As mentioned in my article “Researching House History”, before you can begin to research a house, you need to have the legal description of the property, which can be obtained by looking at the deed you received when you purchased the property. If you are extremely lucky, you received an abstract of the property when you bought your house. Also referred to as a chain of title, an abstract contains a legal description of the property as well as all transactions on the property back to the patentee – the original purchaser of the property from the federal government. References to deeds, mortgages, wills, probate records, divorces, and lawsuits may be included in the abstract. In the past, abstracts were routinely prepared and updated by the owner’s mortgage company each time a home changed hands. This practice went by the wayside when title insurance began to replace abstracts in the 1970’s. If there is no abstract, you will need to form a chain of title through other records.
Most chain of title searches will begin at your local county Recorder of Deeds office. This office has records and files instruments of writing affecting real property or personal property. Deeds are the beginning point in your search for records, as they will tell you the names of the previous owners as well as provide clues as to what may have been located on the property at the time the deed was drawn up. A deed tells you who owned the property, the purchase price, provides a legal description, and possibly, if there was a mortgage. It also may mention the existence of the house and additions to it. A sharp increase in the purchase price may indicate that a building was added to the property. Pay special attention to the legal description in each deed that you come across to make certain you are still looking at the correct property. Just because the correct grantee or grantor is listed doesn’t mean it is necessarily your property. Make sure each legal description matches yours.
Before beginning your search through the deeds, you will need to be familiar with two terms – Grantor and Grantee. The Grantor is the seller of the property, and is usually listed first. The Grantee is the buyer. So in looking at your own deed, you will be listed as the Grantee and the person you bought the house from will be shown as the Grantor. Starting with yourself as the buyer, you can work your way backwards through the deed indexes to find prior sellers/buyers. Usually the previous deed will be mentioned in the present deed, and you can see when the current Grantor was a Grantee. If not, you will need to look up the current Grantor in the Grantee Indexes. In fact, it is advisable to look for all of your property owners in both indexes, because sometimes the property transaction only appears in one of the indexes. This is the method you will use to work your way back through the owners of the property. I made photocopies of each deed I came across because I found it interesting to read the different descriptions of the property and because sometimes the instrument was not a just listed as a deed but was noted as something else. For example, if you come across a Deed of Trust, it generally does not mean that the property changed hands, but instead the grantor gives title of the property to a grantee (usually the person lending the money) until the grantor pays the loan back in full. It is not necessary to make the copies, but do make note of anything different about the deed.
As you come across deeds on your property, check the deeds that were recorded on the pages before and after your deed. You might find other deeds relating to your property. A caution – remember that while the deeds will tell you who owned the property, they won’t tell you who lived there. You will need to search other records to determine who actually occupied the house.
If you come across any references to court cases within your deeds, make note of them on your reference sheet as they might contain useful information about your house or its owners. Ask the reference person in the Recorder of Deeds office where you might locate the listed records.
Make a list of all the families who owned your house, showing the dates they bought and sold the property. This sheet will be a handy reference of all the names and time periods as you search through other records to learn about your families.
Now, if all of this seems overwhelming to you or you are just not interested in doing the research yourself, you can have a Title Insurance Company obtain the list of owners for you. There will be a fee charged for the service, but if you provide the company with a legal description of your property they can do the work for you.