15 September 2015

Browsing On-Line County Databases for House History Information

When a home sale occurs, the transaction becomes a matter of public record once it is recorded in the appropriate local government office (thus providing explanation for the slew of mortgage refinance and other related offers you will receive in the mail). Throughout the United States, this is usually at the county level, most often at the department of the Recorder of Deeds, Register of Deeds, or some similar name. This department will become very important to us when we go to chain the title of our property.

Before taking a trip to the Recorder of Deeds office or writing to them requesting pertinent records, a quicker first step you can often do online is to browse the public records databases your county government has made available on their website. There are generally two types of databases which MAY be available on-line in your area, as it relates to house history research: property assessment records, and deed/mortgage indexes.

Property Assessment Databases

Your county probably has a County Assessor, or something similar, such as a Board of Assessment Appeals. As most property is taxed (in order to pay for schools and municipal services), this county office aids cities, townships, school districts, and other taxing authorities in setting the assessment value for a property. This is not the same as market value (which is essentially what someone is willing to pay) but is instead merely the value upon which taxes are based, according to a set millage rate).

Naturally, this county office contains alot of general information about each property, and you may be able to find a searchable online database for this information. Search your county's (or city's) website for such an assessment office and see if you can find a link for "Property Records", "Online Assessment Information", "Search Tax Records", "Property & Tax Information" or something similar. You can also try a Google search using the query "property records (insert county name) county", but always be sure the search results are linking you to an official county website or database. For our subject home in Montgomery County, the link for the Property Records database is on the Board of Assessment Appeals department page on the county website:

Link highlighted to assessment office public database, Montgomery County PA

If you are able to find such a database, you should be able to search for a property by address, parcel ID# (listed on your deed), or owner name. You will be greeted by a plethora of data, a good percentage of which may be useful to you: things such as a history of sales (including prices and previous owners), history of assessment values, lot size and house size, type of construction or exterior cladding, type of heating system, and perhaps even a history of building permits or alterations. The approximate year of construction is probably listed as well. This listed construction date must always be taken with a grain of salt, as there is a very good chance the date was estimated by the assessor several years or decades after it was actually built. If you are very fortunate, you will find a photograph or two of your house on file in this database (you almost certainly will in Montgomery County PA). Do be aware, however, that the information shown may not be complete in the online database; for instance, the sales history may not go all the way back to the subdivision of the land. Searching online is a good place to start, but you will never find everything you need online.

Deed and Mortgage Indexes

The workhouse county department for the house history is the Recorder (or Register) of Deeds. In another phase of research, we will attempt to gather all of the deeds on record for our property, to track history of ownership. Prior to a more extensive search in-person or via mail, check your county's Recorder of Deeds webpage and see if a records database is available online. Often, you will find one.

Link highlighted to Recorder of Deeds public database, Montgomery County PA

What this database will likely allow you to search for is deeds, mortgages, and related documents (such as the satisfaction of a mortgage). If you search by your property's Parcel ID#, you will get a listing of all related documents for that parcel.

Where this is most helpful is getting a start on the chain of title (or ownership history) of the property. There are two caveats here: firstly, deeds are related to real property (i.e. land) and more than likely will not specifically mention the presence of a house on the land. This is where analysis of the deeds comes in (a future blog post), as well as the use and analysis of additional documents (maps, census, mortgages, etc). Secondly, the online database, again, may be incomplete. It may only go back a certain number of years. Or, the database might not let you view an image of the actual record but only alert you to its existence. If this is the case, you will need to either visit the Deed office in person, or request a copy of the document in writing (again, not everything is online). Still, this can give you more additional information relatively quickly.

What do we find for Our House?

Returning to our subject house, searching on the database of the county's assessment office gives me the following pieces of information:
  • The year built is 1920-- as stated previously, this is most likely only an estimate.
  • The last sale of the house before my purchase ($110,000 in 2001). It does not list the Grantor (Seller) of that transaction here, but I know from my deed that it was Catherine Cantlin.
  • A sale date of 1/1/1932 and a sale price of $0 with Catherine Cantlin as the Grantee (Buyer). The January 1 date leads me to believe this may have been a default month/day entered into the database and that really only the year 1932 is accurate. No Grantor (Seller) is listed. (Remember that we've found a 1927 map where the house exists, but no other sales are listed on this page).
  • Deed Book and Pages numbers are given for both the 2014 transaction involving me as buyer as well as for the 2001 transaction. These are useful for locating the deed in the actual Recorder's office. No book/pages numbers are given for the 1932 transaction, but this information IS listed in my actual deed, and we will return to that later.
  • The house was assessed at $4,500 in 1987, and re-assessed at $91,800 in 1997. Remember, the assessment value is NOT market value.
  • A permit was pulled in 2013 for "Central Air/HVAC" and another for "Mechanical/Electrical". I know that my house does not have central air conditioning, but I also know from the home buying process that the previous owners installed a new gas boiler for heating in 2013. No other permits are listed online.
  • Other physical attributes of the house and property are listed, such as its square footage, lot size, type of exterior siding (asbestos), and its style (bungalow).
Lastly, I was very excited to find this photograph of the house!

Photo of my house, via Montgomery County PA. Judging by the car in my neighbor's driveway, I'd date this somewhere around 1990.

Now, when I access the Recorder of Deeds online database and search for my specific land parcel, I find the following documents listed:
  • The deed from my purchase of the house in July 2014.
  • 2001 deed when the previous owners bought the home from Catherine Cantlin. Another name is listed here with her: "Margaret Cantlin Atty". The consideration amount (i.e. sale price) was $110,000 which matches the assessment office's information.
  • 1932 deed (date given as 10/18/1932) with John J Cantlin and Catherine Cantlin listed as grantees (buyers). The grantor (seller) is listed as "Remlu B&LA". Searching for this via Google made it clear that this stands for Remlu Building & Loan Association. A building and loan association is a financial institution focusing on residential mortgage lending and investment (think Jimmy Stewart's Bailey Building and Loan in It's a Wonderful Life!). The consideration amount was $1,400.
  • My mortgage is listed, along with the mortgage amount as well as the lender involved.
  • Three (3) separate Mortgages are shown for previous owners, as well as three (3) separate Satisfaction of Mortgages correlating to each of those mortgages. The Satisfaction of Mortgage is what it sounds like-- a document from the mortgage lender stating that the amount has been paid off in full.
Unfortunately, none of the documents are available for online viewing, however the book and page numbers for each recording are given, so these documents could easily be found in the county office or requested in writing.

Please do remember that research is a process and that only a portion of the information you will wish to gather is online. However, with these steps, we have gone slightly deeper in the home's history of ownership and have some new names to search elsewhere. We also have various documents we can request from the county in the future, and we have a roughly 25 year old photo of the house. We will provide some further analysis to these clues later this week in the next post. Stay tuned!

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