Leafing through land office records to trace property's ownership

Want to know just how old your old house is?



Like the gumshoes of popular fiction, you'll have to sift through tedious reams of facts, following a little glimmer of truth. It won't be pretty. It may not be fun. But you may discover, along the way, courtroom drama, famous names and a few historic tidbits.

We've thought all along, based on its period detail and what we know of the neighborhood's history, that the house we're working on is about 120 years old. Recently we set out to confirm that.


The first step is to find out where the land records for your area are kept. It's usually a courthouse, though in the case of very old records, they may be in state archives.

There's no uniform way such data are kept. Basically there are three systems in use nationwide for keeping track of property transactions.

A few very old cities, such as Baltimore (where some records date back to the mid-1600s), use a system called "block and lot." It's a complex system of assigning numbers to specific parcels (blocks) and then numbering each property within the block (lot). Some areas (Maryland counties, for instance) use a grantor-grantee system, which tracks property through the names of its owners. In the Midwest, there's the Torrens system, which is similar to grantor-grantee.

You can probably find out in a phone call or two where the records are kept and which tracking system is in use (try the mayor's office or the county clerk's office). But to get any information, you will have to head for the spot.

And once you're there, don't count on getting much help. If Baltimore City is any indication, land-records offices are not user-friendly places. Instead, they're likely to be dingy, dusty, vast and baffling, seemingly designed to conceal the past rather than bring it to light. The other people there are being paid for what they are doing -- maintaining records or doing legal title searches. And you, gazing blankly at the stacks of volumes or fumbling through the microfilm drawers, are in the way.

Try not to take it personally. These are public records, and your tax dollars make them possible.

We knew one way to track property is through deed references. If you have a copy of your deed, you can use the reference numbers for the previous deed to track the property. However, on our initial foray into the stacks, we quickly hit a mystifying snag: There was no deed reference in one document. We couldn't figure out how to get around it.

So we cheated. We asked a real-estate lawyer to show us the ropes.


It's a real help, Mike Gisriel, vice president of Fountainhead Title of Baltimore, told us to get the block and lot number of the property. That's the key that can help unlock the other files. He sent us to the Property Locations office in the city municipal building to get a "property I.D. card." Use the real-estate-tax assessments book to look up your address: That will list the block and lot. Then you can ask for the property I.D. card. In Baltimore, such cards, which list each subsequent owner of a block and lot, vary in how far back they go, but at least provide a starting point.

A property I.D. card, Mr. Gisriel said, can be a good shortcut when you're just searching out history. You find the earliest deed reference on the property card and start there.

"If I'm doing a title search from scratch," Mr. Gisriel said, "and I don't have a clue" about the property's history, "I always go over and get a card. For a $1 [copying fee], it's a good thing to have."

(In a grantor-grantee system -- and some places may have multiple systems -- you can still find deed references, even if all you know is the date you bought the property. Look for your name under that date in the grantee book. It will have the reference for your deed.)

We were able to get a property I.D. card with previous owners of our property -- unfortunately, the earliest listing on the property card was 1941. Still, it gave us a starting point: the deed reference MLP 6159-471.

If you've ever read a deed, you may have noticed the words "liber" and "folio," with numbers after them. Liber is Latin for "book" and folio is Latin for "page." The first number (6159) is the volume in which the deed can be found; the second number (471) is the page in the volume on which the deed is written (and in the case of older records, it will be hand-written).


The three letters before the numbers are the initials of the court clerk. MLP is M. Luther Pittman, clerk in Baltimore City from Feb. 15, 1938 to Dec. 28, 1956. The initials are important, because they will help you find which stack to look in for the volume you need. (Look on the ends of the stacks for a posted guide.)

"The way to track a property is the BEING clause," Mr. Gisriel explained. That's the paragraph in the deed that begins, "BEING the same property acquired . . ." and ends with "and recorded among the land records" -- and there's your next deed reference. It's the record of the previous sale. You'll have a new volume and page reference, maybe a new clerk's initials.

If you're lucky, you'll be able to sail back through the volumes until you get to the original deed. If you're not lucky -- well, we weren't. But there are ways to continue the search. And that's the story.

$ Next: What we found.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.