The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 6, 2013

THOMAS YOUNG | The many facets of title search

For The Tribune-Democrat

— If we somehow get spring, the housing market will probably perk up, and the purchasers will be told that they need a “title search.”

Since this is a fairly expensive activity, it might help soften the blow if you know a little bit about what you are paying for. In order to help you understand, you might need to know a few facts.

First, houses don’t sell, land does. We lawyers learned long ago that houses aren’t reliable. They burn down, or up, they blow away, they sink into water never to be seen again, etc.

So we lawyers invented this rule: If you buy a piece of land, you automatically become the owner of whatever is on it. Land doesn’t go away. Problem solved.

You may also need to know that each county courthouse has the real estate records of all the land in the county. If you live in Cambria County, you would go to the courthouse in Ebensburg, Somerset in Somerset, Altoona in Hollidaysburg, etc. Most of the records are now on computers.

The first thing I need is some information about the present owner’s deed. The fastest way to get that, and something that will be needed anyway, is the assessment. It will give me, among other things, the book and page where the present owner’s deed is recorded.

The deeds and mortgages are kept in the office of the recorder of deeds, and the recorder gives a copy of every deed to the assessment office.

From the deed I can get the legal description of the property. That’s the survey description that usually starts, “Beginning at a point on Main Street ... .” But, it’s no good just checking the present owner. I want to check all the owners for at least the past 50 or 60 years.

There could be mistakes on the earlier deeds, or mortgages that were never satisfied, for instance, or owners who never signed off.

Enter the “recital.” If everybody who worked on this title before did everything they should have, then each deed will give me the name of the previous owner and where it’s recorded. The recital is usually right after the legal description, and begins, “Being the same piece or parcel of land which A & B, husband and wife, deeded to the present owners on February 15, 1999, and which is recorded in Deed Book 1762, at page 67.”

Now I can go from one deed to another working back through time, without ever having to go to any other source.

The present deed will tell me where the previous deed is recorded, and the previous deed will tell me where the deed before that was recorded, and I might have to go to other counties eventually, but I can see all the deeds back to William Penn. If a recital is missing, there are indices that I can


Now that I have a list of as many owners as I want, I can check for mortgages, death taxes for any who died, judgments, federal tax liens, divorces, guardianships and, of course, delinquent property taxes, among other things.

Most of these latter items are in the prothonotary’s office.

That’s the one where all civil lawsuits are filed, and all the lawsuit records are kept. Later, back in Johnstown, I have to check for this year’s taxes, water bills, sewer bills, garbage bills and whether the rain spouts have been disconnected from the sewer, and then hold a closing to pay the seller.


You’re getting a lot for your money.

Thomas Young, a graduate of Pitt and Harvard Law School, has been a lawyer in Johnstown since 1958. He is a former professor of business law at Pitt-Johnstown. Readers may send questions to Young in care of The Tribune-Democrat. The opinions expressed in this column are general in nature and may not apply to your situation. Consult your attorney for advice on specific legal matters.