One of the benefits of working in real estate in the modern era is the wealth of information all at your fingertips. Most municipalities have online mapping systems that give you property information for every parcel in their jurisdiction. Tax assessor databases are also usually available online. As an investor or developer, this allows you to scout potential properties, do preliminary due diligence, see previous sales, and gather lots of other vital information that you’ll need to identify your next projects.
The problem is that many people do not know about these systems, which is understandable because there is no streamlined, ubiquitous method to make this information publically available.
Below we detail a couple of different ways to access this information. Which method applies to your municipality will vary, but this brief overview should point you in the right direction.
1. Online GIS
Geographic information systems emerged in the late 1960’s as a way to relate complicated geographical data in a comprehensive system. They are used by a variety of professionals, but for those in the real estate industry they are most valuable for scouting potential properties and analyzing properties you’ve already identified in your due diligence phase.
GIS can also provide you with centralized assessor data for each parcel. Perhaps the most useful thing for a developer is the ability to see zoning information. All too often, municipalities have an ancient zoning map that was drafted decades ago. While in most cases you should at least be able to access a scanned version of the zoning map online, actually locating properties on the map may be impractical.
I’ve seen zoning maps with unlabeled streets, unclear image quality, and just overall a confusing presentation that makes it very difficult to locate the parcel(s) in question on the map.
Try searching the name of your city, town, or county on google or another search engine with the word “GIS” included. There are a few different companies that contract with local governments, so the actual platform you use to access the data may vary, but look for “tools” or “layers,” where you can enable or disable additional information.
From here you can find the zoning layer and get a much easier, interactive map of the zones. You are often also able to measure distances using GIS websites as well, which can help you get a rough idea of setbacks and frontage if this information is not provided elsewhere
2. Assessor's Database
Beginner and longtime investors alike will find their way to these databases at some point or another. When you’re analyzing a property, you can find a lot of useful information here.
The first thing you could get from the assessor’s database is the ownership information, which is useful for scouting for properties off-market. The database should also include tax information, prior sales information (in many cases), building size, building materials, building age, and assessed value.
The information that is included in these databases vary from municipality to municipality, however it is also common to include the frontage, zoning, historical status, and other information of that nature here as well. This is an important tool in your due diligence toolbox in the early and middle stages of your career.
3. Online Zoning Codes
Luckily, most zoning codes can be accessed online, usually through municode.com. This will save you countless hours and allow you or your team to familiarize yourselves with many zoning codes in your area.
Some important areas to look through during your first assessment of a potential project are the use regulations, the dimensional regulations, any zoning overlays (whether they encourage growth or inhibit it), parking regulations, and conservation and open space regulations.
Usually, when you are analyzing a new property in a zone you are unfamiliar with, the first place you will go is the use regulations table, to see if the use types you are considering are allowed.
Next you would head to the dimensional regulations table to see if the allowed building size makes sense for your investment.
4. Zoning Viewers
Developers will be very pleased if their city has a zoning viewer system that is specifically designed for this purpose. This can allow you to see what zone your property is in, historical district information, any kind of zoning overlays, and basically any information relevant to zoning and development.
If you’re building in a place with such a system, it may be as easy as typing in your address and having all of the information you need, including links to the assessor’s database for the parcel, right there in front of you.
These systems are much rarer, in our experience. We are often forced to use the more general GIS websites, which can give you the information you need, but not in as seamless a fashion as a proper tool designed to analyze zoning. Go to your city or municipality’s website, or type the city name into your search engine with “zoning viewer” or “zoning browser” to see if there is one available.
5. Development Software
One of the exciting things on the horizon in this field are systems being programmed that incorporate all of the information located in GIS, assessor database, zoning viewers, Google maps, and other publically available information all in one place.
One such company is DevelopmentAI, run by our good friends Carson Hess and Kevin Woods. We partnered with them early on in the beta phase and the amount of information you can get from their systems really boosted our business.
If you’re looking to source off market deals, analyze the viability of your development proposal by comparing to other similar proposals, use “by-right” builder models, and more, I definitely recommend checking out DevelopmentAI at https://www.developmentai.net/
Having to find and analyze new deals, manage your existing investments, and continue to expand your team and network are all time consuming activities that could each be a job in and of themselves. Leveraging technology for a more efficient deal analysis process will free up the time you need to continue to grow your business.