Rather than spend the $75 to $100 it typically costs to hire a title search company, you can do research on a property's title yourself. By searching government records you can identify the chain of title that shows the history of everyone who has bought and sold the property you're interested in. You can also look for liens and judgments that might "cloud" the title to the property. The records are public, so access is free.
If you're looking for more than a quick answer about a title, the services of an attorney or title search company are recommended, as they have experience in reading titles and are trained to spot notations on a property's title.
The first step is to find out the county where the property is located. Then go to that county's website to start your records search. Look for the page for the county assessor's office. As part of assessing property taxes, the office keeps the records for current ownership of the property and the title transfer to the current owner. The county deeds office records every transaction where a title deed changes hand. It may have information online about earlier title transfers.
The assessor's website provides both the property's street address and the legal description that identifies the exact piece of land and its boundaries. Record both the address and the description for further research. Property sales histories can get confusing; the legal description makes it clear exactly which property a particular record refers to.
Visit the Courthouse
Some counties don't have all their files available over the internet. If you can't find the information online, you will have to visit the county offices. The county's computer network may have more information stored digitally than you can access online. The county deeds office and tax assessor's office will also have hard copies of their records.
What to Look For
- Get the names of every grantor and grantee – the persons giving up and taking title respectively – in the chain of title.
- Look for any liens filed against the property, such as mortgages, tax liens and liens for unpaid debts. The liens stay with the property when the title changes hands, unless they're paid off.
- Check the owners' names in the county court records to see if they have any court judgments against them. The judgment could lead to a lien on the property.
- Has the current owner kept the property taxes up to date? If not, the county may look to you to settle them if you take ownership.
- Are there easements on the property? An easement gives someone other than the owner a right to use it. For example, beachfront property might come with an easement allowing people to walk across the sand even if you object.
- Note any gaps or possible errors in the record. If there's a missing or incorrect name on a deed, for example, it might indicate the title isn't clear. You may need professional help to determine the facts.
If you're looking to buy a property, it might be worth paying for a thorough title search to protect yourself before making an investment by having a professional review the title search.