Morning Poll: Concerns About Property Records

by ARLnow.com July 11, 2011 at 9:19 am 5,670 97 Comments

For years now, one has been able to input an address into an Arlington County web page and find information like how much the property is assessed for, how much it has sold for in the past, and the name of the property owner.

According to the Sun Gazette, however, county leaders are now deciding whether including the owner’s name in the county’s public real estate assessment database presents privacy concerns.

Over the weekend, the County Board responded to a resident’s complaint about its online property records system by asking county staff to “look into options for redacting the names of property owners” from the search results, according to the paper.

The system, an internet-based version of the real estate records available at the county courthouse, is similar to Fairfax County’s property records system in that it is only searchable by address, not name. However, a speaker at Saturday’s County Board meeting complained that unlike Fairfax, Arlington does not offer residents the option of having their name withheld from the records upon request.

What do you think should be done?

  • Tim

    Would names still be available at the courthouse?

    • For the purposes of this poll, we’re just talking about the web site. So, yes.


    Why does the link go to Virk’s house. FREDTERP

    • That was a mistake. We picked a home at random for illustrative purposes, but the link was meant to go to the main search page, not a specific property record. It has been fixed now.

  • James

    Should the name be available? Yes! How else will I find out all of my neighbor’s names that I’ve forgotten even though I’ve met them twenty times?

    • yequalsy

      I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who does this.

      • Cranky Crankypants

        ditto that.

        • Dan

          better than the phone book.

          • brian

            But you can redact from phone book.

          • Burger

            Please explain how you can look someone’s name up with phone book. It is alphabetical not by address

            Or I should ask, when was the last time someone actually received the white pages and immediately dump it in the recycle bin?

    • John Fontain

      Same here.

    • Tre

      How else will I estimate my neighbor’s mortgage payments and implied minimum income levels?

      • Lee-n-Glebe

        I’d suggest dumpster diving.


        • Tre

          Left overs AND financial statements…sounds like a win win win.

      • charlie

        no mortgage information is available.
        sales price, yes.
        but you have no idea how much they did (or didn’t) put down. or refinanced. or or or…

        • John Fontain

          That information is available through redfin.

          • R. Griffon

            Where do you see that? I only see the sale price when looking at Redfin.

          • John Fontain

            You have to be logged in to Redfin and then you need to be looking at a recent sale record (not a current listing).

            Then look under “Finances and Fees” and you’ll see the data. Here is an example excerpt from a recent sale:

            Finances & Fees
            New Trust Loan: Conventional
            Loan: New Loan First Trust
            New Trust Amount: $720,000.00
            Possession: Settlement


    • Elizabeth

      Gonna +1 you here because that was the very first thing that came to my mind. I routinely use the db to refresh my memory.

  • Josh S

    Fascinating question.
    I’ve always been surprised that this information is available. However, I’ve just assumed that there must be some public purpose that it serves to have this information publicly available. I’m not entirely sure what that purpose is. Does anyone know?

    • Greg

      It’s all public anyway. You need to have this information to do title searches and the like. You will always be able to go the real estate room at the court and look this stuff up. So the question is just how easy should it be to access the info. I say keep it on the website.

    • soarlslacker

      I have found that when I locked myself out of our house and its other resdiedent were unavailable that the lockshith I called checked the owership of the my home before showing up and picking my lock. So there are legitimate uses for the data.
      I would prefer to have the option to not have our names listed. If people can’t find you, people can’t hurt you.

  • charlie

    you really should blank out the RPC number too.

  • Captain Obvious

    This information is public record and readily available from a number of other sources, such as this one: http://www.washingtonpost.com/homesales/advancedSearch.html

    • Lee-n-Glebe

      Homeowners can also execute closing docs with their initials. I have friends who bought a big house and did this specifically because they didn’t want to appear in the Washington Post list.

      • Tabby

        Wish I’d known that.

  • Roquer

    Just another example of Arlington’s being the liberal center of the world.How about we throw in the owner’s DOB and social security number too? Heck, didn’t Erik Schmidt (Google CEO) say if you are worried about your privacy then you must be doing something wrong? How about Arlington Board paying a bit more attention to the security of the taxpayers.Too much to ask? We have hackers into EVERYTHING computer. A little security by a Government instead of giving information away would be helpful.

    • doodly

      What a ridiculous comment. This info has been public record for hundreds of years all over the country. It has nothing to do with being “liberal.” Just stop the idiocy.

      • jan


    • Bluemontsince1961

      +100, Roquer! They could at least ask homeowners if they wanted their names to show up on the web or not and respect their wishes either way.

    • Records

      Ridiculous. Everywhere I have ever tried to search has a better search system than Arlington. Most places allow you to search all public records by name (to, for example find all properties owned by an individual or business). I just was looking at Polk Co, Florida for example


      • John Fontain

        Compared to all of the local area systems such as Fairfax, Alexandria, Loudoun, and (god forbid you ever try to make use of it) D.C., I think Arlington’s is the best, most user friendly system in the area! By a long shot.

        • (another) Greg

          I’m with John.

      • Frank Alfred

        FL has “Sunshine Law” so all information like that is automatically public and must be readily available.

  • charlie

    It is an interesting question.

    the phone company had to petition the state to stop providing phone books because everyone now uses the internet.

    i believe the county has also asked for permission (and I think it has been granted) to move away from the Public Notice requirement that the CB meetings are advertised in a newspaper (who reads those, much less the classified section).

    So if all this information is being moved online, and is being considered the defacto “public notice” “public info” why would we then begin to restrict it? Does the County want to force people to buy the CD with all the data? Do we have to go back to the old days were we looked up records in the Library?

    It is called the information highway for a reason. And why should a name be withheld? The assessment, transactions, building permits would all still be up there.

    If you are so important you can request the “NAME BE WITHELD” from the public record. I see it all the time on Fairfax real estate records.

  • Don Ager

    people should only be able to redact their names if they have a reason for safety. Such as if a person is considered in danger I e being stalked, a national security position, victim of a violent crime with possible reoccurance, etc.

    • Tabby

      Yup. I have a stalker who has used these records to harass me.

      • Burger

        I realize that is a scary issue.

        But redacting information won’t stop him. As stated previously there are other ways to get this information.

  • Don

    There are many situations where it’s a good idea to allow people to have their names removed from the online database on request:

    Anyone employed in law enforcement or intelligence

    Women who are trying to hide from an abusive ex-husband or ex-boyfriend

    At the same time, I do think it makes sense to have ownership records available to the public in hard copy. If you live next door to a rental house whose occupants are making your life a living hell, then you should be able to find out who the owner is and contact them (and sue them if it comes to that).

    I think the ideal situtation would be to have it so that only the nearby property owners could see who owns a particular property, they having much greater vested interest and “need to know.”

    • John Fontain

      “There are many situations where it’s a good idea to allow people to have their names removed from the online database on request…Women who are trying to hide from an abusive ex-husband or ex-boyfriend”

      Given that the database isn’t searchable by name, the abusive ex-husband or ex-boyfriend would have to already know the address of the ex-wife or ex-girlfriend to be able to look up the name. And if the ex-husband/boyfriend already knows the address, there wouldn’t be any point in looking up the name to begin with.

  • Aaron

    If these are meant to be public records, why create additional barriers to letting the actual public review them?

    You shouldn’t have to be a member of a special caste who’s able to go to the courthouse (or wherever) during weekday business hours to have access to what is by definition public information.

    • Don

      I’m generally for more public information rather than less, and I’m the last person to want to take time off work to go suffer some bureaucracy. But in this case, I think the factors I mentioned above make this a bit different. These are people’s *homes* were talking about–not just “Who’s on the board of X big corporation” or the like.

      Also complicating this is that if a person’s name is unusual enough, a Google search will turn up the property record on the County site among its top hits. Suppose some creep is obsessed with you or someone you love who has a unique name. They Google the name and see your address. So it’s not just answering “Who owns that house?” but also “Where does so-and-so live?”

      Is that a good thing?

      • John Fontain

        “Also complicating this is that if a person’s name is unusual enough, a Google search will turn up the property record on the County site among its top hits.”

        Are you sure about this? I just did a google search on my last name and a few of my neighbors’ (with very unique last names) and limited the search results to those from the arlington county website and got “no results.”

        Here was my google search:

        “last name” site:http://www.co.arlington.va.us

        • Don (not Don Ager–another one)

          All I know is, I have a family member with a very unusual name, and when I Google it, their listing in the database is among the top few results. Which is scary for them.

          • John Fontain

            The Arlington County database or some other database?

            I just did more test searches. I cut and pasted data from a specific property tax record into google and the search results came back with no results from the County’s website. I first searched for the data under a record’s “legal description” and then for data under “assessment history”. Each time, I got no relevant results. This is after searching by name on google and limited the search to arlington’s site. I’m not convinced that the County’s assessment records are searchable by google. Anyone else have insights on this?

          • Don J.

            Ok, I just tried it again with the same unusually named family member–and oddly, it doesn’t work anymore. So I guess that’s good. (I swear it worked a few months ago.)

          • John Fontain

            So if the database isn’t google-searchable, are your concerns over the publication of names (knowing that the database is also not name-searchable) alleviated?

          • novanglus

            According to the county web site’s search engine configuration (http://www.arlingtonva.us/robots.txt), those pages are allowed to be crawled for search engines. But each page will only show up if some other site links to it.

          • John Fontain

            I knew there was someone with a lot more tech smarts than me who would have an answer to this question. thanks.

          • Don J.

            Ah! That explains it.

            John, to answer your earlier question (since the reply button disappears after so many replies to a post): Given this new info, then I guess it’s not as bad as I’d feared, but I still think it’d be a good balance of public right to information vs. individual safety to allow an opt-out for the online records only.

            I mean, who would really *need* to know who owns a particular property? I’d say neighbors. I’d bet that most often it would be neighbors with a beef about a rental house.

            In such a case, if the online record were redacted, then these neighbors could then find the time to go to the Courthouse–or perhaps there could be a way to make an online request to the County for such a record.

          • Josh S


          • Arlington, Northside

            Can’t easily find my listing using google, and we have a pretty rare last name. Even putting in our last name and the address does not bring it up.

  • Check out the website in my profile and you will see the reason why the CB wants to redacted public information.

    • speonjosh

      I doubt it. As a public official, even if their name was redacted from this database, their address will still be fairly widely known. For example, my guess is they must file some sort of document in order to get on the ballot in the first place. This document is surely public information.

    • Burger

      What is somewhat interesting on the prices – some seem a little low – I think what is pretty distrubing is the fact they all live within about 1-1.5 mile and half and thus, and have no real understanding of 66W expansion or 395. They are likely never on those roads to fully appreciate the issue.

      • speonjosh

        Wow, that’s quite the accusation. Elected board members in one of the wealthiest and best educated counties in the nation and you accuse of them of being so parochial they know nothing beyond the borders of their own neighborhood.

        I imagine they might get on those roads every now and then…..

        • Burger

          So you dispute the fact they all live within a 1-1.5 mile of each other?

          It is called information bias. Most people are biased, even those sainted public officials, by what they see everyday. thus, those 5 individuals are inherently impacted by the daily events in their lives so they rarely travel those roads like someone who lives off of Sycamore or Seminary Road. No. So what ever they decide will have no impact on their daily lives. It is much easier for the CB to fight 66 expansion and 395 expansion because they rarely travel those roads.

          I doubt they have ever been caught on 66W between Glebe and Sycamore on Sunday at 5 PM or E bound at 8 PM going toward Glebe and the road is bumper to bumper. So, I think I know what I am talking about.

          In essence, the people that live on the Northern, Western and Southern parts of Arlington County are not adequately represented by the county board and another reason why I am in favor of district style elections for board members. It would make them more accountable to the entire county not just the big population points along the Orange and Blue lines (many of which rent).

  • John Fontain

    I’d prefer that names continue to be published and see little reason for them to be kept confidential. The County’s database is not searchable by name, so it isn’t like someone can find you that way. I’d suggest that the few people who might have concerns over their privacy/security purchase property under an LLC or a personal holding corp. For example, John Fontain could buy property under JF Corp, or even FJ Corp. There is nothing stopping individuals from doing so.

    And really, what is the security risk in someone looking up a property and knowing the name of the person who owns it unless that person is a public figure? It’s not like someone can set up a credit card using your credit if they have your name and address. And if someone really wants to know where you live, they can easily hire a private investigator or pay any number of internet firms to track down this info and provide it from other public sources.

    My vote is to keep the info publicly available.

    • Don (not Don Ager–another one)

      John, if your name were an unusual one, it would be just that easy to find out where you live (assuming you live in the home you own), by Googling.

      The solution you propose I think has a couple of flaws: For one, the average person does not know how to buy through a shell company–and I’m guessing it would cost them extra to do so. And it sure sounds like it could make life complicated later. (E.g., a couple buy a house under “XYZ LLC,” the husband dies, and then the wife has to go through a mess of paperwork to prove the LLC was her husband and thus the house is hers.)

      • John Fontain

        $150 of extra transaction costs on a $1 million plus purchase for a well known public figure is probably a drop in the bucket and a very reasonable and immaterial “investment” if their privacy is that important to them.

        • Don (not Don Ager–another one)

          Those are both big assumptions–that it would only cost $150 and that someone who wants to do this would necessarily be a super-wealthy public figure.There are locally well-known public figures too, like the head of any large, powerful County government office, or the owner of a particular business.

          • John Fontain

            Not an assumption on the fee. And I don’t buy the story that someone whose privacy was really that important to them wouldn’t be willing to spend an extra 5/10,000ths (or less) of the transaction cost to protect their privacy.

            “There are locally well-known public figures too, like the head of any large, powerful County government office, or the owner of a particular business.”

            Again, since the database isn’t searchable by name, how does publishing a property owner’s name allow someone to find another by using the database?

  • Captain Obvious

    Newsflash: Public listing of the ownership of property has existed for hundreds of years because it’s the only way to prevent fraudulent encumbrances. The County can choose not to put that information on their website, but they can’t change the fact that it’s public record at the courthouse and that other sources will aggregate that information.

    • doodly

      Thank you for noting why ownership of property is public record in the first place, Captain.

      • G Clifford Prout

        Not right on point, but always a funny read..

        Part of rebuilding New Orleans caused residents often to be challenged with the task of tracing home titles back potentially hundreds of years. With a community rich with history stretching back over two centuries, houses have been passed along through generations of family, sometimes making it quite difficult to establish ownership. Here’s a great letter an attorney wrote to the FHA on behalf of a client:

        A New Orleans lawyer sought an FHA loan for a client. He was told the loan would be granted if he could prove satisfactory title to a parcel of property being offered as collateral. The title to the property dated back to 1803, which took the lawyer three months to track down. After sending the information to the FHA, he received the following reply.

        (Actual reply from FHA):
        “Upon review of your letter adjoining your client’s loan application, we note that the request is supported by an Abstract of Title. While we compliment the able manner in which you have prepared and presented the application, we must point out that you have only cleared title to the proposed collateral property back to 1803. Before final approval can be accorded, it will be necessary to clear the title back to its origin.”
        Annoyed, the lawyer responded as follows:

        (Actual response):
        “Your letter regarding title in Case No.189156 has been received. I note that you wish to have title extended further than the 206 years covered by the present application. I was unaware that any educated person in this country, particularly those working in the property area, would not know that Louisiana was purchased by the United States from France, in 1803 the year of origin identified in our application. For the edification of uninformed FHA bureaucrats, the title to the land prior to U.S. ownership was obtained from France, which had acquired it by Right of Conquest from Spain. The land came into the possession of Spain by Right of Discovery made in the year 1492 by a sea captain named Christopher Columbus, who had been granted the privilege of seeking a new route to India by the Spanish monarch, Queen Isabella.
        The good Queen Isabella, being a pious woman and almost as careful about titles as the FHA, took the precaution of securing the blessing of the Pope before she sold her jewels to finance Columbus’s expedition. Now the Pope, as I’m sure you may know, is the emissary of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and God, it is commonly accepted, created this world. Therefore, I believe it is safe to presume that God also made that part of the world called Louisiana. God, therefore, would be the owner of origin and His origins date back to before the beginning of time, the world as we know it, and the FHA. I hope you find God’s original claim to be satisfactory. Now, may we have our loan?”

        The loan was immediately approved.

  • novanglus

    This information is public by law in Virginia and nearly every other state. If the County doesn’t put it on the web, the press will publish it anyway, as they have for decades.

    If you’re so special that you don’t want your name associated with your property ownership, create a holding trust.

    • novanglus

      But, wait. If you create holding trust with a fictional name, you’ll need to register that fictional name with the courthouse, which will also be a public record.


      • Don J.

        I find the idea of letting someone buy a property under a hidden name or shell corp. a lot more creepy and against the public good than the idea of letting people opt out of the online database only–which would prevent the entire online world from finding out what property a person owns by simply Googling their name, provided their name is unusual enough.

        As many have stated, the record would still be on file at the Courthouse. Which means that only people with a really good reason to look it up would bother. And if the abusive ex husband tried to do so, at least there’d be a record of his going to the courthouse and requesting the hard copy records.

        • Thes

          I don’t believe anyone keeps records of who is searching public records at the courthouse.

          • John Fontain

            I agree. But if they did, they should provide a public record of those searching public records.

            But should the public record of those searching pubic records be searchable by name?

            Or should the names on the public record of those searching public records be redacted to prevent people who want to the view the public record of those searching public records from knowing who was looking at the public records?

  • Arlwhenever

    Keep the name. How else would John McCain have learned that he owns an Arlington condo during the last presidential election?

  • NOVApologist

    I want an online database that is searchable by license plate number so I can get the name and address of the motherlover who ran a red light and nearly t-boned me on the way to work this morning.

  • soarlslacker

    If someone with an automatic weapon had stood in front of the entrance to your (or your spouse’s, or a family member’s) place of employment and shot and killed employees as they came to work, you might give this idea a bit more thought. The same consideration might apply if you had testified in front a congressional committee. Many people are forced into a public arena just by doing their jobs. They have no choice. If strangers can’t find you, they can’t hurt you.
    Should Leon Panetta’s address be easily available?
    Should David Petraeus’ address be easily available?
    Should Janet Napolitano’s address be easily available?
    People should be very concerned about how much information is available about them on the Internet and how much information they put on the Internet about themselves.
    If you need to check up on your neighbors you would still be able to get the sale price of their home based on the address. What you would not be able to do is easily find the owner’s names by using their address. You could do what many of us do, look at the name on the USPS mail that is often incorrectly delivered as you walk if over to the neighbor’s mailbox.
    Being able to redact your name from property records is no more secretive that paying for an unlisted and unpublished phone number.

    • Bluemontsince1961

      Soarlslacker wrote: “Being able to redact your name from property records is no more secretive that paying for an unlisted and unpublished phone number.”

      Exactly, and the point of my earlier comment.

    • brian

      well – don’t make enemies and you won’t have a problem.

      so yes, public address information is a good way to keep people in check who wish to be law abiding. lol

    • John Fontain

      “If strangers can’t find you, they can’t hurt you.”

      If the database isn’t searchable by name or on google, how can someone use the database to “find you”?

    • speonjosh

      Yes, yes and yes.
      It’s a democracy. Rule of law, not rule of man. These people are not above us. Jesus, the President of the United States’ address is known.
      If there are known security issues, you then take precautions. Bodyguards, house guards, etc. Otherwise, you’re a citizen like the rest of us and don’t give to live in secrecy.
      As for the phone number analogy – except that knowing someone’s phone number isn’t necessary for the orderly preservation and transfer of ownership of real property and all the rights and responsibilities that go along with that ownership. Phones are still really optional.

    • Burger

      They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

      Benjamin Franklin.

      And your point about people shooting employees at their work would not be prevented from hiding a person’s home address.

      further, all three people you cited have Secret Service protection.

      • Don J.

        This statement from Franklin is most often used to warn against allowing the government to invade privacy–yet you’re using it to attack the protection of privacy.

        Furthermore, I don’t think anyone would regard the ability to look up the owner of any given property on the Internet as an “essential liberty,” like freedom of the press or of religion.

        • Tabby

          He never said that, actually.

          • doodly

            Well, actually, he did say that.

            There are lots of fake quotes out there, nearly all of them from right-wing teabaggers (they didn’t exactly earn As in history – look at Bachmann and Palin), but this isn’t one of them.

          • madisonmanor

            “nearly all of them from right-wing teabaggers”
            Is that quote before or after Obama’s 57 states one? Seems liberals didn’t do too well in history. Generalizations suck.


        • Burger

          It is very simple and actually on point with Franklin.

          You are asking the government to hide information i.e. in short the very thing Franklin was talking about. It is removing the liberty of the public it to review information. It is become less transparent. It is stopping the public, let’s say the presses’ ability to review information on what a county board member has had done recently on their houses.

          Or it can prevent someone from reviewing county records from on someone else – say a mortgagor. There is no reason this shouldn’t be public information for variety of reason as stated.

          In short, it is supporting less transparency and the onus on those that wish to have the ability to redact that information to the point that another person couldn’t get it in any way. As mentioned numerous times that information is available in many ways and the “dangerous” stalker is a misplaced slipper slope argument that lacks substance.

          • doodly

            No, I think you’ve got it backwards, Burger.

            This is private information that the government is collecting and making public. It’s not just about public figures like county board members, it’s everyone.

          • Stu Pendus

            What is private information?

      • soarlslacker

        Most federal workers don’t have any protection–NONE. Get a ride to testify before Congress and the ride is not for you, it is for the safety and protection of the documents you will present. Should there be a problem the driver might call 911 for you, after the docs are secured.

    • Joe

      “Many people are forced into a public arena just by doing their jobs. They have no choice. If strangers can’t find you, they can’t hurt you.”

      People choose their job. Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and Janet Napolitano all choose to be public officials and choose to be in the public arena. It’s absurd to claim otherwise.

  • BerryBerryCold

    Why are none of my comments to this article appearing?

    • Lee-n-Glebe

      Nobody can read this to give you an answer . . .

      • John Fontain

        Read what? Who are you responding to????

        • speonjosh

          There is definitely something screwy with the comments. I’ve noticed it for a couple of weeks now. When commenting on certain stories, it can take over an hour between writing the comment and it actually appearing.
          Others, it works just fine. I wonder if it is for more heavily trafficked comment threads?

  • Stu Pendus

    Great reporting by the S-G.

  • ClarendonGUY

    I hope ARLnow follows suit and makes anonymous posting a thing of the past!

  • Alexander

    Real Estate Property Records is public information in the United States of America, which means anyone can access it. Paranoia shouldn’t be a decisive factor — anything that’s filed and kept publically, should be also available to the public – ANYTHING!

    Many seasoned online services (HomeInfoMax, KnowX, Intelius, DocEdge, Realtor) have been selling this data for years throughout all 50 states. In a nutshell, having a reliable and instant access to property and ownership records does help with preventing potential fraud and stopping identity theft.


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