Online access to real property records and courthouse documents is enabling right of way agents, appraisers, surveyors, and other real estate professionals to be more productive by giving them immediate real-time access to public records. The ability to research and obtain real property records online has changed the way our industry does business.
Traditionally, researching the ownership of a parcel of land or retrieving a copy of a deed, lien, or easement required a trip to the courthouse or contracting a local abstracter to obtain the information. Now, in many counties the record indexes and documents are available online by private data providers and in some instances, the county itself. These services can save time on unnecessary trips to the courthouse or the time waiting for the researcher or title company to send the documents to you.
From Paper to Electronic Images
In the past, when legal instruments were recorded in the courthouse, a record of the filing was created in a grantor-grantee index (similar to a card catalog in a library) and copies were organized in books that corresponded to the type of record, such as deed, mortgage and contract records. In most counties these separate records have been combined into what is generally known as real property records.
When researchers need copies of deeds, they pull a book off the shelf, remove the pages, make the copy and replace the pages. This is still the way copies are made in many smaller courthouses. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, courthouses were quickly running out of space and many larger counties moved toward putting their documents on microfilm or microfiche. The advantage of microfilm to the county recorder was an archival quality reproduction of a document that took up very little space in comparison to books on shelves. While microfilm saves space, researchers have not always been fond of it because it leaves the researcher at the mercy of the viewing equipment quality and generally takes longer to view than opening a book.
Over the years, many county recorders/clerks nationwide have eliminated the archiving of records on microfilm and have moved completely to electronic imaging. Some of the most current records are available in an electronic format, but the older records may still be on microfilm or bound in books.
It is just a matter of time before hard copy and microfilm records are reproduced as electronic images. However, in many counties there are budgetary constraints and the lack of demand may slow down these conversion efforts. This is where private organizations like CourthouseDirect.com have gone into the county courthouses and scanned the book that would otherwise not be available in electronic format and placed them in its repository known as FileViewer.
Availability of Online Public Records
Several factors determine whether or not counties or private companies publish, or plan to publish, grantor-grantee indexes or real property documents online:
- Cost of obtaining the indexes or images
- Cost of post processing images from the courthouse
- Technological challenges of publishing public records online
- Demand or lack of demand for public records in the area
- Legal and/or privacy issues
- Negative return on investment
Historically, county recorders and clerks enjoyed revenues from the sales of documents from their walk-in researchers and local citizens needing to purchase copies of deeds and other real estate records. Therefore, many county offices may not publish the records on the Internet because they are reluctant to give up the income derived from the sales of these documents.
In some states, it is against the law for counties to charge for information provided on the Internet, in other states the county offices are providing the documents online for a fee. For example, the San Diego County Clerk was an early adopter and has provided E-commerce applications for almost two decades. Users can order a document online and have a document sent to them by e-mail or regular mail.
Local governments are at the very early stages of providing courthouse records via the Internet. There are approximately 3,400 county recorders/clerks’ offices throughout the United States, but less than 200 currently have indexes and/or images online.
The counties publishing records online are generally doing a commendable job, but getting help using the sites can sometimes be a challenge. Most sites sponsored by the county have disclaimers limiting their liability for the data provided and some label the electronic documents as an "Unofficial Document". It may give small comfort to your legal department, but can be unattractive to your customers.
Private companies have begun to provide indexes and courthouse document images for Real Property Records online. Some of these companies are putting smaller counties online and in some cases these county records go back to sovereignty. CourthouseDirect.com has concentrated on adding counties in Texas (200+ counties) where the records in some counties go as far back as 1836, and in New Mexico (20+ counties). These counties represent hundreds of millions documents images online.
When right of way agents, appraisers, and other real estate professionals research land, they often need copies of the corresponding documents. Researchers can obtain the records they need in a matter of seconds from the comfort of their own office while avoiding a drive to the courthouse and waiting in line. Downloading images from the Internet also provides the researchers with a digital copy that can be saved to their computer for future reference.
Other Records Available
Although the recorder's & clerk's records are the most requested public records at the county level, there are many other records and websites that can be valuable tools for persons negotiating, appraising, curing title defects, or those simply trying to find the right person to contact:
- Tax Assessor/Appraisal District records
- Marriage records
- Probate records
- Assumed name records
- Divorce records
- Corporation records
In many cases the best starting point for real estate research is to obtain a tax assessor's map of the area to be researched. An increasing number of tax offices are publishing these maps online or through a GIS interface. After scanning the tax map for information such as tract numbers, the general configuration of the tract, the account number, and the acreage size, the research then goes to the tax assessor's rolls to find out who is paying the taxes. The taxpayer may or may not be the owner, but in many cases serves as a good starting point for the research. Next, the researcher should then find a grantor-grantee index to determine when the property was purchased or if a lien was filed and by whom. At this point, the pertinent documents can be downloaded directly to the user's hard drive. Once the document is downloaded it can be viewed immediately and can be printed, emailed or saved.
The most common format for document images is a TIF image format. There are several brands of TIF viewers on the market, but we recommend using IrfanView, a fast-compact graphic viewer that is supported on Windows. A TIF viewer gives the user the ability to turn the pages, zoom in and out, rotate the image, and print the document to letter or legal-size paper. Also, the annotation function on the viewer will allow you to highlight important parts of the document, add a note, or create a personalized watermark.
Today, companies all over the world are experiencing a tremendous increase in productivity and efficiency by utilizing technology.
The shift towards a paperless work place environment eliminates the need to store thousands of documents and records on paper. The cost savings from less mail and overnight deliveries plays a part in helping our industry do more with less. However, it is evident that the greatest savings comes to us in the form of time. Accomplishing what used to take hours, and sometimes days, in just a matter of seconds, is truly revolutionary.
Paul Cones has been a member of IRWA Chapter 8 since 1990, and is the president and founder of CourthouseDirect.com, which provides access to indexes and document images online. The IRWA has approved CourthouseDirect.com as an Affinity Partner.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2002 edition of the IRWA's Right of Way Magazine. Some of the content has been updated to reflect present-day information.