13 October 2015

Piecing Together a Chain of Title for a House's Land

One of the most important research tasks to undertake in the house history is referred to as compiling the "chain of title." This process is equal parts laborious and informative. Although it is a quite extensive search, you are really getting to the meat here by gathering all the deeds on the property. This will serve to essentially create a full ownership history of the land on which your subject house sits, assuming you don't encounter any insurmountable gaps. Note that I said history of the land (not the house), as property deeds most often do not explicitly mention the existence of a house (or not) on a given property.

Image from a deed Index book. Image courtesy of US GenWeb Project (Carter County, KY) http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kycarter/deeds/1_index_deeds.html

A Note About Title Insurance

In fact, if you are the current owner and you purchased with a mortgage, this search was already conducted (at least partly) by a title company who provided title insurance for your home transaction. If your mortgage lender didn't describe the title insurance to you (or he/she did and it simply went in one ear and out the other), the title company is insuring that the title will be clear of any other claims or deed restrictions of which you may not be aware, and thus to do so they need to research the public records. This may or may not have resulted in you receiving an "abstract of title", a summary of the title history, amongst the stacks of paper you received at closing. If so, this can shorten your workload a bit. If not, you can ask the title company for it, but they might not produce it for you. Either way, we will describe here the process of title chaining from start to finish.

Start With the Most Recent Deed

In a nutshell, one needs to start with the current deed, then locate the previous deed, then the one prior to that, and so on as far back as possible, to create a chain of deeds backwards in time. In theory, one could continue this process to chart back to the origins of individual property ownership (back to William Penn in Pennsylvania), noting any subdivisions along the way. While you may be able to gather a deed or two online, based on the county, this is a search process you will need to complete in person (or request specific records in writing, which will certainly take more time and can be costly).

Property deeds are typically kept at the county level in the office of the Recorder of Deeds (or similar name), in bound Book volumes. Deeds or other property records from the very early days of a state's land ownership history may be in a state repository or archives. Each deed at the county will be listed with a Book (or Volume) number, and a Page (or Folio) number, such as "Book 5375, Page 1834." The other important piece of information to extract for the purposes of chaining the title are the Grantor (Seller) and the Grantee (Buyer) for the transaction being recorded in the deed. Both of these pieces of information are found in the Deed Index books, and are referenced in the actual deeds themselves as well. In the deed itself, the Grantor and Grantee are listed at the beginning of the document. Once you have one deed, you will use deed references and indices to locate the deed previous to it in the chain. As a side note, you should make a photocopy of each deed in your chain, abstracting (summarizing) in your research notes along the way key pieces of information, such as dates, names of individuals involved, consideration amount (sale price), and book/page numbers of other documents to search.

Locating the Previous Deed

Armed with the name of the Grantor from the current deed, consult the Grantee Index (your county may have a computer station for you to perform general searches rather than using the actual physical bound volumes). The Grantor in the current deed should be the Grantee in the previous deed. Locate the individual in the Grantee index and a Book and Page number should be listed where you can find the actual deed. You may find the same individual listed multiple (or many) times in the Grantee index. If the index has any additional information, such as the municipality where the property is located, this can narrow down which deed you are looking for. Otherwise, you may need to take note of all deeds for that Grantee prior to the current deed and look each up until you find the right property. While less likely, if you happen to be starting with an old deed and working forward in time, you will take the Grantee name in the deed and look for that individual in the Grantor index.

A Shortcut!

Hopefully, the deeds for your area will contain a clause which can save you significant time by allowing you to bypass the Grantor/Grantee Index books entirely. Scan the deed for a paragraph beginning with "Being the same premises which..." or something very similar. This paragraph should tell you exactly where the previous deed in the chain is!! See the following example:


In this example, now all one needs to do is go directly to Book 1096, and open to Page 26 to find the previous deed.

Once you locate the previous deed, find the written legal description of the property within it. There are several ways a property may be described legally, but it will always refer to a very specific location and boundary for the property. You will need to compare the legal description from one deed to the next, ensuring that you are continuing the chain on the same piece of land.

Reference Surveys

Each deed you encounter will likely include reference to the survey which originally recorded the piece of land as its own individual lot or tract. The book/page numbers should also be listed, which you can also look up in order to find a copy of the actual survey on record. The date on a survey is a good indication of a change in legal description of the property, usually accompanied by another sale/conveyance or by a subdivision of the land.


In this example, the reference survey is from the 1919 subdivision of Ferguson's North Glenside. Prior to this date, the land would have been a larger tract and will have a different legal description moving backward in time. However, the process for finding the previous deed remains the same.

If You Hit a Snag

You may encounter an apparent gap, or a "dead end" in your chain if the deeds you are working with do not specifically mention the previous deed in the chain, and if you strike out searching all deeds for the Grantor in the Grantee index. One reason could be that the land was conveyed via a method or instrument other than a deed, such as a will. This may complicate your title chaining considerably, as you will need to consult other documents, such as wills, probate records, and mortgages. In some cases, you might not be able to locate a document to explain or fill a gap in title.

Completing the Chain

Now, you may only be interested in the history of your house's land during the time period when your house actually sat on it, and that's fine. You can end your chain once you reach a point when it is clear there was no house on the property. However, remember that these deeds do not speak of your house's existence or lack thereof at any given time. You will need to use other methods described on this blog and elsewhere to date your house. Noting the consideration amount (price) on each deed can give you clues as to when the house was constructed if there was a sizable jump in price over a short period of time (indicating that some sort of construction likely took place to increase value), but this method of dating is tricky and not foolproof.

You can also continue chaining well before the construction date of your home or even beyond the subdivision, which will give your house history further depth and give you a greater understanding of the local history.

Whenever you choose to complete your chain, you should create a list such as the one below, which will serve as a snapshot summary of your land's history and will include information such as sale prices, dates, and previous owners. This is an incredible important tool of analysis and gateway into other sources of information, such as mortgages, census listings for former owners, and other ephemera of local history. Stay tuned, as we will touch on all of these and more in future posts.

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