Researching Property History
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The Utah State Archives is the repository for many state and local government records relating to land and property history. Researchers have the opportunity to search records that show the past of a family home, a business, or a government building. Using the resources of the Archives and other governmental agencies, a person can answer the following questions: who owned the property; what was its original appearance; what was its value over the years; and what were its uses? Maps, deeds, and tax assessments, are a few of the record types available that can shed light on family, corporate, or community histories within Utah.
Before researching a property's history, it is important to understand the descriptive elements used to define its location, size, and shape. Most people recognize property by its common or informal reference using house numbers, street numbers, and street names, such as 215 South Alta View Drive. These types of addresses are easy to understand, but they tell very little about the property's size and legal location and rarely appear on land records. In order to better identify property, a system of grids, lines, and various descriptive practices is used to break down land from a large statewide or regional scale, using meridian and base lines, to the smallest divisions of blocks and lots. Unlike a common address reference which can be easily changed, a grid-based description helps a person not only find a property, but also defines the legal boundaries that appear on the several types of records used to document the location, usage, ownership, and improvement of the property.
Land in Utah and twenty-nine other states was originally controlled by the federal government. In order to distribute the land, the U.S. government developed a system that would make possible an organized, manageable disbursement, and remain viable into future centuries. The Rectangular Survey (sometimes called the US Government Survey) was developed using two unseen lines established by longitude and latitude. Meridian lines are used to divide states and regions into grids. The lines run north and south and provide a starting point for all east and west measurements. The grid is completed using a base line which runs east and west. All north and south measurements are made using this line. The lines intersect at the principle base and meridian point. Utah has two such points: the Great Salt Lake Base and Meridian, located at the northwest corner of the intersection of South Temple and Main Street (the southeast corner of the LDS Church's Temple Square) in Salt Lake City, which extends from Idaho to Arizona and Nevada to Colorado; and the Uintah Base and Meridian, roughly nine miles north of Roosevelt and twenty-four miles west of Vernal, which covers a small region in eastern Utah.
Once a grid system is created using meridian and base lines, townships and ranges are defined within the grid. A township is a six-mile-square piece of land (thirty-six square miles). Townships run east and west in columns. The number of a township is derived by counting the number of six-mile columns north or south of the base line (which is the zero point). The columns running north and south are called ranges. The range number is taken by counting east or west of the meridian (which is the zero point). Township and Range image #1. The township in the upper left of the example grid is numbered by counting two townships north of the base line and two ranges west of the meridian. This location is designated as Township 2 North, Range 2 West.
Each six-mile-square township is divided into thirty-six one-mile-square sections. Township sections image #2. They are numbered beginning in the top right corner of the township, running left and then back to the right. This numbering allows each section to remain connected to the sections that precede and follow it. For example, despite the fact that section seven appears on the second line and section six is on the first line, they are still joined. Section eight is also connected to section seven. Because of the numbering system, however, numbers that appear to be far apart, such as one and twelve, actually border each other. A section is one mile on each side, making one square mile. It contains 640 acres. Sections are broken-down into smaller pieces (usually square or rectangular in shape) by halves, fourths, eighths, sixteenths, and thirty-seconds; property descriptions may reflect the smaller divisions. Section and Divisions image #3.
In towns and cities, the labeling of section halves, fourths, and eighths, etc. is not common. Land is usually divided into blocks and lots, especially within subdivisions or property developments. There is apparently no set size qualifications for a block or lot, the developer or surveyor determines the size, location, and numbering. In rural areas, it is common to see erratic and non-uniform placement and numbering, making it difficult to pinpoint a property's location unless some kind of plat or subdivision map is available. Urban properties are generally marked in a straightforward linear and sequential fashion. Blocks and Lots image #4
Metes and bounds is one of the oldest forms of land description used in Utah and other states. It employs the use of measurements and markers to draw straight lines from one point to another in order to show the location and shape of a piece of property. It can also be one of the most difficult descriptions to understand because of the many terms associated with this description type. A typical metes and bounds property description might look like the following:
Commencing 96.8 rods North and 155 rods West from the Southeast corner of Section 11, Township 1 South, Range 1 West, Salt Lake Meridian, West 105.495 feet; thence South 98 feet; thence West 60 feet; thence South 34 feet; thence East 10.03 rods; thence North 8 rods to the point of beginning
Commencing 62 feet West from the Southeast corner of Lot 1, Block 70, Plat D, Salt Lake City Survey; North 70 feet; East 12.5 feet; North 13 West 20 feet to ditch, Northwesterly along said ditch; North 31 West 68.75 feet; West 2.75 rods; South 630' East 9 rods; East 53.5 feet to the beginning.
The "degree" distinction describes the direction of the line being drawn from a beginning point, and the direction and distance from that point the line is to travel. For example, the first degree portion of the description above states, "North 13 West 20 feet to ditch." This means that the line would be directed north of its preceding mark (East 12.5 feet) and travel 13 west for a distance of 20 feet until the line reaches a ditch. A surveyor uses not only degrees, but also minutes and seconds to break down the description as exact as possible. There are 360 (degrees) in a circle, 60' (minutes) in a degree, and 60" (seconds) in a minute. By using these measurements, a surveyor can draw an accurate line when determining property boundaries. There are two other terms that often appear in metes and bounds descriptions: a chain, which is approximately 66 feet, and a rod which is approximately one-quarter of a chain or 16.5 feet.
Plats are the maps (sometimes plans or charts) drawn to show the legal boundaries of a property and its proposed divisions and features. They often show metes and bounds and other descriptive information for a piece of property that may range in size from an individual parcel to a large town. Plat maps are literally a blueprint for a block of land, showing the shape of a piece of property (sometimes detailed dimensions), the name of individual owners within the block, the streets, creeks, roads, alleys, avenues, etc.
Parcel numbers (or property or serial numbers) are assigned by the counties in order to easily identify a property at a certain location. Before using parcel numbers, counties used a property owner's name, the property address, or the legal description in order to keep track of property being assessed taxes. The parcel number was assigned to the property, not the owner. It therefore transferred from one owner to another when the property was sold. Numbering systems changed over the years and may be confusing, particularly if one parcel was subdivided.
Many types of land and property records are available through the municipal, county, and state offices creating or recording the records. The Archives maintains a catalog of records series created by Utah state and local government agencies. You can search by keyword or creating agency and can limit your search results to Archives holdings only.
Abstracts. These are logs reflecting a true chain of title for property and any encumbrances on it. Abstracts and their indexes are available through the county recorders' offices; the Archives has microfilm copies for some Utah counties.
Deeds. These are recorded copies of various types of deeds registered with the county recorder that show land ownership and changes to land ownership. Deeds and their indexes, most commonly Grantor and Grantee indexes recording land transfer, are available through the county recorders' offices; the Archives has microfilm copies for some Utah counties.
Tax Assessment Rolls. County treasurers record property tax assessments given to individuals and businesses on a yearly basis, and the payment of those taxes. The assessment rolls show the name and address of an owner (who may or may not have resided on the property), the legal description of the land and value of the property, the value of improvements, a list of personal property and its value, the amount of taxes distributed to various taxing units, the total amount of taxes and date of payment. These rolls can be used to determine property ownership, the age and value of structures and improvements, and legal descriptions. These rolls and their indexes are available through the county treasurers' offices; the Archives has microfilm copies for some Utah counties.
Subdivision Indexes. These are books created by the county recorder containing alphabetical listings of subdivisions and their legal locations (section, township, range, plat, block, or lot). These can be used to aid researchers when trying to determine the general location of a property if only the subdivision name is known. The volumes are also useful in conjunction with searches in tax assessment rolls. These indexes are available through the county recorders' offices; the Archives has microfilm copies for some Utah counties.
Plat Maps or Plat Books. These maps, maintained by the individual county recorders, are often used as a reference for taxpayers inquiring about their property. They can also be used to trace property ownership and location. Older plats are commonly destroyed when plat maps are updated. The most recent plats are available through the county recorders' offices. The Archives has microfilm copies of older plats for some Utah counties; however there are many gaps in holdings.
Special Improvement Tax Sales and Redemption Records. These are another source for determining a property's owner, value, and location. They contain the owner's name, legal property description (including a small drawing of the property's location within the block), tax information, and details concerning curbs and gutters, sidewalks, sewer, and street lighting.
Appraisal Cards. These records contain the complete information on the appraisal and assessment of real property. The document contains the taxpayer's name, the property address, serial number, legal description (including acreage), a basic drawing of the building shape, the age of the building, a list of outbuildings, a list of improvements (size, quality of building, taxable features), assessed valuation of land and improvements, notes regarding Board of Equalization adjustments, and factoring worksheets. Most cards also include a photograph of the buildings. Appraisal cards exist for many counties. The State Archives has cards for some counties. Cards for other counties can be obtained from the necessary county archives or assessor's office. Appraisal cards can be very useful in determining the early appearance of a structure, its past uses, and construction processes and characteristics.
Building Permits. These files and registers issued by various communities include information on date, permit number, builder, location, type of building (frame or masonry), use of building (dwelling, commercial, addition, garage, etc.), cost estimates, plumbing, electrical, owner's name, the building address, and occasionally the architect. These registers and related records are normally maintained by the building department in the town, city, or county issuing the records. The Archives has building permit registers for Salt Lake City starting in 1899 (series 8690) and microfilm copies for a few other communities.
School Buildings. School Building Evaluation reports, series 1876, contain information gathered by the School Building Survey Commission during a building evaluation performed in 1951. The majority of the schools in Utah were studied and photographed for the reports in this series. This series is a good source for the history of buildings presently and formerly used as schools. Series 1328 contains school building plans and specifications, also known as project manuals, for school districts throughout the state. These plans have been indexed as well.
Building Plans and Project Specifications. Building plans and project records for public buildings are available through the building departments of the government agency constructing the facility. Plans for private commercial buildings and residential plans are not kept permanently by government offices granting the permits or inspecting the buildings; they may be retained longer by private architects.
County Offices. County clerks, recorders, treasurers, and surveyors throughout Utah maintain many types of records available at the county's offices.
Salt Lake County Archives. The County Archives maintains maps, tax records, building records and other property records created by Salt Lake county agencies.
Utah State Historical Society. The Historical Society maintains collections of photographs and maps that may be useful for property research, specifically Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, city directories, building permit registers, architects' files, and newspapers. The Historic Preservation Office of the Historical Society also holds extensive information on historic buildings and provides information on how to research residential, commercial, and public buildings.
University of Utah Marriott Library Special Collections. The special collections section of the university library holds many architectural collections from architectural firms in Utah.
LDS Church Family History Library and Historical Department . The LDS Church has church-related documents, such as ward records, that can be useful in determining where individuals lived.
National Archives-Rocky Mountain Region. The Denver branch of the National Archives maintains BLM record groups related to land and property history; including records of US Surveyors; records of land offices in Salt Lake and Vernal; and tract books for Utah.
(For a more extensive explanation of land divisions in the United States refer to Land and Property Research in the United States, E. Wade Hone, 1997. The book was an important resource in compiling this leaflet).