In New York City, there are a lot of ways to find publicly available information about the buildings on your block — and even more reasons to want it.
Maybe you need to find the name of a contractor who botched a repair, or your landlord’s real mailing address, or how many violations a building has racked up. You can also check in on what’s being built in the empty lot down the block, or whether the new home you’re eyeing is in a flood zone.
Here’s how to answer those questions and more, including — for the nosy — how much the apartments in your neighbor’s building are going for (we know you’re curious):
Who owns it, and how much did they pay?
First step: The Automated City Register Information System, known to info-hounds as ACRIS, is the main property records system in the city, maintained by the city Department of Finance. It shows a lot of types of useful documents including deeds, mortgages, debt statements, various legal agreements, lot zoning descriptions and more.
To search within ACRIS, you’ll first need a key identifier: the Borough, Block and Lot, or BBL. For tax purposes, every property in New York City has a BBL. If you don’t already know the BBL you need, ACRIS has an address search that will generate the correct BBL for a property, which you can then use to search its records, which date back to 1966.
Deeds and mortgages are likely the most useful records for most people. That’s where you’ll find who bought and owns a building, how much they paid and how much they borrowed. In ACRIS, you can either look at a summary of property records or see an image of the original document.
Another option: The nonprofit JustFix, a housing justice advocacy group, created a useful tool called Who Owns What, a database of property owners in New York City that is searchable by address or by owner. It’s particularly good if you’re trying to find the whole portfolio of buildings owned by one entity, but it also has easy-to-find basic information, like when a building was built, when it was last sold, for how much, and how many open housing code violations it may have. The tool also includes links to other public databases with other types of records, like tax documents (more on that later).
Deeper dive: If you’re poking around ACRIS, chances are good you’ll come across buildings owned not by a person but by a limited liability company, or LLC.
Much has been written about LLCs, which are commonly used in real estate transactions to anonymize the buyer or seller, sometimes for privacy reasons or — as the New York Times reported in a 2018 investigation — to create shell companies to launder money.
Good government advocates for years have pushed to reform the ways LLCs are created, but true transparency is a way off.
A 2021 federal law requires more disclosures for LLCs, but only to prosecutors and other investigators. A recently passed state bill that aimed to reveal information about the people behind LLCs in New York has not yet been signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul; even if it were signed into law, however, the penalty for not abiding by the disclosure requirement would be only $250.
To find out the basic available information about an LLC, however, you can search its name in the Corporation and Business Entity Database maintained by New York’s Department of State. At a minimum, the database should show when the LLC first registered with the state, whether it is active and what “service of process” address is registered with the state, i.e. the address that would be used for official business like legal proceedings or taxation.
Many times, LLCs use a P.O. box or attorney’s address to avoid personal disclosures. But if you’re lucky, you may also find the name of a chief executive or registered agent of the LLC.
Is the property in good shape?
First step: To quickly see if a building has any open complaints, violations, vacate orders, bed bug complaints and other potential red flags, start with HPD Online, a database maintained by the city’s housing agency, Housing Preservation and Development. Type in the building’s address and search to begin.
Deeper dive: If you want to go to the source and see the original inspection records, code and zoning violations, archived permits for facade, elevator and boiler inspections and more, search through the Department of Buildings’ “Buildings Information System,” or BIS. If you’re looking for more recent records from the Department of Buildings, search through DOB NOW, the agency’s new system that has rolled out in recent years. It includes lots of more recent records, and a new metric for a building’s condition: energy efficiency grades.
Does the owner have issues?
First step: Every year, the city’s public advocate creates a list of the city’s “worst” landlords. The list includes the names of 100 residential property owners with the most HPD code violations across the five boroughs. You can search the Worst Landlords Watchlist here or search to see if a property is among those owned by the worst landlords here. As of October 2023, the public advocate’s office had not yet released the 2023 worst landlord list; the most recent data is from 2022.
Deeper diver: Another place where you may find big-time red flags on a landlord is New York’s court system. Once you find the name of a property owner, you can search through records in New York’s civil court system here or criminal court system here to see if the name pops up in current or former cases. (Note that some Housing Court cases will appear in the civil court system.) When searching, make sure to check any options for inactive or past cases to see records from previously litigated or closed cases — they may have what you’re looking for.
What’s being built there, and what’s being built next door?
First step: If you want to explore construction plans on a given property or lot, return back to the Department of Buildings’ databases, outlined above. They have lots of records that will give you a clue about upcoming building projects including work permits, demolition records and “stop work” orders if there’s been a serious problem on a job site. Some of those documents may also include names and contact information for the developer’s representatives, which may be useful if you need to contact people working on a construction site. The best place to find those is to find a recent “job filing,” a record of upcoming work, and find the section of the document for “owner’s information” or “applicant information.”
Deeper dive: If you’re willing to put in some time digging, your local community board may be a treasure trove of information and documents about upcoming construction in your neighborhood. Because community boards weigh in on certain types of development, they often hear presentations from developers looking to build in the area — then take a vote to form an advisory opinion. Looking through community board agendas and minutes (typically available online, but not always, as THE CITY recently found in The Bronx) or calling board offices to ask for more information about recent development presentations is a good place to start. You an also look through pending zoning applications in your neighborhood on the city’s Zoning Application Portal, or ZAP.
How much are the taxes, and is the owner getting tax breaks?
First step: You can look up the tax bill for any property in the city through the Department of Finance’s Property Tax Public Access portal. You can search by street address or by BBL (see above). The portal also includes a number of other useful public records like a property’s assessed value and payment history.
Deeper dive: The finance department’s portal also includes information on benefits a property may receive, otherwise known as tax breaks. This may be particularly useful to know for tenants living in buildings where property owners are taking a tax break that mandates their apartments be rent stabilized. If a property benefits from the 421-a, 421-g or J-51 tax break — among the more common programs for rentals — its tenants may be eligible for rent stabilized leases. Check a building’s tax breaks in the “benefits” section of the Department of Finance’s portal, then check your rent history — the best way for tenants to find out if they should have a stabilized lease.
Is my building in a flood zone?
First steps: There are several places to check to quickly gauge a building’s risk of flooding in New York. The first are the city’s flood plain map showing flooding hazards in future years based on estimates by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and maps that show risks based on flood insurance rates based on storm surge. The second is the city’s stormwater flood map, which measures flooding risk from heavy rain, rather than coastal-based storm surge flooding. And finally, you can check the city’s sea level rise planning tool, which maps risk of flooding from future high tides caused by rising seas caused by climate change.
Deeper dive: All of the above measures of flood risk are imperfect in their own ways, which you can read more about in THE CITY’s past reporting on the landscape of flooding in the city.
Flood insurance in particular is a fraught topic. And climate change is making flooding increasingly hard to predict, especially as we see more storms like September’s hard rains that inundated some parts of the city while other flood-prone areas stayed dry. Here’s our guide on how to prepare yourself and your home before a storm.
Bonus: What did that property used to look like?
First step: For more recent looks at what a house, apartment building, or commercial property has looked like, check Google Street View. Once you find a property on the map, you can click through the most recent photo — and go back sometimes as far as 2007. Just click “see more dates” in the top-right corner where the address box is.
Deeper dive: You can also go way back in time to the 1940s and 1980s using the city’s Municipal Archives photos. But a much easier way to see them is on the website 1940s.nyc, which uses a simple search and map tool to see what New York City looked like more than 40 — and more than 80 — years ago.