Copyright 1999, 2006, 2007, 2011 by Jim Jones
Every property has a deed that shows the name of the owner, the purchase price, the date of purchase and a description of the property. A deed also shows the name of the previous owner and provides a reference to the deed by which that owner received title to the proptery. In other words, if you have the current deed for a poperty, it is possible to locate the previous deed. Using the previous deed, you can find the "before previous" deed and so on, all the way back to the first time a deed was used to record the sale of the property in question. In the process, you can construct a list of the owners of the property over time, the dates when they assumed ownership, and the prices that they paid. If you are lucky, you may also find the dates when property owners died, spouses' and children's names, and many other kinds of information.
All of the necessary records are housed in two County offices, the Assessment Office and the Records Search Office, located at 313 W. Market Street, across from Mitch's Gym.
The building at 313 W. Market Street houses Chester County's deeds and tax assessment records. The County Justice Center is in the background.
For example, TP# 1-10-252 is a property located in the southwest part of the Borough of West Chester. TP# 52-3-019 is located in West Goshen Township. Be aware that if your property is located in an area that has been subdivided, individual property numbers may be more complicated, like TP# 52-10c-191.34. But in every case, the TP# will have the three basic components.
Now you are ready to locate your property's deed number. You can do this with MEA program or with two other programs: ChescoPin, which gives access to a wide variety of County information and offers real estate information under a separate menu item, and "White Card" which offers more detailed information about property deeds, but is slightly more difficult to navigate. If you need assistance, ask at the service desk for instructions for either of these programs.
The computer records list information about the current owner including name and address, the size of the property, a zoning code indicating how the property is used (lot, residence, commercial, etc), the price paid for the property, the date of the last sale, and the number of the deed. Note that if there is a house on the property and the owner's address is not the same as the property's address, then you have found a property that is most likely used as a rental unit.
You should write down the name of the owner, the date of the last sale, and the deed number. If you want to know the history of a property and want to save yourself some time, make the effort to use the "white card" program and record the names, dates and deed references from previous sales.
NOTE: On occasion it may be helpful to examine all of the properties on a single block (such as when you know the adjacent property owner's name but aren't sure exactly where the property is located). You can find data for adjacent tax parcel numbers using either MEA or White Card, but keep in mind that houses on opposite sides of the street may not even be in the same municipality or section within a municpality, and parcels within a block do not always have consecutive numbers.
When you are sure you have the correct deed and the correct parcel on that deed, make a note of the names of all buyers and sellers, the date of the sale, and amount of the purchase price. Then read the property description to see whether it mntions any buildings. Modern deeds should include descriptions of buildings that are in existence today, but as you go backwards, you may find descriptions of older buildings that have since been torn down, or existing buildings before additions were added. For a historian, this is of interest because new construction on a property is often evidence of changing economic conditions.
According to the staff, the best time to visit the Assessment Office is after lunch between 1-2pm. From my own experience, I know that the morning hours between 9-11AM are not bad either, but stay away from lunch hour, because half of the staff goes on break while many people try to use their lunch break to get research done.
The microfilm machines at the Records Search Office allow you to photocopy deeds for 50 cents per page (quarters only). You can also make copies of various computer records -- ask the staff about prices.
Take along a magnifying glass so you can examine the microfilm closely, because all of the older deeds are handwritten, and you will have to decipher handwriting.
Some properties will have relatively few deeds because families bought them and stayed in them for one or more generations. Others will have many deeds because they changed hands frequently.
The deed references from the computer data in the Assessment Office may contain errors. If you find an error, then go to the deed for the first subsequent sale and check it directly to find the previous deed reference.
In some cases, the deed itself may have a reference to the wrong prior deed or provide an incomplete reference. In that case, you may be able to find the correct prior deed using the Grantee and Grantor indexes which are also located in the Records Search Office. The process is beyond the scope of this essay, but start with the knowledge that the Grantor is the person who sold the property and the Grantee is the person who bought the property.
For more information about West Chester,
visit the following web pages for
historical data , and a university course on local history.