Armchair land exploration

Part One: the present

Let's go land shopping!

Let's go land shopping!

If you read last week's post, you'll know that I've been interested in purchasing land on Lopez for quite a while. Over the years I've combed the real estate listings to get an idea of what's available, where, and at what price. Several years ago I discovered some great online resources for exploring island parcels. In this post I'll share them with you, in the hopes that other land-lusters will find them valuable.

The first resource is the real estate service Zillow. It's great because it allows you to search on a map, and it usually has all the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) listings for an area all in one place. But there's a lot more you can do to find out about a piece of land, and here's where a couple of County websites come in. So let's pick a listing, and find out all we can about it!

Here's our example parcel, as listed on Zillow. It's 2.2 acres of unimproved land on Mariner Drive, above Fisherman Bay. The listing contains the MLS number, and shows the address as "11 Mariner Drive"—but that address is not an actual legal address because there's no building on it. So in order to find out more about this parcel, we''ll need to do a little extra sleuthing. Zillow shows the agents that list this property, so I went to one of them, Lopez Village Properties. I enter the MLS number to see the listing info—what we're after is the parcel number, which is how the County records identify each unique parcel of land. Lopez Village Properties shows the parcel number as 252350011. Copy this number down for the next step.

County Records

Armed with the parcel number, we'll head over to the San Juan County Assessor's property search page. Copy or type in the parcel number into the Tax Parcel field and hit search. (The field will accept up to 12 digits—many parcel numbers here end with three zeros, so the nine-digit number we copied will work.)

Property Search

Property Search

The search will return the results of your search, showing the property ID, its owners, etc. Click the view details link for the full info. Note: this information is all in the public record, but please be respectful with your use of this information! Commercial use of public records is expressly forbidden. On the details page, you can see the tax breakdown and amounts, and you can also check out the Roll Value History to get an idea of how the values have gone up and down over the years.

Property search results

Property search results

There's also an option to view map, but I don't use the map service here—we'll go to another site to a better map that will show us a lot more info, and doesn't require the stupid and obsolete Silverlight plugin. So let's head on over to the San Juan County Polaris Property Search, which is part of the County's GIS service.

If you are a map enthusiast of any kind, you will love Polaris GIS! This information used to be restricted to owners of expensive GIS software, but it is now freely available to anyone with access to the interwebs. Enter the parcel number into the search field and hit the search button, and you'll get this result:

Wow! So much info here. We can see the property boundaries, how wooded it is, and where it is in relation to its neighbors. But wait, there's more...!

GIS Layers

The truly great thing about GIS is the ability to use layers to explore more about this parcel and the surrounding area. So, take a look at the left hand sidebar, and click on the section labeled Map Contents. Click the plus sign next to a section to expand it; check or un-check a box to show or hide that layer. Here's the layers you can explore:

  • Labels: show or hide parcel & road labels
  • Parcels: Show or hide parcel & plat boundaries
  • Public Land Survey: Section/Township info (more on this in Part 2)
  • Contours: show or hide the land contours. Helpful to get an idea of how steep this parcel is!
  • Critical Areas: important to see if there are wetlands on the parcel
  • Comprehensive Plan: check out the zoning designation(s)
  • Soils: this is a little tricky to use, there are too many colors and no labels on the map. But fun anyway.
  • Bare Earth: SUPER COOL! Using Lidar, you can see the land stripped of vegetation. In concert with contours, you can tell a lot about the form of the land: how steep it is, which direction it slopes.

The section below Search is Measure, and here you can measure the length of the parcel boundaries, find its area, and get lat-long coordinates. Below that are Drawing tools, which I have not played around with much. Using the "minus" button overlaying the map, you can zoom out to see a larger area. Gosh, there are a lot of parcels on Lopez...

So far, we've been starting with a parcel that is currently listed for sale. Using Zillow you can find recently-sold properties, or head back over to the Assessor's site and select Sales Search to research what parcels recently sold and for how much. You can also use Polaris to find out more about a parcel that isn't listed for sale...

Say you've had your eye on a sweet old farm and wondered if you could convince the owners to sell. Locate it on the Polaris map, and zoom in until you can see the tax parcel label. (If you hid this layer earlier, just check the box under Labels to show it again.) Unfortunately, the tax parcel labels are not selectable text, so you'll need superior eyesight or a magnifying glass to read the 12-digit number. Write the number down, then go back to the Assessor's Parcel Search and type the number in like we did way back at the beginning. You'll find the legal owner(s) name and address, and also the assessed value of the land. Who knows, you may find the perfect land, just waiting to help your dreams come true...

Next week, I'll share some cool resources for exploring the history of land parcels. Part two is up.


Of course, if you're serious about shopping for property, you'll want to establish a relationship with one of our many fine local Realtors. I don't endorse Zillow or any particular Realtor. And please, always use your knowledge for good, not evil.