Home » Resources » How to research the chain of title for your historic property

icon_76841Documenting a “chain of title” through deed research is an important step in learning more about the history of any property or old house. Read on for a step-by-step guide on how you can research the chain of title for your own home. A chain of title can be a key to unlock fascinating stories about who lived in your house, how and when your house has sold, and how the property has changed over time. Resources from the Maryland State Department of Assessment and Taxation (SDAT) Real Property Data Search and the MDLandRec.net database of land records and indices make it simple to conduct this research online. Throughout this guide, we use the example of our office at 11 ½ W. Chase Street (owned by AIA Baltimore) to illustrate each step in the process.

1. Identify the address of the property

Tip: When you start a chain of title search it is a good idea to create a table to keep track of the grantor/seller, grantee/buyer, the deed reference and the date of sale for each transaction you find. Find an example of this table for a completed chain of title search below.
Find the address of the house or property you want to research. Google Maps or the Baltimore Cityview mapping service are helpful in making sure you have the correct address for the property.

2. Use the Real Property Data Search to find the deed reference

Open the SDAT’s Real Property Data Search. Select “Baltimore City” from the drop-down list of counties and “Street Address” from the drop-down list of search methods then select continue. Fill in the field for street number. This field is optional  but searching with only the street name may return a large number of search results. Fill in the street name. This field is required. Make sure to enter the street name only – not the prefix (e.g. North) or the suffix (e.g. Avenue)Select next.
Example: The form will not accept “11 ½” for the street number but we can use “11” instead.  For the street name, we filled in “Chase” instead of “West Chase Street.” Our search returned multiple results but with the name of the owner – “BALTIMORE CHAPTER” – and the street name – “11> CHASE W ST” – make it simple for us to identify the correct property.
How to search the SDAT Real Property Database Review the information provided in the search result. If the search returns multiple properties, use the address or owner to select the correct property. At the top of the page, look at the Account Identifier section and copy the block and lot numbers. Just below the Account Identifier is the Owner Information. Copy the owner name and the deed reference. In Baltimore City, the block number alone can be used to search for the deed but using the deed reference is often faster. The deed reference has at least two pieces a book number and a page number (sometimes known as a “liber” and “folio”). Many older deed references also include two or three letters that make up the initials of the clerk who recorded the deed. Continue down the page to find the section on Transfer Information. Copy the names, transfer dates and deed references for any transfers listed. If the property has not sold recently, this section will be blank because only more recent transactions are identified.
Resource: SDAT has a guide to searching the Real Property database (PDF) and a glossary of terms that can help you learn to navigate the site and address common problems.

3. Use MDLandRec.net to find the current deed

Open the MDLandRec.net database in your browser and then log in to the MDLandRec website using your email and password.
If this is your first visit to the MDLandRec website, you are required to create a new account. Complete this form to create a new account then check your email to click the confirmation link before logging in.
Find the drop-down menu labeled Select County then select Baltimore City from the list of options. Find the search form under the heading Jump to new volume. The deed reference provided through the SDAT Real Property Database lists is a book number and a page number separated by a slash. These numbers are also known as the liber and folio. Fill in the book number and page number then select “Go!” Review the results of the search. Select the deed matching the most recent sale date of your property.
Example: For 11 1/2 W. Chase Street, the deed reference from our Real Property Data Search (01672/ 00505) translates into a book number 1672 and page number 505. After entering this information, our search returns multiple volumes. We can browse through each of these options but since we know that AIA Baltimore acquired the property in the 1980s we’ll start with the first deed on the list (“SEB 1672” from 1988).
Select Baltimore from list of Counties

4. Examine the current deed for references to earlier deeds

Examine the deed to confirm that the information about the grantor, grantee and sale date matches what you know about the property. If it looks like you found the correct deed, search the document for a description of the property (often beginning, “Being the same lot…”). This typically provides information on the deed, grantor and sale date for the next deed in the chain.
Example: The most recent deed for 11 1/2 W. Chase Street (PDF) notes that the property is “more particularly described  in Exhibit ‘A’ attached hereto.” We can page through the book using the button labeled “Next” to find the attached Exhibit A. The description in this document gives us a date (July 17, 1964), a reference (Liber 1726, folio 621), and the grantor (Henry A. Parr, III and Mary H. Parr) for the prior transaction.

5. Use MDLandRec.net to find earlier deeds in the chain

To find the next deed in the chain of title, select “Jump to a New Volume” or select “Search” to return to the original search form. Fill in the fields for book and volume with the deed reference you found in the description from the existing deed. Examine the deed and repeat the same search for the deed reference again using the phrase “Being the same lot of ground…” This description should include the same information found in the previous deed: a grantor, a date of sale and a reference.
Example: Following this process, the next deed back in the chain for 11 1/2 W. Chase Street shows Henry and Mary Parr buying the house from Edward Turner on May 27, 1964. A decade earlier, in 1953, Edward and Mary Virginia Easter Turner purchased the house  from DeWitt and Carolyn Casler. The Casler family purchased the property in 1919 in three separate transactions from a lawyer representing a local bank.
Repeat this same process again and again until the chain of title search is exhausted. Errors in notation and transcription and the combination of individual properties into larger transactions can make it difficult to locate the correct deed in some cases. Ideally, you can extend your chain of title search back before the date of construction of your house or property.
Resource: The handwritten script on deeds from the 19th century or earlier can be difficult to read. Ancestry.com offers a helpful resource on reading old handwriting. The UK National Archives also has a detailed tutorial on “palaeography.”

6. Interpret the chain of title to learn more

Resource: Learn more about researching the history of your historic house or neighborhood with newspapers, images and other sources with our research guide.
Who lived in the house or occupied the property? The owners are not necessarily the residents or occupants of the property. Supplementing a chain of title search with research using census records, street directories and historic newspapers can confirm help document the history of occupancy.
Example: Searching the 1921 “Blue Book” for Baltimore turns up a reference to Dr. and Mrs. De Witt Bellinger Casler living at 13 W. Chase Street. By supplementing the deed research with a directory, we can learn that De Witt Casler was a doctor. Additional sources add the detail that Dr. Casler worked at Johns Hopkins University as a instructor in Clinical Gynecology.
How has the property changed over time? The description of the property will typically include information about the boundaries of the property, their dimensions, and improvements. Garages, outhouses or other related structures may be identified and described in a deed. This is important to identify dates of construction for a house or any additions and outbuildings. What does the chain of title reveal about the occupants, the property and the neighborhood? Considering the frequency of the transactions, the sale price, and the respective identities of the buyer and seller can help reveal events in the lives of the occupants or broader patterns in the history of the neighborhood or the city. Perhaps the sale is prompted by a death in the family, a building fire, or a move to another city. Knowing the year a property is bought or sold can help to focus your research on relevant sources and information.
Resource: The Baltimore City Archives provides a resource on Land Records for Baltimore City with a similar guide to deed research. Family Search: Maryland Land and Property is a more general resource on the topic.

7. Review your Chain of Title

We followed the chain of Title for 11 ½ West Chase Street, Baltimore, MD 21201 back to 1919. Can you follow it back further?
Grantor Grantee Deed Reference (Initials/Liber/Folio) Transfer Date Sale Price
Donnell M. Smith and Florence C. Smith and Thomas W. Smith and Elizabeth C. Smith The Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects SEB 1672 505 May 31, 1988 $100,000
Henry A. Parr, III and Mary H. Parr Donnell M. Smith and Florence C. Smith, Thomas W. Smith and Elizabeth C. Smith JFC 1726 621 July 17, 1964 $5
Edward Turner Henry A. Parr, III and Mary H. Parr 1697 80 May 27, 1964
DeWitt B. Casler and Carolyn B. Casler Edward Turner and Mary Virginia Easter Turner MLP 9087 100 March 2, 1953
Albert Gilmore DeWitt B. Casler and Carolyn B. Casler SCL 3326 269 February 18, 1919