Many years ago, before I worked as a landman, and before I became interested in genealogy research, I worked for a title company as an abstractor. That was when it was more common to have an abstract of title when buying property than to have title insurance. Same work involved except the buyer got to keep the abstract when it was completed, which contained documentation of everyone who had owned the property, and now the buyer just gets a certificate saying it’s all there. Basically, Calamity Anne needs to do her own abstract, or the basics of an abstract extended with a little genealogy.
Here is a basic “how to” which assumes a person knows nothing about researching title, so it may be a little too simple for some of you.
In tracing the ownership of the land (and minerals), you work from the present, starting with the current owner of the property and work back to the beginning. I am going to use a property that Hubby and I bought as examples through this.
I am going to put my recap here instead of at the end, because this turned out really long and could be a real yawner. In fact, to make it easier, I've divided this into several posts.
Step 1: Make a worksheet to easily see your chain of ownership and keep from getting off track.
Step 2: Do preliminary research from home if possible.
Step 3: Go to the county clerk's office.
Step 4: Look around and see where everything is.
Step 5: Ask for a quick tour or explanation of where things are and how they work.
Step 6: Start with the grantee index on computer and find your name, or the name of the present owner. or
Step 7: Start with the grantee index in books or microfilm to get document locations.
Step 8: Look in stacks for documents in deed books.
Step 9: Look up extra document locations in grantor index, and then find them in the stacks.
You can stop reading here if you want to. If you are a visual person and want to walk through a real search, keep reading.
Make a worksheet on a spreadsheet program or draw some columns on notebook paper. It will help keep your chain of title connected (nothing worse than getting home and seeing that you missed an owner in the middle), and keep you from chasing rabbit trails. Here’s one I use:
Legal documents are called instruments because they are tools that lawyers use to make binding agreements and transactions.
In very layman terms, when you buy a property from the seller, you usually sign an instrument called a Warranty Deed, though there can be other types of deeds. When you get a mortgage from a bank, you sign a Deed of Trust. Let’s go back to the Warranty Deed. The seller is called the grantor because he grants the property to the buyer and warrants that it is legal. The buyer is called the grantee because he receives the grant.
After you sign the stack of papers, you take possession of your new property and go merrily on your way to celebrate, move-in, build, or whatever. Meanwhile, someone gathers up all the papers you signed and rushes them over to the county clerk’s office where they are logged in, copied, stamped, and returned to you. The copy they kept has been stamped with the date it was received and recorded, and with numbers for the volume and page of the book it will be placed into, or scanned into their computer system where it stays for all eternity, for anyone to find. Hopefully. In the past, court house fires have been responsible for huge losses of records.
So the columns in the above sheet are for volume and page, (where the deed is located within the clerk's office), the names of the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer), the type of instrument (like WD for Warranty Deed), the instrument date (the date it was signed), the recording date (the date the county clerk’s office received and stamped it), the number of acres (or can be lot and block if a town plot), and the name of the survey (can be name of subdivision if a town plot).
Step TwoYou might be able to start at home on your computer. The county appraisal district is the easiest place to start if your county is online and if your purchase is recent enough to be computerized. You can google “(Your county and state) Appraisal District”. Some states don’t have this information online, or it’s hard to find. If you don’t find it in a search, you can call them to see if there is a website you can search. If it’s not online, skip to the next step. If you are in Texas, you may be able to find your appraisal district here. Not all counties use this system, so don’t give up if it isn’t here.
Once you find the website, click on search and follow the steps until you find your property. You may have to click on “Details” to open a page similar to this:
Click on Deed History to see the last 3 deeds (back to the point where your county has their records on computer). Here you can see the name of the person you bought the property from, and possibly the names of other previous owners, and the volume and page where copies of their deeds are located. Jot those down on your worksheet.
Then, if your county clerk’s office has it’s records online, you can look at those deeds. You can call your county clerk’s office or google “(Your county and state) public records”. My county isn’t online, so just for an example, I googled “Tarrant County Texas public records” because I knew they were online.
This is the page that came up:
Open the drop box and go to “Real Property Search”. From there, fill out the form and view the deed. When you read the deed, it may reference a previous warranty deed. That’s always a happy bonus, and with any luck, you can look it up online also.
If your county appraisal district or county clerk’s records aren’t online, it's on to step three.
Until next time, may you have blessings and a computerized county,
Genealogy, Title Research