How to Become a Knowledgeable and Informed Property Owner

This Article is written by Owners’ Counsel of America for general informational purposes only. It is intended to assist landowners in understanding how they can better educate themselves about their property rights. This Article is not to be viewed as providing legal advice or to be considered as a substitute for consulting with an experienced lawyer on the matters covered herein.

What Are Some of  Documents That Define A Landowner’s Property and Ownership Rights?

Landowners  wishing to understand more about their property, as well as the extent of their ownership rights in that property, are advised to start by familiarizing themselves with the core documents that set forth such rights. Even if not all of the terminology and phrasing in these documents can be fully understood or appreciated, a review can aid immeasurably in developing a basic comprehension of property rights and obligations. By reviewing these documents the landowner will also be better equipped to identify what questions to posit to an attorney regarding a specific issue or matter of inquiry.

While there are many documents that contain important and valuable information relating to a landowner’s property and the ownership rights that a landowner may have in that property, here are a few of the more common ones: the deed, the deed of trust and other mortgage documents, title documents such as a title commitment or title abstract,  survey and boundary documents, site plans, subdivision plats,  zoning maps, master plans etc.

If the landowner does not have copies of these documents, they may be available through the landowner’s title insurance agent or company, through the county clerk and recorder’s office, through the local land use and planning department, and even by searching the internet, all as explained more fully below.

What Information Can A Landowner Gain From Reading the Deed?

The actual deed to the property shows the name of the current owner, a description of the property conveyed, and the date when the conveyance was made. The deed will also be signed by the previous owner or grantor of the property. Some deeds will also contain what are called deed restrictions, which can be important in understanding what uses can and cannot be made of the owner’s property. See a further discussion of deed restrictions below.

There are different types of property deeds. The most common type of deed is a general warranty deed, which shows that the grantor transferred clear title to the current owner.

What Information Can Be Gained From Reading Title Documents?

Plenty. Typically, title documents will disclose the liens, defects, deed restrictions, title exceptions, and limitations that affect the subject property. Here are a few examples:

Liens. A lien is a claim against the property which serves as collateral for a debt. The most common liens are mortgage and tax liens. If a property owner has been sued for a large sum of money and a court has entered a judgment against the owner, this will be filed against the property as a judgment lien.

Deed Restrictions. A deed restriction delineates what property owners are allowed to do with their property. They are typically limitations on the use and enjoyment of property.

Encroachments. An encroachment is an extension of some physical structure, such as a building, driveway, fence, or tree over the property lines from an adjoining property. A common example of an encroachment is a fence that is accidentally constructed beyond a property’s boundaries

Easements. An easement is the right of someone other than the owner to use a particular parcel of land for a particular purpose—most often it is the right to cross the property. For instance, utilities place easements around and along property lines to be able to install and maintain electric, water, gas, and sewer lines. Roads and streets have easements taking up some of the property along property lines.

It is important to understand that depending upon the title documents being examined, the limitations and exceptions to a landowner’s title may not be fully set forth, but rather simply referenced by name and recording information. In such instances the landowner may need to look to other resources to find the complete recorded documents that will describe in greater detail the full extent of the limitation or exception to title.

What Information Can Be Gained From the Clerk and Recorder’s Office?

The physical place where deeds and other property conveyance documents are recorded and kept can go by several names. A few include the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, the County Recorder’s Office, and the Recorder of Deeds. Regardless of the name, within this one location landowners and other interested persons can generally find the complete documents or instruments that have been recorded against the owner’s real property.

Because there are so many property records housed in these facilities, searching for any particular instrument or set of records can be time consuming and confusing. However, staff are generally helpful and can assist you if provided with the right information regarding what you are looking for. Thus, bringing the information you do have about your property with you can be helpful. Also, landowners should be prepared to pay a copying charge or fee for any documents they wish to make copies of.

What Additional Information Can Be Gained From the Land Use or Planning Department?

Land use planning is the process of regulating the use of land in an effort to promote more desirable social and environmental outcomes as well as a more efficient use of resources. Land use planning often leads to land use regulation, which typically encompasses zoning, subdivision regulations, annexation policy, impact fees, licensing, permitting, and much more.

All of these endeavors generally operate out of a community’s Land Use, Land Use Planning, Zoning and Building Departments, which are usually found where all the other city and county departments are located. There, landowners can find many documents that will inform and educate them about their property, such as:

  • How the property is currently zoned and what uses can be made under the zoning classification and category
  • How the property is subdivided, platted and mapped
  • What taxing or assessment districts the property is located in
  • What utilities may serve the property and where the utilities are located
  • What streets and roads serve the property
  • What is the master plan (or long term development plan) for the area wherein the property is located
  • What major private or public projects are anticipated for the area wherein the property is located

As in all things, knowledge is power. One of the best ways  a landowner can  prepare for an anticipated taking of property by the use of eminent domain is to know your property and property rights.