Welcome, fellow genealogists! My blog will teach you about U.S. land records and United Kingdom research. My family has roots in Niagara County, New York; Norfolk, England; and northeast Germany.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wisdom Wednesday – Land Records’ Offices (Part 2)

Three weeks ago, I wrote a well-received article about the rhythms and seasons of a Records Office. Since then, I have wondered whether I have other words of wisdom on the topic. Some ideas have come to mind. For example, I have heard stories about genealogy researchers getting very different receptions in various offices, usually one reaction in one office and another the very next day in the county next door.

I suggested in my earlier post that time of day, day of week and month of year are important considerations in making requests for assistance in a records office. Also consider that staff takes vacations during the summer. We often do our genealogy field trips then so don’t forget that the office may be short a person or two the week you visit.
What is the office’s staffing level compared to two years ago or ten years ago? Even without the economic turndown, county commissioners tend to think that less staff is needed because there are computers to do the work. The surveyors, lawyers, title examiners, Realtors® and appraisers who use the land records daily want to be able to access the deeds from their office desks. They don’t think that is an unreasonable request. After all, there are computers. However, someone has to scan the documents into the system. Having less staff creates real, identifiable problems. You don’t have to be a regular user to experience the consequences.

The internal dynamics of offices differ. To be honest, I think the office takes on the personality of the head clerk. We should be able to understand the people have good days and bad. The work performed is very exacting. Papers cannot be lost, misplaced or misfiled. For the most part, the work is done extremely well. That is the good news.

History detectives are not the typical Land Office users. The staff is used to answering questions about the most recent deeds and deeds going back 50-60 years to satisfy the requirements to obtain title insurance. Few people do what you and I do - look for records more than 60 years old.

Let me give you some practical tips for successfully finding your ancestors deeds and related records in busy, understaffed offices. Prepare before you contact the office. “Google” the county name. Almost every county in the U.S. has a website where you can click on the most appropriate sounding office; Registry of Deeds, County Records Office or Land Records Office. This link should be fairly easy to find because the legal/banking/real estate community uses it regularly and carries some clout.
The website should provide some or all of the following information: date of the earliest document held, the date of the earliest deed online, how the online deeds are indexed, how to print a document, and how to pay, if there is a charge.  When you have thoroughly studied the site and still have questions, it’s time to contact the office. Be ready to tell them the name of your ancestor and the years he could have owned property in the county. A birth year is a useless number because land owners must be the age of majority (usually 18 or 21) to be granted land without a guardian.  

However you contact an office; in person, on the phone or by email, ask your first question. If the response is less than satisfactory, ask a second question. Still not getting anywhere? Ask a third question. By this point, the clerk you are communicating with will find, transfer your call or forward your email to the person in the office who likes helping people like us. There is usually at least one.

Do not assume that the economic turndown has affected each county in the same way or to the same degree.  Even in the worst hit places, the registry workers are busy filing municipal lien certificates for unpaid taxes and foreclosure paperwork. In some places, market values have not plummeted and business continues as usual plus some folks refinancing for a lower, extremely attractive rate. The staff in most places is not less busy and therefore ready to spend time with history detectives. That is the bad news.

©2012, Susan Lewis Well

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