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Deed Search Tutorial

Deeds are legal records of land ownership and transfer. Deeds are prevalent legal documents, in some cases dating back prior to the Revolutionary War. They are widely used by historians and genealogists seeking to establish land use, familial relationships and migration patterns. In some cases, deeds allow researchers to reconstruct entire neighborhoods and towns.

Researching

Deeds are generally easy to locate. States require deeds to be divided by political boundaries and stored at a central location within the said district. Most states keep deeds in a County Clerk's Office or a courthouse at the county seat. However, there are exceptions such as Rhode Island and Connecticut where deeds are housed in Town offices, Louisiana houses deeds in Parishes, and Alaska keeps their deeds at district offices.

Begin a deed search by clarifying the name of the person in question, the property location, and the approximate date of ownership. County boundaries change, therefore it is important to identify where the property was located at the time of purchase. Once you have as much information as possible, follow these steps:

  • Find the place where the deed indexes and books are being stored. Most likely, they will be housed in a county records office. Old or original records may have been transferred to a state historical agency. The records' location should be available on-line, as most agencies have a web presence, some even allow users to search records via the Internet.
  • If you have a name, date and location, your search should be easy. However, if you are researching a plot of land, be prepared for additional work. Either way, your research will begin in the deed index. Depending on how much information you have, use the grantor (seller) or grantee (buyer) index. Some indexes are organized alphabetically, while others are arranged within a set number of years alphabetically by the first initial of the surname.
  • Once the deed is located in the index, copy the book and page number for the corresponding deed book, the grantor and grantee names, and the date.
  • Find the proper deed book and make a photocopy of the deed. Deed books will be located in the same building as the index.
  • If you are tracing the history of a piece of land, it is most efficient to construct a chain of title by beginning with the current owner and working backward by searching the name of the grantor as the grantee. This process is called a title search.
  • Be sure to supplement the deed search with additional sources from insurance and plat maps, court records, wills, etc.

Interpreting Deeds

Property transfer is not the only information that can be found in deeds. Due to the value of land and legal necessity to establish the identity of the buyer and seller, deeds typically give detailed information about these individuals. If a deed was transferred posthumously, the deed will provide the names of children and spouses. It is also possible to determine the value of land at a particular time in a specific location, thereby providing clues to the wealth and social class of the buyer and seller. Deeds also describe the transferred property in detail. Boundaries, acreage, the number and types of structures on the property, prior use, and the owners and use of adjacent properties may also be listed.

Reading deeds may be difficult in some cases due to the legal language and old script styles, but once past these points, interpretation is a simple process. The actual record format may vary by location and time period, but deeds tend to follow a general pattern.

Deed books usually contain the following records:

  • Deed of Sale
  • Deed of Gift
  • Lease and Release
  • Tax Stamp
  • Mortgage Sale
  • Estate Settlement
  • Strawman Sale

The deed itself can be broken up as follows:

  • Part 1, Opening: an introduction stating that the document is a deed. The opening is easily recognized due to its location and the uncommonly large font that is unique to this section.
  • Part 2, Date: the date listed at this point is not necessarily the official transfer date; rather it is the date when the deed was written. Dates are written longhand. For example, March 5, 1780 may appear as "the fifth day of March in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty."
  • Part 3, Party identification: this part names the grantor (seller) and the grantee (buyer). The deed may give detailed information about the grantor/grantee, such as the name of a spouse, occupation or residence, in order to establish identity and may provide the names of other people associated with the deed, such as the executor and guardian.
  • Part 4, Payment: the phase "in consideration" typically precludes the amount of payment. However, the actually amount of money that exchanged hands may not be listed. One way to access the price is to find the tax on real estate in that location and year and compare it with the tax stamp on the deed. Working backwards, you can easily determine an estimate.
  • Part 5, Property description: the property description contains a wealth of information concerning the land in question and the surrounding properties. A careful reading of the description can yield an abundance of physical details that may lend to biographical information about the grantor and grantee. For example, if there was a gristmill on the property, one could deduce that the owner may have been the local miller, a rather important person in rural agrarian communities.
  • Part 6, Conclusion: conclusions are often filled with legalities that are difficult to decipher. However, the conclusion contains important information about the transaction. Restrictions on the land such as back taxes, unpaid mortgages and joint ownership will be recorded here. Part 6 also explains the terms of payment or mortgage and land use restrictions.
  • Part 7, Approval: signatures of the grantor, grantee, executor, and witnesses, as well as the official closing date will appear in Part 7. Keep in mind that the signatures in the deed book are replicas penned by the clerk. Original signatures will only appear on the actual deed.

Exercise
Download the Deed Research Worksheet by clicking on the link under Resources located on the right of the screen. Use the worksheet to construct a chain of title for your home. If you are the first or second owner, chose a house that is much older and perform a title search on that property.

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