The primary instrument in all property transactions is the deed. Property deeds are recorded documents legally denoting the transfer of land from one party to another. The parties listed on a deed are either grantors (sellers) or grantees (purchasers). Deeds are generally recorded with the County Recorder of Deeds or County Clerk; although this does vary in some locations, such as in the Northeast where property records are more commonly recorded at the municipal level. Recorder of Deeds offices are increasingly making their more recently filed records available on the internet, while older documents are typically only available in-person-this can vary a lot from office to office.
Deeds can be used to identify who currently owns a specific parcel of land and who else might have a claim to the property. Deeds can also provide additional information, such as who else has owned the property and whether there are any conflicts of interest between the owner and other individuals or businesses that do own or have owned the property.
One method to determine if a possible conflict exists is to compare the purchase price with the historical trend for that property. Ethical improprieties can be evidenced when a property is purchased for significantly more or less than what it is worth on the open market, particularly in cases where a relationship between the parties can be documented. Examples: the relationships that exist between candidates and officeholders and campaign contributors, friends or someone who has business before the body on which the elected official serves.
The property purchase price is not always listed directly on the deed, but can be calculated by multiplying the transfer tax amount listed by the tax rate for the county in which the sale took place. For instance, in Sacramento County, CA the transfer tax rate is $.55 per $500 of sale price. If the amount of transfer tax is listed as $100, divide $100 by $.55 and then multiply by $500 to determine the property was purchased for approximately $90,909.09. The transfer tax rate does change over time, but the County Recorder or County Tax Collector can provide the exact rate for the deed in question.
Deeds do not always list the mailing address of the property in question, instead providing what is known as the "legal description." A legal description is a detailed description used to determine the exact boundaries of a specific parcel of land. In other words, if a dispute arises between two land owners over the placement of a fence between the properties, the legal description would be referenced for definitive word on the property boundaries. The legal description is consistent and, therefore, useful in tracking events related to a specific parcel, since other identifiers (such as mailing addresses and parcel numbers) often change.
Lastly, deeds can also provide evidence of racial discrimination. To learn more on using deeds to spot potential discrimination, see our post on Finding Racially Restrictive Covenants.
While the format of deeds may vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, you can see an example of what a typical deed looks like by clicking here.