Owning a home is a goal of many Americans. According to one survey, 79% of US citizens think that homeownership is an integral part of “achieving the American dream.” About 65% of households in the United States have made that dream a reality as the rate of homeownership has slowly increased in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis.
While many homeowners might not think much about it, land records coupled with title insurance play a vital role in providing assurance that the property they own is theirs to use and modify as they please. Without a meticulously accurate system tracking the chain of title to land, we would have no way of proving ownership.
Here’s how some of those land record systems started and the value that it brings to homeowners today.
The Earliest Land Records Systems
The tradition of the official transfer of land ownership rights can be traced back to 13th century Scotland. Sasine ceremonies marked the occasion of passing land from one individual to another by handing over a piece of earth and stone, symbolizing the land transfer.
The earliest recorded account of a Sasine ceremony documented Sir Malcolm (son of the Earl of Lennox) bestowing some lands at Strathblane to Sir David Graham in 1248.
In 1286, the first clerk of land records, William Dumfries, was appointed by the monarch and given the title Clericus Rotulorum or Clerk of the Rolls. At the time, the monarch granted rights to land, crops, livestock, fishing, and minerals through the form of a charter. This office later developed into the Lord Clerk Register.
Eventually, with the Registration Act of 1617, individuals transferring land through Sasine ceremonies were allowed to record their private ownership deeds in official registers; thus, creating the General Register of Sasines, the first national land register in the world.
Similar to Sasine ceremonies, the feudal English equivalent called “livery of seisin” conveying the property from one person to another emerged. The Middle English word “livery” essentially means delivery as in the delivery of a deed. However, the deed wasn’t the legal document we know today, but a symbolic act and verbal agreement.
The livery in deed mirrored the Sasine ceremonies, in which the English also used gestures like giving a lump of dirt, a key, or a twig to the new owner to seal the deal. Another version called livery in law involved gathering within sight of the land, the seller declaring the transfer to the recipient, followed by the new owner entering the land.
These “Rituals of Turf and Twig” were often later inscribed on parchment and sealed, but in the minds of local villagers, the real deed had already occurred. The details of the ceremony like when it occurred and the exact location of the property weren’t important since everyone knew who the land belonged to, how much it was worth, and where it was located. The purpose of the document was to certify an important event had occurred and act as a “keepsake and a letter of posterity.”
Eventually, these rituals gave way to a more consistent and accurate land record keeping along with more complete ownership of real property under common law. In the 16th century, English parliament created statutes passing beneficial and legal interest in a property via legal instruments or charters, making livery of seisin unnecessary. By the late 17th century, very few people were still conveying land via livery of seisin.
History of land records in the United States
Much of the laws guiding the ownership and transfer of land in the United State is heavily influenced by English common law. References to the livery of seisin can even be found in some state laws. Like Illinois’s Conveyances Act, which opens with “Livery of seizin shall in no case be necessary for the conveyance of real property.”
In the United States, congress required each county to establish recorder’s offices to publicly record deeds and mortgages in 1795. Each state was responsible for establishing the guidelines on how official records would be recorded and maintained.
Ohio was the first state to create official statutes on the duties of the recorder, which included “to procure proper books and record therein all deeds, mortgages, leaseholds, and conveyance of land and tenements lying within the county; to endorse on each instrument the time of filing for record; to record in regular succession according to priority of receipt; and to number the page of the book where recorded.”
As more Americans moved into the West, it’s estimated that nearly 90% of men owned land by 1850, making land records a treasured source for many to trace their ancestry.
What can you find in land records?
Today, most record systems can be found online cataloging countless deeds, mortgages, and other instruments, and anyone can conduct a cursory property title search from anywhere with access to a computer.
While land records are important for new homeowners to ensure their property rights are legitimate, the system and the contents it contains additional value.
- Because land can be transferred from either the government to an individual or from one individual to another individual, land records can be found at the federal, state, and county levels.
- The historical value can’t be overstated as documents like deeds provide information on historical figures and family ancestors.
- A person’s name, age, the name of their spouse or heirs, parents and other relatives, or even neighbors are often documented.
- Land records may also indicate where the person lived previously, his occupation, and whether he served in the military or if he was a naturalized citizen.
- These records often lead to other life documents like probate or court documents, marriage records, military records, or immigration records.
- The legal value of land records is in the important chain of title documents like deeds, promissory notes, mortgages, etc. that it holds.
- Title agents and attorneys search these records to establish if a seller has the right to sell you a property and if there are any title defects that need to be cleared before closing.
- Some economists like Hernando de Soto have also noted that the detailed recordkeeping of property generates capital and provides economic value to those who hold the title.
Millions of documents are held in public records, and each is assigned a book and page number in order to track and retrieve it when needed. Documents are never deleted or erased from the land records. Instead, a subsequent document or instrument is recorded referencing the proceeding document’s book and page number to connect the two.
Release tracking and title curative work are two important aspects of keeping track of chain of title documents and curing title issues for homebuyers and homeowners. Learn more about these services and how title agents and agent-attorneys can optimize their pre and post-closing workflows in this webinar.