Have Research, Will Travel

As a final product, research should resemble science: replicable, documented and thorough.  However, its acquisition is much closer to art.  Specifically, during travel.

Travel is a weird part of research.  It has to be done: with some rare exceptions, most court records and many property records are not online and resist remote retrieval.  On the other hand, travel costs money, and more importantly time.  So the challenge is to maximize retrieval in as short a time frame as possible.  This is trickier than it sounds.  Travel can throw curveballs at you, both in terms of technical retrieval (a recorder of deeds may have no electronic records whatsoever, forcing a laborious search of old school deed books) and local custom (it is a general rule of thumb that one doesn’t get anything done in the Gulf South between 11am-2pm due to the region’s generous interpretation of “lunch hour”).

With that in mind, here are some general experience-acquired guidelines for easing the travel process:

All business hours are on the clock.  Go directly from the airport to the courthouse.  Fit meals en route from one location to another.  Most courthouses have serviceable cafeterias.  Use them.  Remember that government hours are probably more restricted than banking hours, especially in the era of budget cuts.  Every hour, even minute in this time window is precious.

Know your target in advance.  There’s nothing worse than discovering at the end of your trip that you should have included another county in the search.  Do enough of the project before travel to know if there are any areas outside the main county of residence you should look at.

  • But don’t plan TOO much.  Here’s an important truth about municipal civil servants: they respond a lot better to questions than demands.  Once you’ve mastered the basic structure of local records- property, courts and so forth- it’s actually preferable to just show up at the courthouse and ask your way around.  If you plan every detail it’s easy to become impatient and pushy, and that will definitely not help you.

Do not EVER lie about your work.  Your role as a campaign researcher is not nearly as big a deal as you think.  At the courthouse you’re sharing space with drunk drivers, deadbeat dads, single mothers collecting on deadbeat dads, tax scavengers and private investigators.  The only thing that invites suspicion (and more importantly, draws press attention) is lying about your work.  You don’t have to OFFER details about it, but saying “I’m an opposition researcher” is not going to get you run out of town, or lose you access to what you need to find.

You will always miss something in property.  Property records are a mess.  They’re based on archaic descriptions (I’ve lost count of legal descriptions that start with “at an old iron pin…”), they’re indexed poorly and frequently misspelled, and banks have been known to misfile mortgages and sometimes not file them at all.  Remember this, and you’ll remember to double and triple-check the recorder.  You’ll still miss something, but you’ll know not to immediately freak out and/or draw attention to what is probably just a refinance with an incomplete release.

Say hello to the client.  Research is unique in that there’s not a lot of face time with the campaign compared to other consultants.  Travel is a good time to stop by and put a face to the voice on the conference call.  After the county offices are closed, of course.

  • But don’t talk about what you found.  It’s tempting to give bits and pieces to show progress and encourage the client.  But here’s the thing: even the sharpest researcher misses details.  That late tax payment may well have happened when the target didn’t own the property.  That “lien” may be a mechanic’s lien, which is a normal part of business for contractors and does not necessarily indicate a delinquent debt.  Sharing details before you’ve gone over them several times is asking for an embarrassed retraction when you’re asked about it on a conference call later.

Phone: (773) 800-9442 | Fax: (773) 326-0653 | Email 3rd Coast