Finding the Right Address: Part 1—Public Records and Periodical Indices

Looking for Information on a Specific Building

There are many reasons for wanting to learn more about specific buildings and neighborhoods.  Firms in the architectural/engineering and construction industries have obvious needs, but other businesses often look for information about places to establish a new outlet or office.  Or, if you are a product supplier, you need to locate buildings that utilize your product.  (e.g. Will this project utilize bricks, glass blocks, etc.  Does this building have equipment I can service?)  Where are all the hotels, stadiums and arenas in New York City, or skyscrapers in Germany?  What new buildings are under construction in San Diego?  Is there an environmental hazard nearby?

"Of course the first thing to do was to make a grand survey of the country..." Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass.

The questions that can be asked about buildings are endless: who designed, constructed, owns, and manages it?  What type of building is it? Who lives in or does business there?  When was it built, and how much did it cost?  Style and functions are also important.  Creative marketers can use the tools listed in these posts to find exactly what they need, but it may take some time to locate the best source for your specific purpose.

Most of the resources available that provide information on buildings can be divided into three categories: those providing resources for the architectural and construction industries; those with searchable descriptive data for marketing, business and professional real estate purposes; and those with historical drawings, maps, and data.  I am not going to cover residential sites, but many of the sources do include homes and neighborhoods. 

Because there are so many really useful and interesting resources, I have split them into three posts. This one, the first, covers public records and periodical indices.  The second will survey many of the free and subscription databases available.  Historical records are the focus of the third post.  

Public Records

 Tax and property records maintained by taxing authorities remain a great source for finding information about properties, including buildings and vacant property.  Some even allow for owner name searches; some include images. Databases maintained by larger cities are usually extensive and up to date, and consequently easier to use.  Counties in many states are fairly complete, but some have no online records at all.  Remember to check both the tax assessor and the county clerk and recorder offices.

Building permits are often not included in online databases, but some jurisdictions provide monthly PDFs of permit reports.  Usually requestors must visit the office to obtain more information.  Others (the city of Boston for example) have an online searchable database.  Some jurisdictions even offer an online database of commercial and industrial properties.



NetroOnline has several components.  

1. The Public Records Online Directory is a portal to official state web sites, and those tax assessors’ and recorders’ offices that provide web sites for the retrieval of available public records over the internet.  The public records portal is very easy to use; you can search by city and state, zip code, or county. Of course the document availability varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

2. The valuable Environmental Database Viewer and Report Generator is a comprehensive environmental database containing thousands of records collected from various local, state, and federal organizations. This includes Superfund sites, suspected contamination, compliance and violation concerns, permitted sources of toxic vapors, and other characteristics that may be harmful. Searching by address yields a map with pins showing reports for such things as underground storage tanks, hazardous waste facilities, superfund sites, permitted sources of toxic vapors, and facilities under EPA corrective action. To test this database I randomly input an address in downtown Denver, Colorado, and got an astonishing 492 results.

3. The Property Data Store provides information on a fee basis; these records include comparable property reports, document images, index search, ownership and encumbrance reports, parcel maps, property detail reports (a search of available current land title records for ownership, property assessment, taxes, mortgages, other voluntary and involuntary liens), and transfer detail reports. Most of the fees are under $10.00, with the exception of the Ownership & Encumbrance Report, which is $75.00.

 4.  The final site, Historical Aerials, is not as easy to use as the others. You may retrieve digital maps and purchase images at approximately 1800×1800 pixels. Images can also be imported into GIS applications using WORLD or KML files. I searched for Salt Lake City and found maps back to 1953.  Inputting Disneyland, CA yielded maps back to 1896 (forAnaheim), with the newest being 2005.  For more sites with historical information go to the third post on this topic.


State and Local Government on the Net  

This is a portal to web sites for all levels of  U.S. governments. It provides a quick and convenient way to browse a table of contents for all of these resources. The web site offers no information regarding the authors or sponsors of this effort.  (


Public Records Directory 

The Free Public Records Directory is another portal to numerous records search sites; the user can elect to search by location or by topic.  It provides links to public records, including property tax records, recorded land records, development codes, business and contractor licenses, and environmental issues, which can all be viewed by state, county, or city.  I opted to search for permits issued in  Virginia; the list of counties retrieved displayed links to those offering specific types of searches, for example building permits.  (


Periodical Indices 

A good method for locating information on specific buildings is to use periodical indices.  (To read more about using periodical indices see Finding Business News.)   Good sources include newspaper indexes, business periodical indices, and general indices available on public library websites. 

My search on Academic Search Premier using the terms “office buildings” and Charlotte yielded 16 articles, including several available on pdf.  One was a citation to a Wall Street Journal article about demand for office space in the city.  A similar search on Business Source Premier found 39 articles.  

The idea is to be creative and to include indices that might seem a bit out of the normal search.  For those who need more depth, several large databases are available by subscription or at universities for their students.

 Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals: Published by Columbia University.  This resource is a comprehensive guide to the current literature of architecture and design; it surveys more than 2,500 U.S. and foreign journals. The index covers international, scholarly, and popular periodical literature; including publications of professional associations; U.S., state, and regional periodicals; and major serial publications on the architecture and design of Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia.  Avery’s extensive database is available mostly at university libraries, though I did find a few large public libraries with in-house access.

The Architectural Index: this is not a major source, but may offer some information when all else fails. You can search for Building Type/Subject, Architect/Designer, Location /State or Country; Location/City, and Description words that are not in another category; and Author. The index covers 18 periodicals, including titles such as Arts and Architecture, and Building Design and Construction.  1982-1988 data is free.  The latest entries are from 2010.  (

The next post will cover both free and subscription databases.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Government Information, Market Research

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>