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What are Property Records?

By Margo Steele
Updated May 16, 2024
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Property records are documents relating to the ownership of real estate, whether it is a house, a parcel of land, an office building or an apartment complex. These records document transactions by which one party transfers real property ownership rights, in part or in whole, to another party. The method by which this takes place is frequently a sale, but it may be a gift from a parent to a child or to an institution such as a charity or a college. Regardless of whether money changes hands, there must be a record of the transaction.

As a rule, property records are kept locally in county, district, state or regional headquarters. The names of these public offices vary from place to place. Names such as Recorder of Mortgages, Clerk of Court or Department of Records are typical. These offices provide a central location in which to house the ownership records of real property and everything that relates to it, such as taxes, liens and mineral rights.

Deeds are common property records. A deed is simply the record of a sale or conveyance of land, with or without improvements, from one person or entity to another person or entity. When the transaction is complete, the deed is taken to the records office, where it is filed and recorded as a public record. Some jurisdictions allow the new owner to keep the original; others retain the original on file and give a copy to each of the two parties involved in the transaction.

If the transaction is a sale, and full payment is not made at the time of the sale, a mortgage will be prepared stating how much is owed and to whom. Usually, a bank or mortgage company is the mortgage holder, but it may be an individual. The mortgage will also be recorded as a public record. Any liens against the property, zoning violations or unpaid taxes show up in the property records of any piece of real estate. In general, property records are public; anyone can look them up, and many can be accessed online.

Property ownership records are important and constitute the chain of title that shows who owns the land now and who owned it in the past. There should be no break in the chain of title; if there is, there may be complications. Lawyers and title companies depend on property records to certify details of past and present ownership, especially if oil or gas royalties are involved, because these are not always included in a sale or transfer.

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