Sometimes I just need to get to the courthouse and dig through the books myself. I often get asked “how do you find your deals” or “how do you know the title is clean”? The answer is always the same: research! Right now at Jaz Land I am a one stop shop. I do all of the deed and legal research myself. I’ve personally been to the courthouses and dug through the indexes for hours. Every public document for land that gets recorded at the county is stored at the county clerk’s office. Here you will find books upon books of records containing ownership. In Texas, this dates back to the early 1900's or prior. Connecting the dots through these books can tell you a lot about a land’s past.
Me inside of the county clerk's office digging through the indexes to find grantors and grantees
During one trip in 2017 I found myself at the Jeff Davis County courthouse in West Texas. Normally I have access to any deed I want through special online software that taps directly into the courthouse records. Jeff Davis is different, however. They’re so old school that nothing is digital and can only be found in person at their Fort Davis, Texas office. It’s like the Wild West.
On this visit, I was searching records to make sure current ownership was valid on a 20 acre piece. On a typical piece of land I am researching back at least 20 years to check the chain of title. To do so is a relatively simple task, however the documents required may not be so simple to find! Human error can result in lost documents or messed up Grantor/Grantee names which throw it out of place in the books. I’m looking to make sure grantors and grantees line up and the lots weren’t “double sold”. A workflow through checking a piece of land’s title may look like the following.
In this case, Grantor A was the original owner of the parcel 3 owners ago. He granted it to Grantee B who owned it 2 owners prior to the current owner, D. B then granted it to C who is the previous owner who eventually sold it to Grantee D who is the current owner. Now when I go to buy it from D, they will become the grantor and myself the most recent grantee. Here I’m looking to make sure that all of the grantors and grantees line up and that I don’t see Grantor C also selling the property to Grantee E in addition to Grantee D. In this case, the lot would have been double sold and the county records in the tax office will most likely show both grantors D and E on the tax roll. Whoever had the deed recorded FIRST is the winner and owns the land.
Many times the chain of title can be followed back to its origination in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s when the original Texas land surveyors acquired the land from the state, marked it off, and then sold it. Title companies, however, usually only follow a chain of title back 30 years or so. Next time you buy through a title company keep that in mind. As stated, I like to go back at least 20 years myself but often go back 50 or more following a land’s exchange of ownership. A quit claim deed will flag my radar because it’s often involved in sketchy land deals where the title is not transferred correctly. It’s always important to exchange title of land in a legal manner because once incorrect, there will be a break in the title chain until fixed. This means any future owners may not truly own that land because it was sold improperly in the first place.
Landmen doing research at the county clerk's office
Another reason I’ll need to make a trip to the courthouse is to get a plat map of the piece of land in question. It’s important to try and request a plat map be recorded with your land when the lot you’re buying is in a subdivision. Always keep this on record so the lot can be located. Personally, I try to record a plat on land I sell whenever I find one for land that has been subdivided. For simple aliquot subdivision this is not necessary. I also will always provide any plat to my buyers for their records so they don’t need to make a courthouse visit or request from the clerk’s office for their plat! The picture below is an example of what a plat map might look like.
Plat map showing the lot breakdown of a section of land in West Texas
Digging through deeds and checking ownership is important when not closing through a title company. Although the chances are slim that the title chain has been broken, I still like to make sure everything lines up before selling a customer a piece of land. I will never sell a piece of land that has broken title unless specified to the buyer or a prior arrangement has been made. If I can’t find the records online, that means I’m off to the county clerk’s office to find what I need. Happy deed hunting!