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HARDWICK: Your property's history

PHIL HARDWICKIf you live in an older house and are not familiar with its heritage you might want to consider becoming a house detective, so to speak. It’s fun and educational to find out about the history of your property.

It takes only one trip to Europe to realize that there is no shortage of currently occupied houses there that are over 1,000 years old. In this country, especially in the South, we think antebellum is virtually ancient. In my college real estate class students are required to select a property, preferably one they have interest in, and research its ownership back to 1900. They tell me it’s the best assignment of the course.

So where does one go to find the history of a property? The first stop should be the county courthouse. That is where the deed records of real estate transfers are kept. The chancery clerk’s office is the specific place to begin your quest. Rather than attempting to learn the ins and outs of title searching, it is suggested that you simply tell one of the clerks what you are attempting to accomplish. I have found that they are usually very happy to help with such requests if they are not overly busy on the date of the request. As an aside, one of the reasons that good customer service usually comes from the chancery clerk’s office is that the chancery clerk is an elected official. It behooves the reelection possibilities when good customer service is provided.

At the chancery clerk’s office there will be deeds filed by names of owners and by legal description. It will help tremendously if you have the legal description and the tax number of the property you are investigating. There is also a lot of cross-indexing.

Speaking of the tax number, that leads to another official, the tax assessor, who can help with your search. The tax assessor is required to annually locate, class and assess all taxable property within the county, and is responsible for setting fair, uniform and accurate values for each parcel of real and personal property. The tax assessor is also charged by the board of supervisors to maintain current ownership maps of the county.

Fortunately, more and more county officials in Mississippi are placing searchable property information on their websites. Be sure to check your local county website to see if you can search property records online.

Once you have the names of some of the former property owners, the search can get more interesting. An acquaintance was able to learn who built her house in the late 1950s and found that the company was still in business. She visited the company, talked with the grandson of the founder of the company and learned about the history of not only her house and lot but the neighborhood and area development, as well.

Another source of information is your local historic preservation program if there is one in your town. Also, the state department of archives and history has tax rolls and birth and death records. Census records are available at regional National Archives’ centers and some libraries. And don’t forget local libraries that might have city directories, newspapers and magazines.

How far back one can go depends on many factors, one of which is the part of the country that the property is located. When you get to treaties with Native American tribes it can be far enough for most people. To illustrate just how far back one can go in a title search there is a little bit of legal humor that is enlightening.

I’ve seen the below story around for many years. Whether it is true or not, is subject to debate and to further verification. A good synopsis of the variations of the story can be found online at www.snopes.com/humor/letters/landgrab.asp.

Anyway, here it is for your enjoyment:

Some title companies or federal agencies generally require land title searches go back to the original source. A New Orleans lawyer, working for a government agency, researched the land title back to 1803, and when asked who owned the land prior to that, he replied:

Please be advised that in the year 1803 the United States of America acquired the Territory of Louisiana from the Republic of France by purchase. The Republic of France previously acquired title from the Spanish Crown by conquest. Spain acquired title by virtue of the discoveries of one Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor who had been duly authorized to embark upon his voyage of discovery by Isabella, Queen of Spain. Before granting such authority, Isabella, a pious and cautious woman, obtained the sanction of His Holiness, the Pope. The Pope is the Vicar on earth of Jesus Christ, the only son and heir apparent of God. God made Louisiana.


Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.


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