Researching a Chain of Title in Philadelphia
The purpose of this section is to provide a How-To Guide for researching a Chain of Title in Philadelphia. There are many ways to approach the task, and many sources of the information, so we intend to explain what we found to be the path of least resistance.
The Registry Number:
Researching a Chain of Title in Philadelphia begins with a Registry Number. Every plot of land in Philadelphia has a unique identifying number called a Registry Number. It is composed mostly of numbers and the letter S or N to desgnate whether it is North or South of Market St. For example the registry number for 35 S. Fallon is 17S19-71. The first set of of numbers and letter designate the part of the city that the plot is in and the second set of numbers designate the lot. Whenever a lot is subdivided or consolidated, the new lot is given the next available lot number.
The Registry Number can be found at the map room at City Hall.
In 1865, Philadelphia started recording all property transactions on Transfer Sheets. The sheets record the date of the transfer, the new and old owners and a description of the property. All of the Transfer Sheets are filed by the property's Registry Number.
The Transfer Sheets can be found in two places: the City Archives in Room 150 of 3101 Market Street or the Department of Records in Room 154 of City Hall. The City Archives have the original sheets while the Department of Records has microfilmed copies. We found the City Archives to be much easier to use. The original sheets are easier to read, the staff at the City Archives more helpful, the hours longer and the space itself more comfortable.
At the City Archives, they will bring out a file box with all of the transfer sheets for your part of the city. This will be important if your property has been consolidated or subdived in the past. Starting with the latest owner, you can trace the ownership back to the first (or around the first) transaction made after Philadelphia started using the sheets in 1865. Make sure that you check the dividers before and after the set of Transfer Sheets for your Registry Number; it will tell you if your plot was once part of another plot and what that Registry Number is.
Deed Books & Grantor/Grantee Indecies:
Once you have made it to the earliest Transfer Sheet, you will have to continue to track the chain of ownership in the Deed Books. The Deed Books contain the actual transfer of ownership summarized in the Transfer Sheets. However, the deeds are in the books simply in the order they were recorded, so to find the deed you are looking for, you will have to use the Grantor/Grantee Indeces. (Both the Deed Books and Grantor/Grantee Indices are on Microfilm and Microfiche that are stored in cabinets that are accessible to the public. I they are too difficult to make out, you can request the original books, but you will have to wait while the staff retrieves them from storage.)
The Grantor/Grantee Indices record what Deed Book the deed you are looking for is in. You can search either by the Grantor (previous owner) or the Grantee (new owner). Each book is arranged by the first letter of the last name, then the first letter of the first name and then grouped by year. There is no order beyond that, so once you have the right year and right letters, you will have to search all of the entries to find the one you want.
The Grantor/Grantee Indeces will have a Deed Book number and page. This is where the actual deed is recorded. The deed will contain the Grantor, the Grantee, a legal boiler plate, a description of the property and a "being clause." The "being clause" describes when and from whom the previous owner bought the property. If you are lucky, it will also record in which Deed Book and page that deed can be found. If not, you will have to go back to the Grantor/Grantee Indices to find the previous deed.
The Deed Books do not use Registry Numbers, they contain a physical description of the property and often use survey information and local landmarks to describe the limits of the property. This can make tracking your particular plot of property difficult if one of the owners subdived or consolidated their property.
These are not the only sources of ownership information in Philadelphia, just the ones that we found more usefull. For more information about tracking a Chain of Title in Philadelphia, see Jefferson M. Moak's book Architectural Research in Philadelphia.