03 November 2015

Past Ownership and the House's Chain of Title - Part 1 (Pre-Construction)

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series which analyzes the chain of title completed by gathering old property deeds for our subject house. It will examine the time period 1919-1924, which I believe represents time after the land's subdivision but prior to the home's construction.

Part 2 will examine 1924-present and will describe the home's tumultuous ownership in its earlier years. Part 3 will segue into the use of mortgage documents and how they can enhance the deed research already completed.

Analyzing the Chain of Title with Property Deeds

Last month, I penned an article here which explained how you can construct your house's ownership history by compiling all of the recorded transfer deeds related to your property-- a process called "chaining the title". At the end of the post, I included a list of the past owners of my property, based on this title chain:
A spreadsheet extracting pertinent information from the deeds for the subject property
One of the goals of piecing together the title chain is to narrow down the construction date of the house even further. If you've followed closely, you know that based on previous information, the timeframe of the home's construction has been narrowed to 1919-1927 (the county database gives an estimated date of 1920). Remember, once again, that deeds only specify what land is being conveyed (with specifics usually not given about whether a house is definitely on the property or not). Even though all of the deeds dating back to Reginald Ferguson have been compiled, that does not mean the house was constructed immediately thereafter in 1920.

Looking at the list above, notice that I've included the amount of money listed as the sale consideration in each deed. The reason for this is that a clue to the construction date of the house may manifest in a substantial increase in the property's value over a short period of time. Notice in the list, however, that there is not a consistency in price changes which can be analyzed so easily, and there are a few reasons for this.

First, there are many transactions which list $1 as the consideration amount. This is a clue that the Grantee (Buyer) may have taken out a mortgage to complete the transaction-- the sale price was not $1 of course but instead equal to the amount mortgaged. This is where Part 3 of this series will dive deeper to examine the true value of the property. Second, October 29, 1929 marked a seminal moment in U.S. history, when the stock market hit it's largest crash ever and began the Great Depression. While the housing market may not have taken as much of a nose-dive as the economy at large, prices did indeed fall significantly and did not recover until after the 1930's were over. Thus, we have some inconsistency and our analysis tools will need to sharpen. However, let us still give a synopsis of what happened in the first five years after Reginald Ferguson split the Spear tract into individual building lots.

1920 to 1924

After the subdivision of Ferguson's North Glenside was recorded, the building lot on which the house currently sits went through a rapid series of ownership transfers. Frederick Brandes, a young 27-year-old metal worker from Philadelphia, and his wife Bertha bought this particular lot from Ferguson on June 4, 1920. Almost exactly two years later, on May 31, 1922, Frederick Brandes conveyed the land to Jayson Stover, a carpenter also from Philadelphia. Muddying the waters a bit is the record of a second completely separate transaction between Brandes and Stover on another piece of property in Glenside (specifically, Edge Hill) just a few months later in September 1922; this other property being conveyed from Stover to Brandes in a reverse of the deal on our property. Brandes and Stover must have been of some sort of acquaintance, and perhaps this land swap was part of a set of long-term dealings the two conducted. I shall have to research further.

The fact that Jayson Stover was a carpenter by trade at first gave me great excitement that I had found my home's builder. However, he sold the lot less than six months later to local real estate proprietor Harry Renninger, on December 19, 1922. While this timeframe certainly could have been enough time for a skilled carpenter like Jayson Stover to build a house, the lack of a significant increase in value when selling to Renninger troubles me-- the $465 price tag is more suggestive of a land value without a home on it. Perhaps Renninger indeed was a master negotiator, but I think it more likely that the house simply wasn't built yet. Renninger then sold the lot to Andrew Gutekunst less than a year later on November 10, 1923. Renninger appears to have made a $185 profit on the sale (minus costs)-- his interest in the property may have merely been to take advantage of a lull he saw in the local housing market, as he made a 40% return before any transaction and holding costs there may have been.

Photograph of real estate businessman Harry Renninger, from "Montgomery County, A History" by Clifton S. Hunsicker, published 1923-- the same year Renninger held title to the building lot on which my house now sits.
Once again, this land was held by its owner for less than a year. On October 2, 1924, Gutekunst, a 28-year-old hardwood flooring contractor by trade who lived only a street over on Cricket Avenue, sold the property to Anna L. Coogan. Finally, we see a large jump in value, as this transaction amounted to $5,500. We may have found our approximate date of construction.

Next Steps

Although it will play out through further analysis of mortgage and other documents, my working theory based on information presented on this blog to date is that the home was constructed in 1924. Andrew Gutekunst, yet another young and industrious individual involved in the building trades, may have built this house. Although Gutekunst has long since passed away, I believe I may have determined a living descendant of his. Hopefully, I can get in touch with this person to see if any family stories have been passed down of Andrew having built a house in Glenside/Ardsley.

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