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Vacant, Abandoned, and Distressed Property Legal Research Guide: Home

The focus of this guide is the search for local land use laws relevant to vacant, abandoned, and distressed properties. This research guide includes links to primary and secondary sources.


Many communities are working to deal with the adverse impacts of vacant, abandoned, and distressed properties. Use this guide to find local laws which put into effect the land use plans of local governments, and the planning documents, both local and regional, which inform land use planning for vacant, abandoned and distressed property.

Google Search Box

Use the Google Search Operator tip sheet or  Google Advanced Search template to refine your searches. 

Google Search

Google offers customized searches. Advanced search offers:

  • Require / exclude words
  • Search for a phrase
  • Limit results by language
  • Limit results by format type
  • Search within a site or domain. e.g. site:gov
  • Limit by date or region
  • Require where the keywords show up

Google Scholar search includes legal opinions from all US courts and legal journals. Results can be sorted by jurisdiction (state or federal) or type of document (court opinion or journal). Database includes US patents. Rresults can be saved when you log in with your Google account. 

Generating Search Terms - Topical

Take a few minutes to generate a list of possible search terms before you start your research. You'll probably find that there will be a family of terms that deal specifically with the non-legal aspects of your topic, and terms that relate to the legal and planning aspects of your topic. 

Let's assume we're looking for newspaper articles and other current awareness materials regarding vacant and distressed property. Think about the words that are part of your topic in terms of these categories:

  • Synonyms: abandoned property (buildings, lots, real estate), distressed property (buildings, real estate), vacant property (buildings, lots, real estate)   
  • Broader: blight, urban decay  
  • Narrower Terms or Planning Terms: infill, urban infill, code enforcement, land banks (banking), nuisance, nuisance abatement, neighborhood stabilization program, vacant property registration (registry), vacant property land management
  • Related Terms: new urbanism, foreclosure, property tax foreclosure, tax delinquent properties, predatory speculation, redevelopment, real estate transactions
  • Terms of Art: land bank   

As you review and evaluate your search results, you will learn which terms and combinations of terms are most effective in particular contexts/databases. You will be able to expand this list of search terms as your understanding of the subject area and the language used to describe it grows. 

See also the Glossary of housing terms.

Generating Search Terms - General

In order to effectively search for local laws, it will be useful to search the Internet for collections of relevant local  laws / model laws which have been brought together by others.  Here are some search terms that are often used when describing these collections:

  • Local Laws:  bylaws, codes, local laws, ordinances, plans, comprehensive plans, master plans
  • Types of laws: overlay districts, overlay zones
  • Regional actions: intermunicipal agreements, IMAs, regional planning
  • Model [Laws]: draft [laws], model [laws], proposed [laws], sample [laws]
  • Collections: best practices, case studies, clearinghouse, success stories
  • Guidance: guidelines, handbook, manual, toolkit, toolbox
Also keep in mind the state or federal laws which may be described as:
  • enabling acts, enabling laws, enabling statutes, acts, laws, statutes, regulations