Friday, June 13, 2008

At Ease about Easements? InDeed....

Here is something that all "landowners" should be aware of, assuming this is not just a Douglas County quirk. Not all easements across your property are necessarily filed with the Register of Deeds at the County Courthouse. There may be easements that are not part of the public record at all...not accessible to your title insurance company...not easily accessible to you, unless you happen to know where to look and everyone happens to be standing around the office a little bit before quitting time.

A few days ago I emailed the City's legal staff to verify my understanding that they did not already have an easement through the farm that would have allowed them to blithely survey without permission to be there. The response was that they didn't know off the top of their head, they would have to look it up. Apparently that wasn't a high priority task.

Instead of bugging them about it (I do understand that bureaucrats are busy and their time is valuable to them), I took myself to the Register of Deeds office this afternoon to look for myself.

Probably many of you have never had occasion to do this. Perhaps you aren't even aware that you CAN. And if that is the case, you have no idea how willing and ready the good people there are to help you find the information you seek among their solemn shelves of giant volumes. Try it some rainy afternoon when you have a spare hour or two.

I learned about doing title searches when I worked at DPRA Incorporated in Manhattan, Kansas, a number of years ago. (I hope they missed any major damage by the tornado that struck very close to their offices last night. Mom and Dad's place, several miles away, was untouched. The building at KSU where Dad worked from the time I was in middle school until the time he retired was damaged.) I think that job, as strange as it seemed in context of my life before and after, was one of God's ways of preparing me for the work I am doing now, shepherding the farm through these governmental challenges.

This is how finding an easement or deed works:

You walk into the office, way up on the third floor, and people look up and move to greet you at the ancient marble counter. The sense of hush is far beyond what any modern library could imagine.

They escort you to a very impressively modern computer nearby, type in your name, and thus are able to find the Township, Range, and Section of your property's legal description. Of course, you could bring this with you (from your property tax statement or a mortgage), but they will be happy to look it up for you.

Then you are escorted to The Room. It appears to be a vault. The walls are lined with shelves of dark, worn volumes. There are cryptic labels on the shelves. Your guide refers to the scrap of paper she jotted down your legal description information on, draws out a volume, and opens it on a large table in the middle of the room.

The pages in the volume are small, about 5" x 10", and form tabs along the outer edge. They are bound to the book with rings, perhaps a dozen of them, so that new pages may be added as the decades slowly march through the turning-over of property. How easily she turns to the series of pages for your Township, Range and Section.

And here you begin. In this case, since we were concerned with easements, of which there would be few, we just started in 1912 (or so) and scanned down the column that indicated a code for the type of recording. E for easement, M for mortgage, D for Deed, various other arcane descriptors. For a title search, you would look for your name to appear about the date you bought the poperty, and note who you bought it from. Then you would look backwards in time to find when that person bought the property.

We found no easements recorded for the farm. I lingered a few minutes to note important names and dates in the farm's life: Dale Black, whom we purchased it from (11/16/95), had purchase it from a Taul Hibbard in 1950. We could find no record of it coming into Taul's hands...but some transfers of property are not recorded, if it is inherited for example. Or that deed may reside at the Jefferson County Courthouse, dating from before the Douglas County line was moved north of the river course. Niggling curiousity that might be answered by a reading of the deed transfers we did identify, but not enough to spend the time reading them, white letters on black background, on the microfiche.

"Well," I sighed a relieved sigh. So at least they don't already own an easement that I'm not aware of."

"Um, actually there could be easements that we don't have records of here," the nice lady informed me. The fellow at the microfiche reader seemed to perk up his ears a bit.

A cold feeling washed through me. We had done quite careful research into this land before purchasing it, exactly to prevent such an occurrence as this. Had we missed something major that could undo years of planning and hard work?

"Yes, the County Public Works may have Road Right of Ways that aren't recorded here."

"Where are they recorded?"

"Public Works would know. Here's the name of the guy you can call."

"Would my Title Insurance Company have known about this? How do people know where to look for all the easements?" I asked, bewildered.

The nice lady turned to the fellow at the microfiche, who was now following our conversation quite intently even as his hands nimbly handled the file reader. "You're with a Title Insurance Company," she said. "Do you have access to the Public Works files?"

"No," he replied. "They aren't a part of the public record. That's why every document has that wording on it about "subject to easements."

You think you own your land. The Register of Deeds thinks you own your land. The Title Insurance company thinks you own your land. But no one is really sure whether there is some other party that has rights to your land that you do not. Just keep that in mind when you're making plans...someone else might be making plans, too.

I called the County Public Works guy she referred me to, expecting layers of bureaucracy and frustrations. "You're just leaving the Courthouse?" (The marvel of cell phones!) "Why don't you just run over and we'll have a look."

I did. He did. We found nothing. Just to be sure, we went in search of another fellow with a faster computer and checked somewhere else. Everyone was very nice, that ready-to-go-home-but-we-have-half-an-hour-to-kill kind of nice on a day when probably there hadn't been many other visitors. They delighted in printing me out a copy of the aerial of the farm area with all the property lines in clear blue.

Interesting. Very interesting. Go do your homework! If you own property, it would behoove you to know who else is entitled to use it without your permission. If you are purchasing property, by all means wring as much information as you can (in a friendly and respectful way) from the various government agencies. Because you may actually turn up information that the Title Insurance Company can't.