Using Indexes to Find Recorded Documents

The recording system helps people determine the state of title before buying an interest in land. A buyer wants to know, for example, whether someone has an outstanding mortgage that will result in the land being sold if a debt isn’t paid — that mortgage obviously makes the land worth less to the buyer.

The county official who records documents keeps an index so people can find relevant documents. Two main types of indexes exist:

  • Grantor-grantee index: This is the most common type of index. It actually involves two indexes: an index in which documents are listed alphabetically by the name of the grantor, with accompanying notations about the type of document and where it can be found in the county’s records, and an index in which the same documents are listed alphabetically by the name of the grantee.

    These indexes used to be kept in books, so if you search title you’ll likely need to look through a series of such index books covering different years. Today computer databases allow you to search all documents included in the database, but older documents may not be included in the database.

  • Tract index: Also referred to as a parcel index, this type of index is less common. It organizes recorded documents by the location of the property, such as by subdivision name or quarter-quarter of a Government Survey System section.

To examine relevant documents using a grantor-grantee index, you first search backwards in the grantee index, starting with the name of the person whose title you’re trying to confirm. When you find her name as a grantee, you see the name of her grantor as well, and then you continue searching back in time, looking for that person as a grantee.

You continue finding each grantor until you get to the original grant from the sovereign. In some states, a statute or a bar association title standard says you have a reliable chain of title after you’ve confirmed title a certain number of years back in time, like 40 years.

Then you use the grantor index. You go through each of the identified grantors in the chain of title and search for their names during their period of ownership in the grantor index. You may even need to search for their names in the grantor index before and after their period of ownership.

Searching for each owner’s name in the grantor index allows you to find any other interests each owner may have created, such as mortgages and easements, or even a conflicting conveyance of the property to someone outside the chain of title.

Searching title with a tract index is easier than with a grantor-grantee index. You start by looking through the relevant part of the tract indexes where the property is located and finding all the documents that may deal with the property. Then you simply look up all those documents.

If you’re evaluating title, you still have to actually look up the indexed documents that you identified and examine them to see whether they’re signed and otherwise facially valid, whether they actually relate to the property in question, and what interests they create. And a title search doesn’t end there.

You also have to look at other sources of public documents that relate to title, such as records of judgments kept by the courts, probate records dealing with transfers upon death, and the tax records that include tax liens and sales.

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