"How to research deeds for a property
in Chester County, Pennsylvania"

Copyright 1999, 2006, 2007, 2011 by Jim Jones

INTRODUCTION

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.

313 W. Market St.
The building at 313 W. Market Street houses Chester County's deeds and tax assessment records. The County Justice Center is in the background.


THE PROCESS
  1. All properties in Chester County are identified by a "tax parcel number" (TP#) Unfortunately, the TP# bears no direct relationship to the street address, so your first task -- before you go to the Assessment Office -- is to figure out the exact location of the property that interests you (henceforth referred to as "the property"). You should know the street address, but also where it is located with respect to the nearest intersection and/or other landmarks. For instance, if you are interested in 405 S. Matlack Street, which is located in the Borough of West Chester, you need to know that it is located on the east side of South Matlack Street on the third lot south of the corner with East Magnolia Street. If you are researching a rural address, note adjacent streams, bends in the road, names of owners of adjacent properties and any other landmarks that will help you to find it on a map that only shows property lines and dimensions.

  2. Go to 313 W. Market Street and head up to the fourth floor. The Assessment Office is located in room 4202, on the left near the elevator. Inside, you will find a service counter on your right and a row of computers to your left. Everything is done with computers these days, so if this is your first time, ask one of the staff members how to locate the tax parcel number for the property that interests you (or if you feel adventurous, start up the "MEA" software, choose "property address" and navigate your way to the data for that property by selecting the municpality, the street name, and the house number. The tax parcel number will have the following form: X-Y-Z where X stands for the municipality, Y stands for section within that municipality, and Z stands for the specific property.

    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.

  3. When you finished recording deed references and dates, go downstairs to Deed Library, which is located on the third floor in room 3502. This office contains microfilm copies of all Chester County deeds and mortgages back to about 1900, paper copies of most of them, and on-line copies of all of the deeds ever recorded in Chester County. (Paper copies of deeds before 1900 are located in the Chester County Archives in the basement of the Government Services Building at 601 Westtown Road, near the Westtown Road exit of US Route 202). On your first visit, ask for help at the Service Desk because they can explain the process more easily than I can write it here.

  4. You need to know the number of the deed that you want to examine. Deed numbers contain two parts: the book number and the page number (Older deeds also contain a volume number, but that is just another way to designate the book number). Thus, a deed numbered G22/139 is located in Deed Book G22, beginning on page 139.

  5. You can look at the deed on microfilm or, if it predates about 1980, in the actually deed book (i.e. on paper. Once I learned how the books are organized, I have found it faster to look at the books, but when I want to make a photocopy of it, that is best done using the microfilm.

  6. After you have found a deed for the property that interests, verify that it is in fact a deed for the property that interests you--check the street address (if given) or anything else that tells you where the property is located. Sometimes, this can be pretty arcane, such as when you have to use on the property description that starts with "Beginning at a point in the south side of Chestnut Street 157 feet east of the east side of High Street ..." but fortunately, once you have deciphered this, you will see the same language used on previous deeds as long as the property did not change shape or size. You may also find, as you move backwards in time, that some deeds contain descriptions for more than one property, so make sure to check every property description in the deed to find the one that interests you.

    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.

  7. The last step is to find the reference for the previous deed. Following the description of the lot, you will find a passage that begins with "Being the same property that ..." The rest of this passage will tell you the previous owner, the date of sale and the deed reference. Record all of that, proceed to the next microfilm or deed book, and repeat the process.

  8. As you work your way backwards, you will eventually come to a reference for a deed that is located in the Chester County Archives rather than in the Records Search Office. To use your time most efficiently, for each property, go back as far as you can at the Records Search Office, and make a list of the older deeds that you need to consult at the Archives. If you are researching several properties that are all close together, like a single block in the Borough of West Chester, you will eventually find a single deed for a parcel that included all of your properties -- the owner of the property is the person who subdivided it.

TIPS

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.