The first step in purchasing abandoned property is to determine whether it is really abandoned or just unoccupied. Abandoned property has escheated, which means that its title has reverted to the state or federal government (usually state). Unoccupied property still has a private owner, even though said owner may be difficult to locate. The difference between abandoned and unoccupied is somewhat fuzzy, and varies from state to state. Generally, though, intent to abandon must be demonstrated. Neglect or failure to occupy can indicate intent, but there may be some sort of time limit which must be met.
If the property is abandoned and has escheated, then you will have to purchase the property from the state at auction. States must give notice of abandoned property auctions, so you should be able to find out about them. Most states have some kind of bureau of land management similar to the federal government, and that’s a good place to start. You can also check with your state’s department of revenue.
If the property is merely unoccupied, then all you have to do is track down the owner and purchase it from him or her. A good place to start is with your county recorder’s office. Almost all deeds are recorded, so a deed showing the current owner should be available there. If the deed is not helpful (there isn’t one or the property is owned by some private entity like a trust), try the county assessor’s office. The assessor keeps tax records for real property, and those records should reveal names to get you get started. Thanks to the internet, most people know how to track down other people for little or no money, so go at it – try to find the owner. If you have no luck with that, you can try skip-tracing – it’s how creditors find people – but it can be expensive costing about $500.
A way to avoid the search for the owner is just to report to the state that the property is abandoned. The state will take it from there. The upside of doing this is that it saves you a lot of legwork, and you may be able to pick up the property more cheaply at auction than you would from a property owner who has suddenly regained an interest in his or her previously neglected property. The downside is that it could take the property some time to make it to auction and you reveal the property to others who may be willing to pay more for it than you.
Be sure to check with state and local authorities or at least a real estate professional because these laws can vary from state to state and be rather arcane, if not complex.