Primer on Doing a Chain of Title Search at County Recorders Office

Hello, my name is Brian and I own and run Clear Skies Properties. I buy and sell vacant land at discounts and as such it seems a good idea to make some tutorials to give people information that would help them in the process of buying vacant land. Hopefully, you’ll buy vacant land from me. But two things I should say right off. I work mostly in California and what I say may not square in every other state. Secondly, I am not a legal professional and what I am stating here should not be construed as legal advice, but represents my own best understanding.

One somewhat simple skill that may prove useful in buying vacant land that is not generally common knowledge is the ability to search the official public records of the County Recorders office. Why would you want to do that? There’s really a number of reasons that you might want to search the county public records but principally there are any one of the following reasons:

You want to determine if the person you are buying the property from really does have the full and exclusive right to sell that property. If the person who wants to sell you the property only has a partial right to do so – or less – you should find that out before spending your money. You will want to discover if there are any defects or claims of adverse possession on the title. A defects could also mean that that some other person or agency claims that the owner of the real property owes them money or must resolve some problem before the seller can transfer title. We’ll go into more details on that shortly.

You may also need to determine if indeed you will have legal access to the property you want to buy. That is also known as legal ingress and egress. If your property is on a county road or on a well established road that may not be an issue, but if there is no bladed road leading to your property it may not be clear how you are legally allowed to traverse the intervening parcels and get on your property. You may need to do an easement search through the county records.

You also want to research and find out if the property you are buying has any existing restrictions or covenants that could affect you. That is, someone in the past who owned that parcel may have subdivided or developed that area and put some rules into affect to govern subsequent owners. I saw one once where it prohibited building a boys or girls home. Why? Who knows. More commonly it will limit things like how big or small a house you can build or other odd things.

It’s very important to note that that sort of information doesn’t necessary get copied onto all subsequent deeds. It should, but it usually doesn’t. So the deed by which you take ownership may say nothing about an existing covenant or restriction, or a restriction on mineral rights or something that spells out how you legally are supposed to access your property – and most commonly they don’t. They should but they don’t. It’s an imperfect world. But just because that sort of information got dropped from the last few deeds doesn’t mean that it no longer stands. That’s why you may need to go back in time researching old deeds and other documents to determine what sort of restrictions may still be affecting your property.

Those are all important things to know about a property you are considering buying. One way of making sure that all those boxes have been checked off is buy buying the property through a Title company and purchasing Title insurance through them. They do the research to make sure there is no defects in the title and will provide limited insurance in the event that some problems with the title surfaces after you take ownership. Sounds good, but the problem is that it usually costs about $1500 for a small parcel of vacant land and can add weeks or months to the process. What is more is that you can do the same research yourself for free. Now, if you are going to buy a very expensive piece of land – in the tens of thousands of dollars – or one that has a house on it – it may be best to spend the extra money and take the extra time for the additional reassurance of using a Title company. But on smaller purchases of vacant land that may be more trouble than its worth. It’s your call.

I’ve been talking about Title and Title defects without really explaining those terms. Title means ownership. To hold Title is to be the owner of the property. This ownership is publicly recorded in a document called the Deed. There are a variety of different kinds of Deeds that do different things but they are public documents – available for public review – that document the legal stature of the real property in question.

Defects are problems with the title. We often say that there is a cloud on the title if there is a problem with the Title or we might say that the title is clear if the Title checks out and is sound. What sort of problems? There are a lot of issues of concern. Some that may affect ownership and others that won’t. I’ll give some examples. Lets say a married couple buys a plot of land and then they divorce or separate. Then one of the spouses wants to sell the property to you. However the Deed that documents his ownership also lists the spouse as co owner. He cannot legally sell the property without her signature on the deed by which he sells the parcel. The other spouse could come after your property and contest ownership. Or maybe someone bought a property with a loan and is still paying the property off when they decide to sell. The lender has a lien on the property and the lendee cannot sell the property without first satisfying their loan. You could get stuck buying the property for full price and then still have to satisfy the existing lender. Or maybe the property is jointly held by a number of family members in the form of a trust. If less than the full number of people who are serving as trustees sell you the property the other trustees could cause you grief later on.

One kind of defect that we won’t really go into here in great detail is a monetary encumbrance like a lien against the property. For example, maybe at some point someone placed a lien on the property to recover some money from the owner. Maybe a contractor did some work and when the previous owner didn’t pay up that contractor place what’s called a mechanics lien against the property. If you buy that property you may be responsible for fulfilling that obligation. Or maybe the county code enforcement placed a lien on the property as a fee for the owner having violated some sort of code requirements. Again, you as the new owner may be on the hook for that. So you’ll want to verify that the title isn’t encumbered with a lien from an unpaid party, or county agency or – and this is the big one – back taxes owed to the county. That one isn’t uncommon at all. Those get passed on to the new owner. However, researching liens such as back taxes is something that can be researched with phone calls to the county or internet searches and so that isn’t really going to be a part of this tutorial. I’ll talk about that on another tutorial.

So if you are going to buy a parcel of land you want to make sure the title is clear. That is to say, make sure that the person who is trying to sell you the land actually has the full and exclusive right to sell the property. That they actually can legally sell it to you and that when you buy the property you have unquestionable ownership. County records are principally where you will go to research who legally holds title and resolve questions about whether or not there are restrictions on mineral rights or questions of easements and legal access to a property as well as research whether or not there are any restrictions or covenants on the property that could affect you.

Enough of all that. Let’s get to the good stuff. The actual search. You want to buy a piece of land but want to make sure you don’t get into any trouble later on and you want to move swiftly and save yourself $1500 in Title fees.

After you’ve called the assessors office to make sure there are no back taxes and called code enforcement to make sure they don’t have any liens. You might want to call your assessors office to see if they have a way of researching the history of who has been responsible for paying property taxes on that property. It depends on the county. Some counties allow you to research this online and that is very useful. It can tell you that John Doe is responsible for property taxes now and that Mary Jane was responsible for property taxes before him for the same APN. APN means Assessors Parcel Number. It’s the number the assessor uses for identifying the property for tax purposes. It is NOT a part of a legal description of the property and it is different that the lot or parcel number. If the APN number on a deed is wrong it will not affect the Title, but if the Legal Description is wrong then that is bad. So if you can find out what the chain of people responsible for property taxes by researching the APN number at the assessor office or their web site you can get information that will assist in your research at the Recorders office. That may or may not prove useful depending on the county and the particulars of your search.
The next thing to do is to log onto the county website for the recorders office and see if they have a page for looking up official documents. If they do there will be a limited amount of information you can get there. That may or may not be possible depending on the County. You can research the recorders office website and I’ll show you here what it might look like for you. There is useful information online – possibly. But you almost certainly won’t be able to look at any actual documents beyond the current deed. For that you will need to go to the actual physical office. If you live in a county where there are a few recorders office you will have to call and find out which one actually holds the records that can be researched. They won’t all have it – more than likely.

When you do a search on the recorders office you will need to research by name or document number. Every county records department I’ve researched limits searches to search by name or search by document number. Name is easier. Very sadly you can’t search by APN. That would make it all so much easier. Maybe you’ll find a county where you can do that but I haven’t.

When you go the County Recorders office the first thing I should mention is that as a county building they are secured environments so don’t try to bring anything in that might be considered a dangerous item. I usually bring my portable office items with me and have had to go back to my car to drop off a pair of scissors or a Swiss army keychain with a knife if it.

Once inside ask someone where you can research county official records such as Deeds because you want to do a chain of title search. When there you may need to ask someone there about the process they have for researching and getting copies of printed deeds. Sometimes you will print them yourself with their printers for a charge and sometimes you will have to write down the document number of the documents you want and ask them to print them for you and sometimes you will put them in your computer terminals shopping cart and then order them from your terminal and they will print them out. Each county has their own process.

What you don’t want to ask them is anything that resembles legal advice. Don’t bother asking, “how do you suggest I demonstrate that I have legal access to my property to a neighbor. He’s not being cooperative.” They not only won’t answer you they are not legally allowed to. As county clerks they are prohibited from giving what could be considered legal advice. But they can be very helpful with explaining their process for researching records. In my experience they can be helpful, but don’t expect them to hold your hand through a long process. They have their job and they can only help you so much. It just depends on their personality and how busy they are, but in my experience they are generally helpful and do what they can. I know people that show up at the recorders office with cookies just to make sure they are as helpful as possible.

So, let’s say Clear Skies Properties wants to sell you a five acre parcel. You’ll go the computer terminal and set yourself down to research official records and start a name search. Enter Clear Skies Properties in the name search. You may find a few. You’ll need to look each one up until you find the one you want. How will you know? Two words: Legal description. Look up the legal description in the Deed that pops up. Make sure it matches yours. To start your search you will need the legal description that should be on the deed that shows who currently holds title. You may be able to get that off of a county document resource like Parcelquest or you can just ask the seller for an electronic copy. But you will need the current deed to get off on your search. You can also check for a matching APN to confirm that earlier documents are referencing the same property. Most recent deed will include the APN of the property, but it is not required to be on the deed and might not be on the deed. It’s not uncommon on old Deeds from decades past for the deed to not have an APN number. And I’ve seen APN’s written down wrong. It’s not even uncommon. Once you search your way to the Deed that shows where the current owner came to own the property that you want to buy you might want to print that out or at least write down the following info from the document: Document number / date it was recorded and perhaps the date the deed was signed / the legal description / who was the grantor or seller and who was the grantee or buyer. Also what kind of document it is. Grant deed? Trust deed? Quit Claim deed? Intra family dissolution? There are a lot of different kinds of recorded documents. You will be mostly interested in the Deeds. When you see who the Grantor (seller) was on that document you now do a new name search for that name where they were the Grantee (buyer). It may bring up a few documents. Scroll through them looking for a Deed with the matching name. You may need to look up each of them and look for the matching legal description. A matching APN is good but not as reliable as a matching legal description. Once you have the document that fits in with your chain of title search you’ll want to write down the same information or print out a copy of the document. They usually cost between one and three dollars for a copy. Unless you want a certified copy. For that only the people behind the counter can provide you with one. Each county is different as to their process. You may need to order it by mail or maybe the can give you one right there. A certified copy means it is a copy of the deed that has the county stamp and a signature on the back of it. It has full legal standing. It is legally exactly the same as having an original. But they are more expensive. Maybe 5 to 12 dollars. Depending on the number of pages.

So now you have the information of the current deed and the prior one. But don’t just jot down the key data I mentioned. Read the document. Look for information about easements or restrictions or covenants or anything else that is going to be important. I usually like to get a copy of the actual document instead of just jotting down notes even though it will cost a few dollars.

Rinse and repeat. Now that you have the document where the grantor of the most current document was the grantee on the prior document you will do the same again. Find who was the grantor on that document and do a name search for that name and find the document where they were the grantee and keep working your way back. Read each one and print out a a copy or at least take good notes.

Incidentally, I’ve never known the county that will allow you to take pictures of the computer screen with your smart phone. Sorry.

How far to go back? Title companies usually go back about thirty years. So that’s a good guide. Hardly anyone goes back more than fifty years. It’s just too old to be relevant. If you’re just looking to make sure that title is being actually held by the person wanting to sell to you that is probably far enough back to go. It wouldn’t hurt to go back as much as fifty years. Heck, you’re there, why not?

If what you’re after is information about easements or covenants what you really want to find is the mother load. I call it the mother load. That is the point in the past where a big land owner decided to subdivide the parcels and begin a development of different properties. That’s the point where the owner would have drawn up a covenant as well as easements and boundary lines for getting to each property and quite possibly decided to withhold some mineral rights. You can be sure the owner would have put something down ensuring each of the parcels he wanted to sell was not landlocked. If you are looking to find out about where the legal access to your property is that is probably how far back you will have to go. It might be only the 1970’s or it could be much earlier. The problem is that subsequent deeds typically drop that information off. I know, it’s crazy. It should required to be on every deed from now into forever. But it isn’t. I don’t know why it’s not required to remain attached to each subsequent deed. It just isn’t. So don’t make the mistake of looking at a deed written in 2003 and thinking there’s nothing here about an easement across this property – there must not be an easement. Or there’s nothing in this 2005 deed about restrictions on mineral rights so I must have full mineral rights. Sorry, but it ain’t so.

If you are looking to buy a property that doesn’t have clear legal access and you need to establish that there is a way of getting on your land and you do your research and find that in 1958 Mr. Cartwright sold that piece of land and made provisions for subsequent owners to be able to get onto that property by traversing the west 30 feet of the parcel just south of it from the county road, then you’re golden. It’s legally established that you have legal access to getting on your property. It doesn’t matter that every deed for the last fifty years didn’t mention it. It still stands. Unless a subsequent legal document dissolved the access (very unlikely and I’ve never seen it) the access stands. The problem is, you may need to go back just that far to determine that. Get yourself a certified copy of that deed and no one can question your right to get on your property. That doesn’t mean that a neighbor isn’t going to be a jerk about it. You may have a fight on your hands with them. But the law is on your side. I will have another tutorial about easements.

Moving on. On this path back in time you may find that in 1955 someone put some weird restriction in place. That covenant will be recorded in the county records and the deed must tell you what book and page that covenant can be found in. You can order copies of that by mail or look it up yourself at the recorders office. Read it through. The covenant may still stand or may have had an expiration date. It may still stand. But will it? Are they or their heirs still alive? Or know about it? Or even care? Probably not, but proceed with caution.

If someone in the past reserved mineral rights for themselves that too will stand even if dropped from subsequent deeds. Again, are they even alive? Do they know or even care? Who knows? But that would still, technically, stand. I know people who will always reserve mineral rights for themselves when they sell land just as a matter of routine. Problem is, Did they research and verify that they had those rights to reserve? A person can reserve mineral rights on a deed in 2010 even though someone thirty years before had already reserved those rights for themselves and now the more recent owner is just kidding himself. Clear Skies Properties never reserves mineral rights and never guarantees that no one in the distant past didn’t either. I simply can’t do that kind of research on every property. Not at my discount prices.

Many times in the legal description of a parcel it will say something like, “as found in Book 454, pages 344-345…” Depending on what you’re looking for it may be worth looking that book and page up. You probably will need to ask at the desk for help. There may be language in there documenting easements, restrictions, covenants, mineral rights and maybe some old plat maps that preceded the plat maps you are using and that may have very useful information.

Anyway, sounds simple enough, right? It often is and it should be, but as in life itself, it’s not always so simple. You might run into problems. What kind of problems?

Sometimes when you’re dealing with really old deeds dating to the 1950’s or 60’s the actual quality of the scanned document is difficult to read (I actually bring a magnifying lens). Or the wording is so weird that it is difficult to understand. It may be helpful to read the little blurb on the side of the screen where the county lists what kind of document it is and who the grantor is and who the grantee is. Quite often the old documents don’t list the APN. Sometimes even that is difficult to discern and the county information on the side can be helpful.

For example. Victor Eubanoff buys a parcel and then gets married to the lovely Eugenna Eubanoff. Victor dies and now Eugenna is the sole owner. When you find the Deed where Eugenna is the Grantor and now you want to go further back and find the Deed where Eugenna was the Grantee you won’t find one. It was Victor. In such cases there should be other recorded documents that document that change. But those won’t be deeds and what kind of documents will be recorded to register that change won’t necessarily go by a predictable name because there’s different ways to record something like that. That can make the search difficult. Deaths, marriages and the transfer of a property from Mary Shelley to the Mary Shelley Family Trust can make searches by name a problem. It just may take more digging through records. Hopefully the Grantor and Grantees will have unique names that don’t show up a thousand times in the records – but they might. Sometimes names will get misspelled. Sometimes people change their names. Sometimes the recorders office can mis-file or mis-transcribe something. That makes name searches tough. I won’t lie – it can get frustrating.

Another challenge can come when there is a larger property with it’s legal description and then someone subdivides the parcel into four new ones. The old legal description expires and the four new parcels will have new legal descriptions. However, if you can read and understand the legal description and find the parcel via the descriptions on a plat map you should be able to navigate those waters. It can get confusing but if you go through it methodically you can figure it out.

Sometimes a piece of land will get bought, sold, re-bought by the same party and then sold on terms and then gets recorded on a trust deed and then re-conveyed years later to a new owner who then transfers it to a family trust of a different name and back and forth. Sometimes the chain of title can be confusing. The old, old deeds can be poorly drafted and hard to understand. Sometimes it can get confusing.

One last thing. You might get lucky and in your research find that the property at one point was sold at tax auction. Tax auctions are great because they pretty effectively wipe out many defects that preceded it. If someone shared title and the property went to auction then whatever claim they held will be wiped out by the auction. If someone claims to have had partial ownership before auction then why didn’t they pay the taxes? Any such claims are wiped out when it went to auction. This in particular is true for tax auctions and not properties lost to mortgage defaults. Thats another matter and the subject of another tutorial. But not even tax auctions remove all defects and so due diligence is still required and Title searches are still in order.

The thing is: the same tools a Title Company would use are available to you. Their advantage is that they are more familiar with the process and can research more swiftly than a newbie like you. But if they can to it, you can too. It just will take more time.

If you get unlucky and discover that your chain of title search goes bad you have options: You can hire a professional abstractor who can do the search for you for a fee. Still, it’s cheaper than buying title insurance. You can hire someone from a title company to do a chain of title search. Maybe $400? Still cheaper than going through a title company for the whole process and buying title insurance. There are also companies that will perform a title search for you and you can order it online. Super easy to do and often under $200. They will usually only go back 30 years and they are just checking that the title is clear and that there are no liens. I always buy this with each property I buy and I will freely give anyone who buys a property from Clear Skies Properties a PDF of that title search upon request. They may also do deeper digging like an easement search for a higher fee.

So, there you have it. I may have gone on a bit, but that was actually pretty basic. You can do it. All it will cost you is the gas to drive to the recorders office, the cost of printing a few copies if you need it and perhaps the better part of a day. You can do a better search than the title companies do if you set yourself to it.

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