Property Sleuthing 101

Something is going down in your neighborhood! Some old building is being renovated, or a nearby lot is now littered with Ms. Dig flags. Or, perhaps, nothing is happening in your neighborhood and you are wise enough to be concerned about that; so what about that old building? In any case you want to do some research - but don't know how to start. Fortunately almost all the information you might be interested in is public record. It is only a trick of knowing where to find it. So, for an example, let's research 811 College Ave NE.

For decades 811 College Ave was Modern Appliance. I have a, now middle-aged, neighbor who had her first job at Modern Appliance. Eventually Modern Appliance closed up shop, the building sat dormant for a few years, moldering away like the rest of the small business district at College & Bradford. Until one day the door was open and workers were hauling out the refuse; work on whatever this building would be next had begun. So let's sleuth.

The place to begin is the county's GIS (Geographic Information System) page at 👉👈. There you can lookup the basic information for any parcel in Kent county. In Michigan property records are maintained at the county level - with the county clerk - but if the property is within a subordinate unit of government, like a city, then that unit generally maintains the complete records. At the Kent county GIS site you can search for a street address or just scroll around to the parcel you are interested in. If search fails go scrolling; the databases I am discussing here can be particular about address syntax. Once you find a parcel you can click on it to see a popup containing all the basic information including the parcel id (the "Pnum") and the owner. Keep the parcel id and owner name handy as they are the key to finding more information. The parcel id is a more reliable value to use for search in the databases than the address.

In the popup on the Kent county GIS map the parcel id is a link which will take you to the records for the property in the county database. And there you will see a link to the property in the city's database; which is where you want to go.

Now you are getting to the goods. On this site are - usually - images of the property; and one of these images [often the last] is a survey diagram of the structures on the property. Also here are sales and tax history.

Aside: Ever wonder why Michigan cities can't have nice things like frequent public transportation and swimming pools in our parks? The answer is that nice things cost money, and the Michigan state legislature has decimated municipal revenues. Here is a commercial property on a major street paying $3,448/yr in property taxes. The state collects those property taxes and is - through a scheme called "revenue sharing" - supposed to return most of it to the local government. They don't. The Michigan state legislature has forbidden cities from having progressive income tax, sales tax, etc... anything other than a very restrictive property tax scheme.They take the money, our money, and either send it off to rural and suburban communities or hand it off as "economic incentives" to their corporate sponsors.

Within the parcel database you can see all the invoices paid to the city and city departments related to the parcel. Anything like "Building Inspection Fund" is a routine inspection related to plumbing, electrical, or other work.

Most commercial and rental properties are owned by a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). This is the case with 811 College Ave NE which is owned by "JOHN ANTHONY REAL ESTATE L.L.C." In Michigan you can track down who an LLC by searching the database of LARA (Licensing and Regulatory Affairs) @ 👉👈.
Tip: In government databases all names are complete UPPERCASE.

Now you know the mailing address of the business, and can click the name to follow through to see the "registered agent" for the LLC; this is the "who".

And now we have a the name of a person: "NEIL DEMEESTER".

Often times the next question is how many LLCs does this person have? For rentals, or assembling properties to later join into a larger development, multiple LLCs may be used either for the intended purpose of an LLC [to limit liability] or to obfuscate the intent. For these we again use LARA but search by the name we found in the previous search.

And Mr. Demeester has 17 LLCs.

On the same track of following the web of ownership the other item to check is other properties may be owned by an LLC. For this we go back to the database of the city of Grand Rapids, this time using the Citizen Access portal @ 👉👈. In Citizen Access we want to search property information.

Change to "Lookup by Owner" and search the name of the LLC MINUS ALL PUNCTUATION. The city's property database doesn't include puctuation; and it is still all capital letters. In our example the "L.L.C." in "JOHN ANTHONY REAL ESTATE L.L.C." becomes "LLC".

And we find three results, all with slightly different renderings of the address. This is a good example of why searching by-address is best avoided; addresses are recorded as they are represented on the related legal documents, not in any normalized or certified form.

To follow through to all the properties owned by the LLC we have to click through each of these redundant entries. And we find five properties, including at least one multi-family property. Multi-family properties are listed as a property and with an entry for each unit IF any inspection or other activity has occurred in relation to the unit. There may be multi-family properties for which a unit will not appear in the database if that unit is either inactive or used for some other purpose [storage?]. See in the example how only unit #3 appears for 603 Emerald NE while three units appear for 601 Emerald NE.

Within Citizen Access it also possible to search for permits requested and issued. This is largely redundant of the "invoices" available in the parcel database we navigated to via the county's GIS map; however things requested but not yet invoiced may appear here first. The list on Citizen Access will also contain more specifics. Here it is most effective to search by the parcel Id.

Most of the activity will be items which would have appeared under "invoices" as "Building Inspection Fund", but more specific, like "Electrical Permit". The most interesting items will appear with a "Record Number" containing the work "PLAN"; as in our "Land User Permit - Planning/Zoning Only". This is where we will discover the intended use of the property.

And we discover that 811 College Ave NE, the old "Modern Appliance" is being converted into a three unit residential property with the right to exercise short-term leases [leases of 30 days or less].

Now you know how to find the owner of a property, back track LLCs to owners and properties, and find the permit activity of a property.

🕵️ Happy sleuthing! 🕵️