Property deeds are public records, so you may be able to find all the information you want on a property title online or through the local recorder's office. Be careful about buying a house based on your own research though. An official title deed search will turn up a lot more information.
You may be able to research a property title with just a computer and an internet connection. Many property records are online at county websites. If that's not an option, you can go to the county offices to search the hard copy records. When you buy a house, the bank normally assigns a title insurance company to research the property's title deeds. You can apply some of the same research methods they use.
What is a Title Search?
The answer to this question depends on who is doing the searching. A private individual running a title search may be interested in finding out who owns a certain property, or what the ownership history is on a home. The more common usage of the term, however, refers to the "official" title search performed by a title company during a home purchase.
Official title searching involves involves looking at the property's entire ownership and legal history to find defects such as title deficiencies, outstanding liens and any rights of way over the property. These so-called encumbrances can affect the value of the property and the buyer (and his mortgage company) needs to know about them before they close the purchase. If you're in the process of buying a home, you need an official title search, not a DIY search of the property title deeds.
Once you've selected the property you want to research, find out what county it is in. Go online and check out the county's property title records. You may find the ones you want on the webpage for the county appraiser's office or the county deeds office. In North Carolina's Durham County, for example, you can look up current information through the appraiser and older information through the deed office, known as the register of deeds. You can search by the owner's name, the property address, a business name or look for title deeds with a particular buyer or seller's name on them.
The county records also define the exact boundaries of the property – the legal description. Unlike the street address, the legal description gives precise information about which parcel of land is covered by which property title.
Hard Copy Records
Some counties don't have title records online. Others have some records, but they don't date back more than a decade or two. All property deeds are public records, so if you visit the county's deeds office it should have the full details of the property title you're interested in. Every title deed, every title transfer and every lien on the property going back decades is recorded.
If you can't do all the work yourself, consider hiring a professional. There are internet research companies that perform low-cost online property title searches covering hundreds of counties. They can't help if the information's not online, but title insurers specialize in researching deeds and title transfers. You can also try hiring an abstractor, a researcher who puts together title histories for the insurers.
Gathering all the official files doesn't guarantee you'll have all the facts. Deed offices have sometimes unknowingly entered forged deeds into their records. The office may have misfiled or lost a record somewhere along the way. Or an improperly conducted foreclosure or a battle over inheritance can leave it unclear who the real owner is. The advantage of using title insurers is that they're pros at unraveling these problems. If they make a mistake, title insurance reimburses you for any losses you suffer.