Proving Title in California Land Purchases: A Crucial Step

When you decide to buy land in California, one of the most important steps you should take is to check the title of the property. This ensures that the land you plan to purchase has clear and legally valid title. In this article, we will explore the title verification process and how you can contact the county recorder to accomplish this crucial task. Plus, we'll provide you with a real-life example in California to illustrate this process in action.

The Importance of Checking the Title

Checking the title of the property is essential before making any investment in real estate, as this process provides you with valuable information about the property in question. Here are some reasons why it is essential:

  1. Property Clarity: The title deed shows who is the legal owner of the land. It assures you that the person or entity who is selling the land has the legal right to do so.
  2. Possible Limitations: The title can also reveal whether there are any liens, mortgages, easements or other limitations on the property that may affect its future use.
  3. Legal Protection: By checking the title, you protect yourself legally. If problems with the property later arise, you can show that you performed adequate due diligence.

Title Verification Process

Here are the basic steps you should follow to check title in California:

1. Identify the County Registry: Each county in California has a property registry where title records are maintained. You must identify the registry of the county in which the property you wish to purchase is located.

2. Obtain Property Information: Gather the necessary information about the property, such as the address or parcel number, to be able to effectively identify it in county records.

3. Visit the County Registry or Online: You have two options to check the title. You can visit the county recorder in person or, in many California counties, search online through the county recorder's website. I leave you the link to access the Los Angeles County real estate registry.  (More information here).

4. Perform the Search: Once you are at the county registry or their website, uses property information to search for title. Records are organized by parcel number, previous owner's name, and other criteria.

5. Examine the Documents: When you find the property title, examine the documents related to it. These documents should show the history of ownership transfers and any recorded encumbrances or limitations.

6. Look for Potential Problems: Pay special attention to liens, mortgages or other problems that may affect the property. If you have questions or find anything concerning, consider hiring a real estate attorney to advise you.

7. Verify the Legitimacy of the Seller: Make sure that the person or entity listed on the title as the seller matches the person or entity that is selling the land. This ensures that the sale is legal.

The “Examine Documents” Step: How I Do It

Examining the documents related to the title of the property is an essential step in verifying the title of the land you wish to acquire. These documents can provide valuable information about the history of property transfers and any encumbrances or limitations recorded on the property. Here is an example of how you can do this process:

Step 1: Find Relevant Documents

Once you have identified the title to the property in the county recorder, look for additional documents related to that title. In most county records in California, these documents will be organized so that you can easily find records tied to a specific property.

Step 2: Find the Declaration of Current Ownership

The main document you should look for is the current property declaration. This document identifies the current owner of the land and shows the history of ownership transfers from the original owner to the present. It is usually called a “Property Deed” or “Deed Instrument.”

Step 3: Review Transfer History

Within the property declaration, review the history of property transfers. This will show you who the previous owners of the land were and when these transfers took place. Check if all transfers are legal and match the information provided by the current seller.

Step 4: Look for Burdens or Limitations

In addition to transfer history, look for any encumbrances or limitations recorded on the property. These may include liens, mortgages, easements or other legal restrictions that affect the use of the land. These records will provide you with details about any financial obligations or limitations on the property.

Step 5: Consult with a Professional

If you encounter any burdens or limitations that you do not fully understand or are concerned about, it is advisable to consult an experienced real estate attorney or real estate agent. These professionals can help you evaluate the impact of these burdens or limitations on your purchase and provide you with legal advice.

How to Find the Declaration of Current Ownership

The main document you should look for is the current property declaration. This document identifies the current owner of the land and shows the history of ownership transfers from the original owner to the present. It is usually called a “Property Deed” or “Deed Instrument.”

Understanding the Property Deed (“Property Deed”-Title):

A declaration of ownership is a legally binding document that serves as proof of ownership for a specific real estate property. It contains crucial information about the property and its ownership history. Here's what you should know about the ownership declaration:

1. Owner Information: The declaration will clearly state who the current legal owner of the property is. This is essential to verify the legitimacy of the seller and ensure that they have the right to transfer ownership.

2. Property Description: Provides a detailed description of the land, including its boundaries, size, and any notable features. This helps ensure that the property being sold matches what is described in the disclosure.

3. Transfer Language: The statement will contain language that officially transfers ownership from the seller (grantor) to the buyer (grantee). This section is essential as it legally transfers title to the property.

4. Ownership History: The history of the statement or chain of title shows all previous transfers of ownership. This is vital to understand how the property has changed over time and ensure there are no outstanding claims or disputes.

5. Notarization and Signatures: Declarations of ownership must be notarized and signed by both the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) to be legally valid. Notarization guarantees the authenticity of the signatures.

6. Legal Description: The declaration includes a legal description of the property, which is different from its mailing address. This description is used for official registration and must be accurate.

7. Restrictions and Covenants: Some disclosures may contain restrictions or covenants that limit how the property may be used. It is crucial to review them to make sure they fit your intended land use.

8. Registration Information: The statement will contain information about where you register, such as the county clerk's office. This is where you can get a copy of the return for your records.

Because it is important:

The property declaration is a fundamental document in a land transaction. It provides a legal record of the property and helps prevent disputes or claims against the property. By carefully examining the ownership declaration, you can confirm the identity of the current owner, understand the history of the property, and ensure a smooth and legal transfer of ownership when you decide to purchase land.

Hypothetical Example:

Imagine that you are reviewing the ownership declaration for a parcel of land in California that you want to purchase. You find the ownership declaration and look at the history of ownership transfers. You discover that there have been three previous owners and that all transfers were made legally and properly recorded.

Next, you look at the burdens or limitations section and discover that there is a recorded easement on the property that allows a utility company access to maintain power lines. This information is important because it means that even though you own the property, you must allow the utility company access to maintain its infrastructure.

This is just a hypothetical example, and circumstances may vary by property. The key is to fully understand the transfer history and any charges or limitations on record before proceeding with the purchase to make an informed decision and protect your interests.

Complex Hypothetical Example:

Imagine that you are interested in purchasing rural land in California. Upon reviewing the documents in the county registry, you find the following:

  1. Declaration of Original Ownership (Year 1950): The property was first acquired in 1950 by a family called the Smiths. For decades, the Smiths used the land for agriculture.
  2. First Transfer (Year 1975): In 1975, the Smiths sold a portion of the land to the Johnsons, a neighboring family. The transaction was carried out by means of a registered deed.
  3. Second Transfer (Year 1990): In 1990, the Smiths sold the remaining portion of the land to the Millers, another local family. Again, a deed was recorded.
  4. Mortgage Burden (Year 2005): In 2005, the Millers took out a mortgage on the property to finance improvements to the land. This mortgage charge was recorded in the county record.
  5. Zoning Change (2010): In 2010, the property underwent a county zoning change, allowing for the subdivision of rural land. This was reflected in zoning and planning records.
  6. Sale of a Plot (Year 2015): In 2015, the Millers sold a parcel of the land to a developer named Anderson, who plans to build homes on that parcel. The transaction was documented by deed and recorded.
  7. Access Easement (Year 2020): In 2020, an access easement was registered allowing neighboring property owners access through your property to reach the main road. This easement was registered as a result of a legal agreement between several neighboring landowners.

This scenario shows a complex history of ownership transfers and registered charges. As a buyer interested in purchasing the property in its entirety, you should carefully examine each of these documents and consider the legal and financial implications:

  • You must ensure that property transfers are legal and properly documented.
  • You must evaluate how the mortgage burden affects the purchase price and whether the Millers have met their mortgage payments.
  • You should understand the implications of the zoning change, as it could affect your future plans for the property.
  • You must consider how the sale of a previously subdivided parcel affects the current structure of the land.
  • You must understand the restrictions and rights related to the access easement.

In more complex situations like this, it is essential to work with an experienced real estate attorney or real estate agent to ensure you fully understand the history of the property and all legal implications before proceeding with the purchase.

Special Attention to Zoning Changes

Zoning Change (2010): This event marked a crucial point in the property's history. The zoning change, which occurred in 2010, involved a change in the categorization of land under county regulations. In this case, the change allowed the subdivision of rural land.

Below are the key aspects related to this zoning change:

Motivation for Change: Zoning change usually occurs due to specific urban or rural development needs. In this case, the county may have identified an interest in allowing the subdivision of rural land to accommodate planned growth in the area.

Subdivision Implications: Changing zoning to allow subdivision means that land that was previously considered a single large parcel can now be divided into several smaller parcels. This could open opportunities for the development of housing, commercial projects or other specific uses.

Records Update: When a zoning change occurs, the county's zoning and planning records are updated to reflect the new designation. These records are often available to the public and are a valuable source of information for buyers interested in the property.

Considerations for Buyers: If you are interested in purchasing a property that has undergone a zoning change, it is essential that you understand the implications of this change. You should consider:

  • Permitted Uses: Find out what uses are allowed under the new zoning. They may include single-family homes, multi-family homes, commercial homes, or others.
  • Local Regulations: Research specific regulations associated with the new zoning, such as height restrictions, density, parking, etc.
  • Development Potential: Evaluate the property's development potential based on current zoning. This could influence your future plans for the property.

In general, a zoning change can have a significant impact on the value and potential use of a property. To ensure you fully understand the implications, it is advisable to work with real estate or legal professionals who are familiar with local regulations and the consequences of the zoning change in the area. This will allow you to make informed decisions when considering purchasing the property.

Real Example in California

Let's imagine that you are interested in purchasing land in Los Angeles County, California. You have found a property in the Malibu area and want to check its title before proceeding with the purchase.

  1. You identify that the property is located in Los Angeles County.
  2. Get the exact address of the property in Malibu.
  3. You visit the Los Angeles County Recorder's website and use the address or parcel number to look up the property title.
  4. You find the title and related documents, which show a clean history of ownership transfers.
  5. You do not find liens or mortgages on the property.
  6. You verify that the seller's name on the title matches the current seller's name.

In this example, the title check reveals that the property in Malibu has clear title and that the current seller is the legal owner. This gives you the confidence to proceed with the purchase.

In summary

Proof of title is a crucial step in the land purchasing process in California. It provides you with the security that you are acquiring a property with a clear and legal title. Whether you visit the county registry in person or do so online, this process is essential to protect your interests and ensure a sound real estate investment.

Legal and Tax Disclaimer

Please be advised that the content presented in this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. The articles and information provided here are written from the perspective of a real estate agent affiliated with Keller Williams, and do not represent legal or tax counsel.

As the author, I am a licensed real estate professional under Keller Williams, holding Brokerage DRE License Number: #02197031. However, it is important to note that my expertise is in the field of real estate, and not in legal or tax matters. The insights and opinions shared on this blog are based on my experiences and knowledge in the real estate industry and should be treated as general guidance rather than definitive legal or tax advice.

For specific legal or tax concerns relating to any real estate transactions or investments, readers are strongly encouraged to consult with a qualified attorney or tax advisor who can provide tailored advice based on your individual circumstances and the latest legal and regulatory requirements.

The information on this blog is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind, and I, along with Keller Williams and its affiliates, disclaim all liability for any loss, damage, or misunderstanding arising from reliance on the information contained herein.

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