What is a skip tracer? It sounds like some kind of cool, futuristic sci-fi job — like a cyberpunk private eye who tracks people down through a network of intergalactic wormholes.
And in a way, that’s exactly what it is, minus the cyberpunk theme and the part about the wormholes.
Skip tracing plays a role for real estate professionals ranging from real estate agents to landlords and investors. So how can real estate investors use it to do research and discover off-market deals, and what other uses do investors have for skip tracing? Strap in for a ride down the wormhole.
What Is Skip Tracing in Real Estate?
The term “skip tracing” originally came from the practice of tracking down people who had skipped town to evade creditors or the law. But other industries that have nothing to do with hunting for crooks and deadbeats, including real estate, have uses for the technique today.
In essence, skip tracing is the practice of locating individuals whose contact information is not readily available, hidden, or otherwise difficult to find. Modern skip tracing for business purposes usually involves searching online and through public records to gather the relevant party’s contact information, such as a mailing address, a current phone number, or an email address.
You’d be forgiven if you’re suddenly inspired to adjust the privacy settings and personal information found on your favorite social media websites. (And, by all means, go do that.) But skip tracing differs from the large-scale data mining that fuels all manner of spammers and scammers. Typically someone conducting skip tracing has a particular end in mind and uses skip tracing tools to uncover or piece together the contact information they need to reach a single person for a specific (legitimate) purpose.
Why Use Skip Tracing in Real Estate Investing
You could have a number of reasons to need difficult-to-find contact information in order to conduct business in the real estate market. For example, an investor looking to buy investment properties might need to contact potential sellers to facilitate real estate transactions, make an offer on an unlisted property, conduct marketing efforts in a desired neighborhood, or complete due diligence on a property before closing a deal.
The main uses for skip tracing for landlords and real estate investors include the following.
Finding Unlisted/Off-Market Properties
Real estate skip tracers often aim to track down the current owners of properties, even those not listed on the market. This can be useful for finding off-market deals and reaching out to motivated sellers. Some investors use skip tracing to locate property owners whose listings have expired to make an offer or present alternative solutions for selling their properties.
Finding Owners of Vacant or Distressed Property
Investors can use skip tracing to identify and reach out to the owners of vacant properties that might be in need of repairs or a sale. Real estate wholesalers often rely on skip tracing to locate distressed property owners interested in selling quickly at a price that leaves enough profit margin to flip the contracts to other investors.
Comprehensive Property Research and Due Diligence
When considering purchasing a property, investors can use skip tracing to verify the ownership status and contact details of the current owner. This can also help in researching real estate liens, mortgages, and other potential encumbrances attached to the property.
In addition, skip tracing can help identify and locate heirs and beneficiaries when dealing with probate properties with a deceased owner.
Real estate investors can use batch skip tracing to pull accurate contact information from a batch or list of people or properties rather than targeting one specific individual. This type of skip tracing enables you to conduct a targeted direct mail campaign, marketing emails, or cold calls to potential buyers or sellers. This might shade into spammy territory if not done responsibly, so consider working with a professional skip tracer service to avoid running afoul of any privacy or anti-spam laws in your area.
Investors who manage rental properties can use skip tracing to vet potential tenants and verify their information. Skip tracing allows you to verify an applicant’s employment and past addresses. Some skip tracing services and premium skip tracing tools even provide more in-depth screening information, such as tenant credit reports and criminal records.
Collecting from Delinquent Tenants Who Skipped Town
Tenants can sometimes rack up thousands of dollars in unpaid rent or property damage, and slink out of the property in the middle of the night.
If you have any hope of collecting the money they owe you, or even serving them with papers to take them to small claims court, you first need to find them.
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Skip Tracing Tools and Services
There are a wide range of tools and services available for skip tracing in the real estate industry, with both free and paid options. Let’s look at a few examples of both.
Free Skip Tracing Tools
If you’re on a budget or you enjoy a bit of sleuthing, you can pull together contact lists on your own using a handful of free skip tracing tools.
Remember that skip tracing involves collecting personal information, so you must handle the data responsibly and comply with applicable privacy laws. And it’s generally not OK to share — or worse, sell — the contact information you uncover online. Spreading around other people’s contact information without their consent gets into some pretty gross ethical territory.
With that said, here are the best free skip tracing websites and free online tools you can use to piece together your own skip tracing lists for your real estate business.
A simple Google search can yield relevant information about individuals, especially if they are public figures or have an online presence. You can also search property addresses for listing information and other records found online. Online searches often point you to other sources of information where the name or property address you searched appears publicly.
Social Media Platforms
The big social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram can provide valuable information about individuals. People often publicly share their contact details or mention their real estate interests on these platforms — especially those who are actively looking to make deals.
Online directory websites like Whitepages, Spokeo, and ZabaSearch offer basic contact information for individuals and/or businesses for free. Most keep their more detailed information like criminal background checks and credit reports hidden behind a paywall, but you can often look up phone numbers, addresses, and sometimes email addresses for free. There are many directories out there, and the accuracy and completeness of the information varies dramatically from site to site, so don’t put too much stock in the results from any one of them.
County Public Records
Many county websites provide public records related to property ownership, which can include official contact information for property owners, be they individuals or corporate entities. If you hit a dead end, you can ask your local county recorder for help — maintaining property records is their job, after all!
Online Real Estate Forums
Websites and forums where real estate professionals discuss industry topics sometimes have information about individuals or businesses involved in real estate activities. You may already have a go-to community — try asking around among like-minded people in your area.
Paid Skip Tracing Services
Skip tracing costs vary quite a bit between service providers, usually based on how many searches you conduct, how many records you pull, or the type and depth of the information you want to access. Here’s a high-level look at a few popular skip tracing real estate services and their pricing.
Again, reminiscent of sci-fi, right?
TLOxp is a comprehensive investigative tool powered by TransUnion, one of the big 3 credit bureaus, which maintains a database of information on around 200 million consumers and 65,000 businesses in the U.S. You can start with a free trial, and tiered subscription plans start at around $75 per month and go up from there, depending on the volume of searches and the data you want to gather
PropStream is a real estate data and analytics platform that includes skip tracing services. The tool provides property details, owner information, and various filters to help real estate investors find potential leads. You can start with Propstream’s free trial to try out their skip tracing platform. Subscription pricing starts at $99 per month for basic access and varies based on the plan you choose and the features you need.
Here’s a name I haven’t thought about since doing research in the college library waaaaay back when! A well-established source of public records and information, LexisNexis provides data solutions including skip tracing services for real estate. They build custom pricing plans based on the scale of your usage and the type of data you require, so your best bet is to contact them for a quote.
REIPro is a real estate investment software that also offers skip tracing services to help investors find property owners. In addition to skip tracing services, the platform offers lead generation and CRM solutions, property research tools, contract management, and many other features designed for real estate investors. Its standard plan costs $109 per month but pricing varies by the plan you choose and the level of access you need to the platform’s tools and features.
This service allows you to submit a list of names or addresses for skip tracing, and they provide you with updated contact information. Prices vary based on the number of leads you submit and the quality and granularity of data you want; its website promotes rates as low as $0.20 per result. Other similar batch skip tracing services offer pricing packages that range from a few cents per lead to a fixed cost based on the size of your batch.
This popular skip tracing software specializes in helping real estate investors connect to sellers and uncover lucrative real estate opportunities by locating owners of vacant homes or distressed properties. Skip Genie costs $58 per month for up to 100 searches and a small fee for additional searches. Although it doesn’t include fancy bells and whistles, it’s well suited for basic skip tracing and earns positive reviews from its users for its accuracy and customer service.
The relative newcomer of the bunch, this AI-powered consumer intelligence platform combines public records with demographic, behavioral, and purchasing data from thousands of sources. IDI data is incredibly in-depth and can reveal unseen patterns to a sophisticated enough user—great for building marketing campaigns. You can sign up for a free trial (5 days or 50 searches), after which you must sign up for an annual membership. It ends up costing around $0.50–$1.00 per search depending on the plan you choose.
Skip tracing is not just for debt collectors, law enforcement, and cyberpunk space travelers!
While a valuable tool for real estate investors, make sure you use these tools responsibly and ethically. You should familiarize yourself with the basics of the privacy laws and regulations pertaining to gathering and using personal information in your state or country. And always respect a request not to be contacted again or to be removed from a contact list, because failing to honor such a request can cost you a stiff fine.
You can unearth a lot of contact info through a skip trace, but it’s not a guaranteed method for finding accurate, complete, and up-to-date information. The quality of the data available through skip tracing tools can vary, especially among free resources with no active moderators. It will come as a surprise to noone: Just because you found it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true!
You can combat this challenge by cross-referencing the information across multiple sources, and independently verifying contact information obtained from skip tracing tools whenever possible.♦
What free skip tracing tools have you used? What about premium skip tracing services? Any other skip tracing tips or experiences you can share?
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About the Author
Jim Cirigliano has more than 15 years of experience writing original content for consumer and business publications in industries including personal finance, construction and manufacturing, nature and outdoors, and science and biotechnology. He operates Spot Check Editorial, which produces world-class content that engages readers and customers.