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tracing owner of a property

In the summer of 2013, we received a call from a local law firm with what appeared to be a simple request – they wanted to determine the identity of the owner of a property in the Hudson Valley of New York, where hordes of wealthy New Yorkers had been collecting property over the past several years. Seemed like a pretty simple request, given that real property information can usually be gathered from the comfort of a computer. But it was anything but simple.

It’s rarely straightforward.

It became clear quickly that this was not so straightforward. First, the law firm had done a bit of their own digging around. The law firm suspected that the ultimate owner of the property was a wealthy foreign businessman with a history of shady business deals. When you are dealing with shady people, it’s rarely straightforward.

Second, based on some initial research, the client was aware that the property had been acquired by a New York limited liability company (LLC), which had only the name of an attorney associated with the firm. It’s a common practice for a wealthy family to purchase a home through a corporation with the only point of contact being an attorney instead of their own names, for privacy reasons. But if you are a shady businessman, it’s also a nice way to protect the true ownership of the property.

Since the property records were not available online, we went to the local county clerk to review the records relating to the property transaction. We reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and determined that the attorney who set up the LLC signed all of the property documents as well.

We also found that no mortgage was filed on the property, which suggested that it had been purchased in cash. It’s not unusual for an attorney to sign on behalf of an LLC and it’s not really unusual for wealthy families to pay cash for a property. But we did note that it’s very difficult for foreigners to get mortgage financing. Certainly not proof that the property was owned by a foreigner, but certainly a clue.

Next we visited the real estate agent who brokered the transaction. While he was polite and I charmed him as much as I could, he refused to give up the details citing confidentiality. It was kind of expected, as any real estate agent worth the paper their license is printed on would never provide that information to a stranger. Especially ones who count on wealthy New Yorkers for their business.

But I guess I charmed him enough that he gave me a few small clues, like the owners were from out of the country, that the transaction was “complicated” given that it was an all-cash transaction, and that funds had to be transferred from accounts “overseas” from “multiple institutions.”

The plot thickened.

Information obtained under false pretenses may not be looked upon so kindly by the courts.

We next took a ride by the residence. To our surprise, we found that there was a significant amount of construction going on at the house. While we could have probably come up with some ruse to get the construction workers or the architect to talk about who owned the property, we knew that this was going to end up in litigation and needed more than a statement obtained under false pretenses.

So we went to the local assessor’s office to see if they had permits for the ongoing construction on the property. And what do you know? After taking the time to review all of the applications, permits and site plans, we found the true “owners” staring right back at us. We found a real property transfer report, which showed that the suspected husband and wife had signed the property transfer document, and the same couple had signed two active building permits identifying them as the owners.

Information obtained under false pretenses may not be looked upon so kindly by the courts (just ask Uber), but a piece of paper filed in the local assessor’s office showing the owners of the residence?

Priceless.

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7 replies
  1. Private detective manchester
    Private detective manchester says:

    Some say luck, I say tenacity. If you follow all possible leads through to their conclusion its rare that you don’t find what you are looking for.
    I find the main restriction in these matters is client budget, small budgets often being the reason to wind up an investigation before fully exploring all avenues. If I know I’m close though I’ll often go the extra mile just to secure the result.

  2. Nanette Varian
    Nanette Varian says:

    Great post! If you hadn’t seen construction there, would it still have been worth a trip to the assessor’s office, just in case? (I am new to this, so just wondering.)

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      For sure, Nanette. There could have been old construction permits or other information which would have been helpful. It probably would not be the first place I go, but it’s certainly worth a shot if other avenues don’t pan out.

  3. Tom
    Tom says:

    Brian,

    Do you think you got lucky that the house was under construction? What would your next step have been had you not had this avenue to pursue?

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      One of my favorite quote, Tom:

      “I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more luck I have” ~ Thomas Jefferson

      Not sure what I would have done at that point. Maybe hung around for a bit and waited for them to show up?

  4. George Babnick
    George Babnick says:

    Very good article. Point made. If information is likely going to be used in a court proceeding, how the information was obtained is often more important than the information itself. I have to keep reminding my clients of this – and many of them are attorneys!

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