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Beginner's guide to property records

May 19, 2020 10:59:42 AM

For land developers, real estate agents, and even new residents of a city, identifying who owns a property is the first step of many projects. 

The once-traditional approach to locating property records at your county’s municipal office has now been replaced with a wave of digitally transformed land development practices, making it easier than ever to access the information realtors need without leaving their homes. 

What is a property record? 

Property records are the ownership records, or deeds, of a piece of real property. Typically composed of the ownership, sale information and property detail for a piece of real estate, the property records are legal documents that contain the necessary data about a piece of land.  

But aside from the property assessment, these documents also inform residents of the municipality about the property taxes, assessor maps, boat and airplane assessments, and change of ownership reappraisals. 

When a property is sold, the property record is signed and transferred to the new owner and the deed must be recorded and filed in the county records department of the property’s municipality. This municipality office is responsible for managing these deeds, whether the land is sold or transferred. 

Why are property records important? 

There are a number of scenarios when land developers, real estate agents or municipalities need the property record information for land. First, property records are important for property tax management -- if the deeds aren’t properly maintained, there’s likely to be issues with lien or other encumbrances to the property, as well as property tax issues. 

Additionally, these deeds play a critical role in real estate transactions, resolving boundary line disputes, clarifying the rights provided in an easement, settling outstanding lien disputes, managing property ownership rights and mitigating mortgage and foreclosure details. 

Often, these property records are used to resolve ownership issues with a chain of title by using the timeline of ownership history, and ensuring property ownership and right to sell the land. When disputes over ownership during the selling process arise, the property records are often consulted and a title search is performed.   

On the flip side, property records can impose land use restrictions like restrictive covenants included in deeds, zoning or other regulations from the municipality. 

Digital transformation's role in deeds 

Before the digital transformation of public and private sector communities, there were two primary methods of searching for property records: finding the property deed or searching for the property tax records. This meant real estate professionals and land developers needed to visit the correct municipal office to find the property records or tax information, frequently traveling to different municipalities and offices due to varying parcel locations. 

It was through this process that realtors and land developers historically attained the information needed for projects -- an intensive process that requires interpersonal contact and communication. Now, given COVID-19’s impact on the way we operate and “new normalcy,” this in-person method of attaining information seems like a time in history we will not return to. 

How to access property records

There are a variety of ways to find property records in your county municipal system. From more traditional methods such as visiting the municipality office in-person to sorting through tax records, the precedent involved in-person labor and extensive research.

However, given the digital transformation of most industries, the easiest way to access the data is to enter your parcel ID or address into a parcel or code and regulation search engine that can pull all of the necessary information for a project. 

Benefits of property searches within zoning and regulatory search systems include the centralization of information, easy sharing and communication between partners, and simple document access in the future. These digital tools have been widely adopted due to streamlined and improved processes, and this trend is expected to continue onward for many years to come. They often include unique libraries for each user and make saving property information easier, so users don’t have to search for the same property record or deed more than once. 

However, if your property deed isn’t showing up or you can’t locate the record within your municipality, you might need to take steps toward solidifying that information via other means. 

Can’t find a property record? 

Nonexistent or inaccessible property records are major obstacles to land development and real estate projects. If the property record doesn’t exist, legal action may be necessary via lawsuits where a court can intervene to establish who actually owns a property. 

Other times, supplemental property documents (rather than deeds) might be adequate to clear up matters surrounding property records such as tax information. Or, another method to identify ownership information can be through hiring real estate lawyers to check the federal court systems or prior lawsuit documents to identify information. 

Importantly, if a person identifies that their own ownership of property wasn’t recorded and cannot be identified, their next steps should be contacting real estate attorneys, title insurance companies of choice, and mortgage lenders to ensure that this property deed is legally recorded and listed with their municipality.

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