data banks which, after all, are built, maintained, and updated at agents’ expense. Broker organizations are demanding that Zillow direct some of those free-range buyers back toward the listing agent in exchange for data.

But to my mind, the whole kerfuffle overlooks the goal of the seller: to present her house to as many people as possible. If Zillow can bring my client’s house to your attention, I don’t care what agent brings you to the door.

Next time: Redfin

Hannah Holmes Keller Williams smart-phone realty search thingamajig

Hannah Holmes Keller Williams smart-phone realty search thingamajig