The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How to do a property title search

Tract survey

Tax mapAs Mark mentioned, we spent Wednesday afternoon at the county courthouse, finding information about nearby properties.  I learned how to do this when I was buying our own farm, since a title search is essential to make sure you know what you're getting into.  You can either pay a lawyer to look for liens (debts), sold mineral rights, pesky right-of-ways, etc. attached to your potential property, or you can buckle down and do the research yourself.  Even after you own a piece of property, these skills come in handy since you can use the same technique to figure out who your neighbors are, or to find the assessed value and size of any property in the county.

Hanging map fileIf your county has entered the digital age, you might not have to jump through all of these hoops, but here's what we did.  In case you're curious, the photos are in order (except for the first one), but don't match the written steps they're beside --- a little artistic license.

Step 1: Orient yourself.  If you're looking up information on a property in a rural area, it can be handy to pinpoint the location by flipping back and forth between google maps' aerial photo and plain map features.  Once you zoom in far enough (at least in our region), google maps shows the parcel boundaries on the non-photographic map.  Do this at home before you head to the courthouse, and print out an annotated map to refresh your memory.  (While you're at it, pack your bag with a notebook, pen, camera, and money for copies if you want to make any.  Except for using the copying machine, this project is cost-free.)

Property tax assessmentStep 2: Find your tax map number.  At the courthouse, your first stop will be the tax assessor's office, where you'll probably find a big map of the county on the wall.  The lines mark off the boundaries of smaller maps, which (in our courthouse at least) are filed in a hanging cabinet.  Pull out the proper map and orient yourself using your prior research.  (In our county, only roads and creeks are shown on these maps, so it can be tough to find a property if you haven't done some homework.)  The tax map number is the number of the map you used followed by the number of the parcel --- for example: 47-90 for the property labeled 90 on the map labeled 47.

Deed booksStep 3: Find the assessment information for your property.  Filing cabinets beside the maps are divided up by map number, so you can just flip through until you find the sheet that corresponds to the property you're interested in.  In our county, this sheet of paper gives all kinds of fascinating information, including the name and address of the owner(s), the acreage, the assessed value of the property, and information on improvements.  You should also write down the deed information, which will be another two number series (this time a deed book number followed by a page number).

Property deedStep 4: Find the most recent deed for the property.  In our courthouse, you have to go downstairs to the records department to look at deeds.  (The folks who work throughout the courthouse are often very friendly and will help you out if you get confused or lost.)  The deed books are in numerical order, so pull out the correct one and flip to the page listed on the tax assessment.  In the deed book, you'll learn when the current owners bought the property, from whom, and for how much.  In some cases, there will be a description (or map) of the boundaries; in others, you will be referred to the previous sale of the property for that information.  The information in the deed trumps the boundaries delineated on the tax map, so if your property is a completely different shape in the two places (like ours is), the deed is more likely to be correct.

Old deed bookStep 5: Read back through the deeds for the last hundred years or so.  A complete title search is only necessary if you're interested in buying a piece of land, or if you're a history buff.  It's pretty easy to follow the land backwards --- each deed will refer to a previous deed book and page --- but can get trickly if land has been split apart or lumped together.  I didn't go into depth with any of the properties we were looking at this week since we're just putting out feelers, but when I bought our farm, I went all the way back and even read the deeds of neighboring properties to get more information about our right-of-way.

Extra credit: While you're there, you might want to flip through the earliest deed books your courthouse has available.  Ours date back to the late 1800s, and the earliest ones are handwritten!

Our chicken waterer keeps backyard chickens healthy with POOP-free water.

Anna Hess's books
Want more in-depth information? Browse through our books.

Or explore more posts by date or by subject.

About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

Want to be notified when new comments are posted on this page? Click on the RSS button after you add a comment to subscribe to the comment feed, or simply check the box beside "email replies to me" while writing your comment.

From what I've learned about buying property, unless you're able to pay cash, almost all lenders will require title insurance, which must be secured through a title company. That being said, Farm Credit Services did not require title insurance for our loan (probably because they keep all their loans in-house and don't sell them), but they are not really a traditional lender anyway. Most conventional lenders won't finance more than 10 acres or so - after that, it's usually considered a farm, and even if they do offer financing, all the teaser interest rates and fantastic terms go out the window. For what it's worth, though, if someone does require financing, we had a great experience with FCS, and I would recommend them to anyone looking at rural/farm property. (Not trying to sell anything here - just want to share our experience because it took some digging to figure out what our options were after we found our dream farm!)
Comment by mitsy Thu Jul 19 16:53:08 2012
Mitsy --- We aren't planning on going into debt for any purchases, so that won't apply to us. We'll either save until we've got the cash or pursue some grant/donation funding options (if we settle on a model that's more open to the public --- we're still pondering all that.) You do have to jump through a lot more hoops if you're getting a loan.
Comment by anna Thu Jul 19 17:03:34 2012
Yea, I figured y'all weren't going that route but just thought I'd throw it out there. Lending has its place in the right situation, but cash is obviously always better!
Comment by mitsy Thu Jul 19 18:29:21 2012
Mitsy --- Actually, it sounds like a post you should make on your blog (unless you already have --- I don't think I read back when I started reading, just subscribed and read everything since then. :-) ) Or maybe you'd like to write us a guest post about what you learned when you bought your farm? I'll be a lot of our readers would be interested!
Comment by anna Thu Jul 19 19:22:29 2012
Sure, I think that would be fun! I may not get a chance to put something coherent together for another few weeks though (kinda chaotic right now with our upcoming move), but I'll get the wheels turning in the ol' noggin.
Comment by mitsy Thu Jul 19 19:34:31 2012
Mitsy --- Great! I'll look forward to it (but totally understand if your move takes precedence.... :-) )
Comment by anna Fri Jul 20 08:54:05 2012
One of my favorite activities! I love perusing through title histories with or without any real objective. However, it's kind of difficult in my parish (county). Some of the people who work in the Clerk of Courts office are not friendly at all, and seem to think of the public records as their own private collection (perhaps unless you're an abstractor that they know). It's bizarre. The next parish over has an awesome collection and it's completely open and easy to access.
Comment by Sara Fri Jul 20 10:37:50 2012
Sara --- That's a shame that your courthouse folks aren't friendlier! I've had great luck asking for help at ours, but that might just be because they're not all that busy. Some random person asking dumb questions is probably more interesting if you're not behind on more important work.
Comment by anna Fri Jul 20 18:04:37 2012
Thanks for this! I feel another bizarre hobby coming soon :)
Comment by Phil Fri Jul 20 22:04:36 2012
Phil --- We can all use more bizarre hobbies, right?
Comment by anna Sat Jul 21 20:02:28 2012

profile counter myspace

Powered by Branchable Wiki Hosting.

Required disclosures:

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a few pennies every time you buy something using one of my affiliate links. Don't worry, though --- I only recommend products I thoroughly stand behind!

Also, this site has Google ads on it. Third party vendors, including Google, use cookies to serve ads based on a user's prior visits to a website. Google's use of advertising cookies enables it and its partners to serve ads to users based on their visit to various sites. You can opt out of personalized advertising by visiting this site.