In the United States, “title” or ownership of real property is determined by the documents recorded in a public, governmental index, commonly the county recorder’s office. Title to real property flows like a river–it originates from a land grant, Congressional act or royal patent (called the “root” of title), and from there, the property interests split into tributaries which flow down to today’s owners. Sometimes these tributaries merge together, but as a general rule, parcels of real estate become smaller over time due to subdivision and redivision. It’s almost a certainty that every city parcel in the US was subdivided from a parcel of land consisting of hundreds or even thousands of undivided acres.
When a professional sets out to examine who owns a certain property, all documents affecting that property must be located and examined back to a certain point in time — often all the way back to the royal patent or Congressional land grant from which it originated. From the purported current owner, the professional uses land record indices to find all documents associated with that owner, for example, a deed conveying from Previous Owner to Current Owner. Now, using Previous Owner, we may construct a “chain of title” in order to determine whether Previous Owner and his/her predecessors conveyed an interest in the property to others before vesting title in Current Owner.
In Ohio, the Marketable Title Act extinguishes most claims against title which were not acted upon for 40 years; however, several exemptions to the Act require searches for other potential clouds in title prior to this date. This is why it is important to retain a professional to conduct a thorough examination of title.