Our Ohio clients frequently come to us having performed their own amateur sleuthing on questions about title to real property before an initial meeting. And the easiest place for them to have started their work is the County Auditor’s web site.
Based upon the Auditor’s information, they many times have drawn preliminary conclusions regarding who owns the property, the configuration of the property, and in some cases access road information. And they have formed preliminary opinions about the topic they want to discuss.
Thus, the client has come to see me asking to confirm what they have learned, and to seek more information about their property, and to then act upon that information, enforcing their rights through legal action.
The question addressed in this blog entry is:
How reliable — from the perspective of establishing legal title to real property — is that information on County Auditor’s web sites?
Information available on line about real property in Ohio
There are a host of on-line resources about real property in Ohio, including building permit issuance and code violations, recorded deed and mortgage information, City, Village and Township ordinances and resolutions establishing assessments and condemnation proceedings, aerial photographs, and maps showing improvements and public utility information. In Hamilton County, for example,
- Here is the Recorder’s site;
- Here is the CAGIS (Cincinnati Area Geographic Information System) site; and
- Here is the site with building permit and violation information.
Information available on Ohio County Auditor’s web sites
County Auditor web pages are different in each County, but as a general proposition, I find the Auditor’s web site to be among the most easily accessible and broadly informative sites on real property in Ohio. In my experience, every Ohio County has a pretty good Auditor’s website.
For example, here is the Hamilton County Auditor’s site. Each site is chock full of useful information on every tax parcel in the County: A property search function that reveals property tax valuation, information on the current and past property taxes [amount and payment history], the sale price and date, the acreage, a drawing and picture of the house and sometimes other improvements, an aerial map and a tax map.
[Note: Our office provides a valuable service to clients in helping them to reduce their real estate taxes. The essence of this service is to shallenge the County Auditor’s valuation as being too high, which frequently they are, however, in many cases — perhaps an equal or greater number of cases — the valuations are too low. The point here is that even the County Auditor’s valuation is but “one man’s opinion,” and it too can be a point of reference, but is not the last word on valuation quesitons.]
Can I rely upon that County Auditor’s information in forming opinions about title?
And their question, a question I received today from a client, is
“can I rely on the information on the Auditor’s web site in drawing conclusions about real estate title.”
The short answer is: “No.”
As to real property in Ohio, the County Auditor has a big job, but a relatively simple job: (a) to divide up the County into separate parcels on his records for taxation purposes and (b) to establish a valuation of each parcel for tax purposes. That’s it.
What this means is that sometimes:
- the parcel maps are not fully informative as to the parcel identities;
- the tax bill’s parcel descriptions are many times similarly short-hand;
- the County Auditor’s site does not necessarily show comlicated ownership and contractual relationships that may be of record such as the fact that a property is subject to a Land Installment Contract; and
- the owner information is either not quickly updated, incomplete (the Auditor’s site does not and does not purpose to type in all the owners’ names or the complete name as recited on the deed) or inaccurate.
A year ago, I had an instance in which a client who had purchased real property was distressed that for nearly two months the site was not updated showing him as the owner of real estate. In that instance, the Auditor had stopped updating his site for a period of time for some year-end reconciliation.
But importantly, the Auditor does not claim to be the official or last word on “who owns property.” That simply is not the function of the Auditor’s web site or the Auditor’s office.
How, then, is legal title established?
Well, in truth, title to real property is not “a piece of paper,” but is a legal construct that is established by records from a number of offices — the County Recorder, the County Engineer, the Clerk of Courts, County Probate Court records, and Federal Bankruptcy Court records. Ohio has detailed standards for how legal title is to be established: The Ohio Title Standards prepared by the Real Property Law Section of the Ohio State Bar Association.
But the main repository of the official records of “who owns property” is the office of the County Recorder. And, unfortunately, at least at present, at least for a layman (it may depend on the County), it simply is not as informative and user-friendly as the County Auditor’s site.
To establish title to real property, which really requires a review of all of the records noted above, our firm uses the services of a professional title examiner. That examiner will, using indexing systems established in each County, find the current deed to the property, establish what other claims appear in the various records (monetary liens, easements, covenants, etc.), and based upon all of that information we should be able to establish the claim at issue.
Sometimes we determine that title or the issue in question can’t be made clear from the real estate records and either further documentation is required (by others affirmatively relinquishing their interests) or a court proceeding is necessary to “clear title.”
So, this blog entry has taken our fine readers through a shortened version of the legal maze that exists in Ohio (and most other states) to establish ownership of land, as well as easement and covenant rights of owners and their neighbors.
But the important point made here is that (a) the Auditor’s records are a great shorthand way to quickly find out information about property, including less-than-fully-reliable information about current ownership. But (b) the Auditor’s records are not — and are not intended to be — reliable information on which legal conclusions should be drawn and acted upon, especially ones that are of any importance.