Maybe you’re getting ready to sell your house, or maybe you inherited the family seaside cottage from that beloved uncle. But, before you take action, you’re going to need the property deed to the house.
Without a property deed in your name, you don’t really have any legal right or ownership to the home — including when inheriting a property or selling it to someone else. When you have a deed in your name, you can sell the home, apply for mortgages, home repair programs and equity loans, and be eligible for government programs, including real estate tax breaks and utility assistance.
According to James Leonard, the commissioner of records for the city and a real estate lawyer, homeowners should make sure their property’s deed is recorded in their name with the Department of Records.
“For programs that relate to your property, typically folks are going to want to see proof of property ownership,” Leonard said. “In Philadelphia, that’s a real problem, because we know now from a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that we have over 10,000 properties where the deed is not in the heir’s name.”
This is what’s called a tangled title. Meaning that you live in a property that you “own” or have a right to own, but your name is not on the deed. In most cases, this situation occurs when the person whose name is on the deed dies, and the deed is not transferred to a living family member.
Leonard advises that when a deed needs to be recorded or transferred to someone else — it should be prepared by a lawyer, title agent, or real estate professional. However, getting a copy or looking up one in public records is a simple process.
What is a property deed?
A property deed is an official document that states the rightful owner of a property. The deed is recorded and stored with the county Department of Records.
What does a deed look like?
Deeds are usually three to four pages. A deed states clearly the property address, grantor (the person selling the property), grantee (the person buying the property), the date the deed was recorded, and other identifying information about the property.
Who can record or transfer property deeds?
Anyone. If you have claim to a property, bought a house, or are selling one, you are able to record deeds at the Department of Records. People in the U.S. who don’t have citizenship can also use the services of the Department of Records — you don’t need ID or a Social Security number to record a deed.
In addition, the people involved with the deed — such as the new and previous owner — don’t need to be present for the recording of a deed. According to Leonard, 93% of the documents being recorded with the department are recorded online and by third-party entities, such as title companies.
How to record a property deed
When buying, selling, transferring, or updating a deed to a house, it’s the new owner’s responsibility to record this transaction with the Department of Records. Usually a title agent or legal representative will do this on your behalf when you’re finishing up buying or transferring a home.
Keep in mind that even when making changes to a deed or transferring ownership of one, you have to have a new deed recorded.
When recording a deed, it has to be prepared first — which, according to Leonard, involves knowing the ins and outs of state law and understanding the technical requirements of recording a deed. It’s possible for someone to prepare his or her own deed, but mistakes made on the documentation could result in the deed not being recorded or containing errors. This can lead to issues later on.
Have a lawyer, title company, or real estate professional prepare a deed to be recorded for you, according to Leonard.
How to transfer a deed from a deceased relative
To transfer a deed from a deceased relative, you have to first probate the deceased person’s will, which is the court-supervised process for finalizing someone’s last will and testament.
Probating a will is a separate process from transferring a deed, which happens at the Register of Wills. A deed can’t be transferred from a deceased person until the will has been probated.
How much does it cost to record a deed?
There are a few different costs depending on how you record the deed. You can pay with cash, money order, and business or certified check. Personal checks and credit or debit cards are not accepted.
Recording fees: $256.75 in total.
Realty sales tax: 4.278% (3.278% of property value to the city, 1% of the property value to the state).
Legal or real estate assistance: From $0 (if you are eligible for low-cost or free assistance) to $800 on average but can run up to $2,000 depending on how much the legal or real estate company is charging.
If you’re transferring a deed between family members — such as a spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandparent or grandchild — you don’t have to pay the realty sales tax.
Keep in mind that you have to make three separate payments: for the recording fees, city tax and state tax. For the recording fees and city tax, make money orders and checks payable to “City of Philadelphia.” For the state tax, make money orders and checks payable to “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
How to prepare a deed
Contact a lawyer, title company, or real estate services organization. The Department of Records refers people to legal assistance on its website. But you can go to any law firm, title or real estate company that offers deed preparation services.
The person preparing your deed will ask you and the other party for information and documents to include in the deed preparation.
If you need help looking for a lawyer, you can use the Philadelphia Bar Association’s referral service.
How to officially record a property deed
Online — Only approved businesses such as title and real estate companies can use these services.
In-person — You, or whoever prepared your deed, can take the documents and fees to the Department of Records at City Hall, Room 111, 1400 John F. Kennedy Blvd. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Note that you must be in Room 111 by 3:30 p.m. to have your document recorded that day.
As a security measure, whoever brings in the documents to be recorded in person will be asked to present photo ID and have a photo taken. However, it’s not mandatory to present ID, it’s just a security procedure the Department of Records has to help deter fraud.
Mail — You, or whoever prepared your deed, can mail in the documents and fees to Department of Records, City Hall Room 111, 1400 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107.
Your deed is then recorded and will be searchable within the next four weeks.
How to find or get a copy of a property deed
Deeds are public records — anyone can look up or get a copy of them. The Department of Records has access to records dating to 1973, and the City Archives has records from before 1973.
You can search for and request copies of a deed in-person, online, or by mail.
What information you need to request a copy of a deed
Provide as much of the following as possible:
Grantor (the person selling/transferring the property)
Grantee (the person buying/inheriting the property)
Document ID no. (for records from 1973 to the present)
If you’re looking for a deed that is from 1973 or earlier, you can call the City Archives at 215-685-9401, email email@example.com or visit their office at 548 Spring Garden St.
How much it costs to get a copy of a deed
$2 a page for a copy of a deed, and a flat $2 extra if you want the document certified. You can find out the exact number of pages for the document you are requesting in advance by calling 215-686-2292 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pay by cash, money order, business or certified check. Make checks and money orders payable to “City of Philadelphia.” Personal checks, credit or debit cards are not accepted. If you overpaid, the Department of Records will notify you and send a form to request a refund for the amount you overpaid.
Find or get a copy of a deed
Online (quick, available 24/7) — You can request copies of property deeds online using the city’s service: Philadox. You have to pay for a subscription with a Visa or Mastercard: $15 for a day, $60 for a week, $125 for a month, $750 for a year.
In-person (same-day service) — Visit the Department of Records in person at City Hall Room 154 from Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Mail (slowest option) — Mail your request with payment to Department of Records, City Hall, Room 154, 1400 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope and a note with the address of the property you are requesting the deed for.