15 October 2015

Extracting Clues from Property Deeds

After you have gathered a collection of property deeds related to the land on which your subject house sits, you can begin to examine the details of each individual deed for specific clues. If you have found yourself at this article and have not yet gathered any deeds for your house or land, see my article on "chaining the title" of your property here. After this process, you may have a dozen or so deeds, or you may have 1-2, depending on how many times the house and land were sold and how far you choose to go back. Each deed should be studied carefully.

There are several types of deeds, including warranty deeds, quitclaim deeds, grant deeds, deed polls, and sheriff's deeds. I won't get into the legal mumbo-jumbo (although I've provided some hyperlinks within the text of this paragraph if you are interested), as you want to look for the same types of information in each. The issue of whether a grantor (seller) warranted the title or not is of little historical significance to your house history unless you also find some evidence of an ownership dispute or claims by other parties.

Using deeds for a house history research project is a bit different than for, say genealogy and family history research, as we are examining just a single piece of property in one location: examining its singular growth, splits, subdivisions, and ownership history across (presumably) many different families. However, the analysis methods are nearly the same, looking for the same types of information. More recent deeds (perhaps from 1900 on) will be typewritten, whereas earlier deeds were recorded by hand and are more difficult to read. You will be searching for names, neighbors, land descriptions, deed restrictions, and references to other documents, which we will provide examples for here.


There will be many names listed in the deed, starting most importantly with the grantor(s) and grantee(s). Both will be listed within the first paragraph. Sometimes, the name of the municipality where each maintains residency will be listed. If the grantor is living in a different town or city from where the land/house is located, there is a strong likelihood that he never actually occupied the property. Throughout the document, the grantor and grantee will be referenced multiple times (when covenants of the deeds are expressed), but their names may have been replaced with the actual word "grantor" or with "said party of the first part" for the grantor/seller ("grantee" or "said party of the second part" for the grantee/buyer). Knowing where each party lived prior to the transaction can give you a clue as to where to look for census listings and other records of these people prior to their ownership, arming you with a richer sense of who they were.

As mentioned in the post on chaining the title, there may be a paragraph which summarizes the previous deed in the chain, giving you the name of another prior owner to research further. This paragraph often begins with "Being the same premises...". Further, regarding the grantor and grantee, the spouse's names are often listed which can confirm that you are researching the correct "John Smith", for example, in other records.

A legal description will always be given, as this tells the world exactly what property is being conveyed. Look at this description carefully-- it may contain the names of owners of neighboring property. Neighbors, especially in earlier deeds, should be researched further, as they could be relatives of one of the parties, or could potentially have owned the land when it was part of a larger tract. They may even be persons of local historical significance if their land had not yet been subdivided at the time. The owner of neighboring land may also be a corporation, which you can try to research and understand more about.

Finally, usually towards the end of the deed, witnesses as well as the notary are listed. While you need not research these people extensively, you should at least try to determine from census and other records if they were possible relatives of one of the parties. If either the grantor or grantee happens to be a bank or loan corporation, the names of one or more of its officers with legal authority to convey the property will be listed here towards the end. Take note of these names as well, as they may appear in other deeds related to your land, and may have been significant local figures.

Note that witness Bertha Spear Davis may be related to grantor Emma L. Spear


This may seem obvious, but dates in time are recorded and referenced in deeds. There is the date a transaction occurred, the date the deed was recorded in the appropriate county office, the date of the previous deed, as well as the date of any other referenced documents. Dates, obviously, help you place certain events into the timeline of house history.

Money, and Other Considerations

Generally, near the beginning of the deed and typically right after the grantee and grantor are identified, the consideration amount is given. This can very loosely be translated as the sale price of the transaction, but one must be careful. Actual sale prices were sometimes hidden from public record by listing a nominal amount in the deeds, followed by "and other good and valuable considerations". This may have been done for privacy reasons or to avoid a greater tax bill on the sale (the latter being more difficult these days). Also, other considerations could have been made and may even be spelled out, such as the deeding of a land in exchange for a nominal sum plus providing care and living quarters for the grantor for the remainder of his life. A consideration amount of $1 may also be a clue for you to look in the Recorder of Deeds office for a mortgage on the property around that date in the name of the grantee.

Since the consideration is only $1 between two unrelated parties, this is a clue that the grantee may have taken out a mortgage on the property.

References to Other Documents

Wills, probate records, other deeds, court proceedings, surveys, and sheriff sales are just examples of other documents which may be referenced in a deed. Any of these can be sought for further information. Although not referenced specifically, the existence of a mortgage on the property can be strongly clued by the consideration amount.

Reference to a writ of Fieri Facias in 1925-- time to visit the Court of Common Pleas!

Legal Description of Land

Refer once again to the land's legal description. As you are chaining, you want to be sure you are consistently referring to the same property. The survey which records the properties current boundaries should also be listed for you to refer back to and/or request a copy of from the county. If the deed you are examining describes the land when it had different boundaries than it does currently, you can try to chart or plot the boundaries from the older deed to understand the boundaries the larger tract once had. Historic atlas maps can be consulted in conjunction with this effort to see if it matches up. Once you've plotted the larger tract, you may be able to find the old residence of the former landowner nearby to your house, if it still exists. As street names are often used in these legal descriptions, you can compare to current streets names and see if they remain the same or if they have evolved over time.

Deed Restrictions

If there are any restrictions which the grantor is placing on the grantee's use of the land, they will be listed in the deed. Many times these restrictions were applied to subdivisions in order to avoid uses in the neighborhood which caused offensive odors. Sometimes, unusual restrictions are listed, which adds interest to the history of the property.

Absolutely no piggeries!!!

"Jackpot" Information

While any piece of information is a jackpot in the eye of the beholder, some deeds truly do contain a boatload. If a tract of land remained within the same family for many decades, passed down through generations of heirs, a deed was likely not recorded. Such conveyances took place officially through the probate process. Researching wills and probates is another, wholly useful task, but is one for us to discuss another day. Eventually, when the land was sold out of the family, a large mass of information may have come to light in the ensuing deed document. The "Being the same premises" section might just be a jackpot. Consider this example:

Here, we are presented with the following:

  • The names of at least 6 previous owners of the referenced land, prior to grantor Emma Spear (Henry B. Bruner and his wife; Daniel H. Mulvaney; Isaac Knight; Bertha C. Mulvaney; Ralph L. Stone; and Julia L. Mulvaney). Many of these individuals were related to one another and those relationships are spelled out clearly.
  • Clear evidence (and release) of a rental arrangement involving the property which compensated the Trustees of the Friends Meeting at Abington. The will of Isaac Knight must be consulted further to determine if the Friends held an actual ownership stake in the property, or what the exact arrangement was.
  • Reference to 2 prior deeds, along with book/page numbers.
  • The exact dates of death of 3 of the previous owners.
  • References to 4 wills, with book/page numbers given for 3 of them.
This bonanza leaves several breadcrumbs for further research-- it is dated 1917 and references a will from 1815, so a time period of 102 years is largely outlined here. Be sure to look especially closely at deeds directly preceding the subdivision of a larger land tract. Such subdivisions often occurred within a decade after the death of a landowner, and the deed resulting from the sale of the family farm can lead to a very informative document.

Do remember that deeds reference land, not a house specifically. The mention of "all and singular buildings" or other structures as inclusions in the deed does not guarantee that a house, or even any structure, existed at that time. However, even if a particular deed is from a date prior to the existence of your subject house, knowing the full history of the land on which it sits can help tell the story of the house came to be. One should strive to photocopy and abstract, and ideally transcribe, all deeds relating to the subject property in order to extract all possible clues.

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