Metal Detecting in Urban or Developed Areas

Guide to obtaining permission and techniques to metal detect in city or urban properties.

Detecting in city and urban areas is often overlooked.

Most heavily populated and metropolitan areas are built over older areas, and even if they are not, the volume of people can present a welcome assortment of silver, non-silver (called clad by detectorists) and jewelry finds as well as artifacts from the turn of the century.

What to look for.

You will want to start out by doing the obvious....driving around.

This will give you a feel for the area, and it's history. You will want to look for areas that are still generally flat, or that would have been “untouched” for the last 30 years or so.

These areas can be spotted by their lack of modern landscaping, larger trees and shrubbery.

Look for empty lots in urban areas that have very large trees in them, or sunken areas.

These indicate that a home was there previously.

Often times an abandoned home will be demolished or burnt, and the remains pushed into the cellar hole.

This causes a slight depression after the debris settles over a period of many years.

Look at the curb as you travel your target area. You may see a place that has no curb, or a newly replaced section of curb that is about the same size as a driveway.

Often the presence of lilac or rose bushes in an empty lot will provide clues as to the previous layout of the structures.

These were very popular around the turn of the century, and often times will have survived, leaving a clue for those who pay attention.

Look for large trees in arrangements that would be in front of a home, or lining a drive.

Oak or Elm trees in a row is a dead giveaway that a larger home was once in an empty lot.

Be unconventional. Just because an areas is now zoned “industrial” or “manufacturing” does not mean it always was.

In fact, most areas with older homes in them were built before these laws were in effect.

So, don't overlook that lot in front of the factory you drive by every day.

Another thing to consider.. Those “bad areas”, occupied mostly by multiple occupant homes made into apartments are actually good detecting locations.

Those were often the “nice” neighborhoods from the late 1800s, and early 1900s..

The larger homes were often broken up into multi unit apartment buildings, and the neighborhoods changed..

But NOT what is under the ground.

It is still there.

You just have to go after it.


There are many tools available to assist you in your search, you just have to apply the right one to your situation.

A wonderful tool is the Sanborn map collection.

These are fire and insurance maps originally collected in the late 1800s, up to the 1960s or so.

These have the location of businesses, homes and other features, exact dimensions and other useful information.

You can get a paid subscription here:

A lot of them are available free of charge

These can be compared with modern maps and firsthand knowledge to help you locate properties to search.


Often the hardest part of detecting these sites is obtaining permission in the first place.

If the area is privately owned, the owner can be located by either going to the neighbors and simply asking who owns it. This will often lead you right to the owner.

Other times, it is more challenging.

Most cities and towns have a website with deed lookup free of charge.

Unfortunately, some areas either charge for this or have only paper copies which can be accessed at the county assayers office. (I have attached a photo of a random address and the contact info)

You will be able to find the deed owner and contact information on this site, or through this paperwork at your county building or library.

Then it is a matter of asking the property owner for permission to detect on their property.

I would stay away from written permission letters.

People get nervous when you start asking them to sign things. A verbal agreement and a handshake should be enough.

Chances are, you will not have much success in obtaining permission from holding companies or large real estate entities.

These companies will forward any request for access to a staff or retained attorney.

You will get permission if an attorney is involved perhaps one in a thousand times. They get paid to think of liability, and this is all they will think of. You will not be granted permission by these groups, it is a fact of life.

Often good results can be obtained by looking up landowners and private individuals that own many rental properties in cities.

A private individual in this situation will generally be receptive to detecting on empty lots in their care, or even the larger homes they own and have turned into rentals.

If you are allowed permission by the landowner in inhabited units, be sure to talk to the individual that lives there. Even though you have permission from the owner of the property, it is just common sense and courtesy to ask those that live there.

And who knows, you may interest a future detectorist..

Keeping any agreements and being responsible is up to YOU.

You serve as an ambassador for the hobby, and your actions in the eyes of the public affect us ALL.

After obtaining  permission.

OK, you've gotten permission... now what..

First off, you need to look at the overlay.

Are there any safety hazards, power lines, gas lines, bramble bushes, poison ivy, holes, bee nests, broken glass, etc?

You need to look at the neighborhood.

Is it safe?

Once you have determined these things and dealt with them accordingly, you can proceed.

A good approach if you have a symmetrical area like a city lot or yard is gridding.

Start at a corner, and work the area you can cover, walking slowly to the opposite corner, and turning at the border, overlapping your swings, and your path. (think of it like you are painting the area).

Keep going til you have it all covered...

If you have time, start again at the opposite end and working crosswise.. (Say you started in the NW corner, and walked East.. Now start in the SW corner and walk North, crossing in the opposite direction.

Be sure to cover all holes, and be responsible. Remember that you are on private property with permission, so there is no rush.

If you are working a habitated structure, start with the areas around the porch, doors and sidewalks. Then detect the bases of trees, radiating outward.

Don't forget the entire length of clotheslines, curbsides and areas among trees where a picnic table may have been.

Chances are you may find an item that belongs to the current resident.

If it is obvious that the item was recently dropped in an occupied yard, contact the resident. Chances are you may do a good deed.

After a while, you will develop relationships with people that will lead to places to detect in the future..

Good Luck, and Happy Hunting

BD Atherton


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