The county recorder’s office is the place of record for publicly filing official documents, usually related to property. These include property sales, mortgage loans, defaults on mortgage loans, liens on property, etc.
Documents filed with the county recorder’s office are indexed alphabetically by the names of people, companies and organizations that have filed the documents and the names of those with whom the transactions described in the documents are being conducted.
The index will be on a computer terminal, although indexes for much older documents may be on microfiche or in bound volumes.
The recorder’s office name index will list:
- the name of the person or business that did the transaction, called the grantor (such as the person selling a piece of property)
- the name of the person or business with whom the transaction was conducted, called the grantee (such as the person buying the property)
- the date the transaction was recorded or filed at the recorder’s office
- a brief letter-code notation of what kind of transaction it is (such as “deed” for a property deed of sale)
- a document number for the transaction, which you use to look up a copy of the actual document (such as a deed of sale)
Thus on a mortgage loan, the index will list the person or business who received the loan, the bank or person that made the loan, the date the loan document was recorded, a notation such as “d.t.” (an abbreviation for a “deed of trust” which is a mortgage loan), and the recorder’s document number you can use to look up the deed of trust.
The index does not list the address of the property. To determine that you need to look up the document itself using the document number.
Thus if a person has purchased two pieces of property, those would both be listed on the index as deeds under the person’s name. But you can’t tell from the index what the addresses are for the two properties or which deed relates to which piece of property. To get that information you’d need to look up the actual deeds.
Sample Name Index
To see what a name index looks like, go to:
Click on the acknowledge disclaimer link and then the Official Public Records Search.
Now type a common name into the search boxes, such as Smith, John
You’ll see a list of documents and for each document a document/instrument number, a date, an abbreviation for the type of transaction and the names of the parties to the transaction.
Searching for Addresses
There is no index by property address at the Recorder’s Office.
So you can’t search by the address of a piece of property to find the property deeds, mortgage loans, etc. that are associated with that property.
Instead you have to search the Recorder’s Office name index by the owner of the property to find the deed recorded when that person or business bought the property, and to find any mortgage loans, loan delinquencies or liens recorded on the property under that owner’s name.
If you don’t know who owns a piece of property, you should start at the County Assessor’s Office, which has a database you can search by property address to determine who the owner was when the assessor’s office did its most recent assessment of the value of the property.
You then can enter that owner’s name in the recorder’s office name index to locate the deed filed when the person or business bought the property (the Assessor’s Office property transfer list also often lists the recorder’s office document number for the deed).
You also can check under the owner’s name to see if a more recent deed was filed because the person or business subsequently sold the property.
Finally you can work your way backward in the name index to research the history of the property.
The deed for the recent owner will list from whom that owner purchased the property. You then do a new search in the Recorder’s Office name index for that previous owner. That will retrive documents related to the property under the previous owner.
Repeat this process of identifying the previous owner and then doing a new search under that previous owner’s name to go further back in the history of the property.
Looking Up Documents
Once you’ve used the recorder’s office name index to identify a document in which you are interested, you then can look at the full document, which has a lot more information than what is listed on the name index.
Some recorder’s offices have moved to a fully computerized system, in which there will be links in the name index to digitized copies of the documents listed.
In other systems, you’ll need to write down the recorder’s document number from the name index and then search for that document number on a computer terminal in order to get a digital version of the document.
In other cases, especially with older documents, you need to write down the recorder’s document number and go to file cabinets where the actual documents are stored on boxed rolls of microfilm.
Each roll of microfilm has a range of document numbers, so look for the roll that includes the document number you’re seeking. For example, if you’re looking for document number 03-150, if might be in the microfilm roll box labeled 03-100 to 03-200.
Check out that roll and load it on a microfilm viewer (there usually are several viewers at a recorder’s office). Then scroll through the microfilm until you reach the numbered document you want to review – such as 03-150 in the example above which would be half way through the roll.
Each county recorder’s office uses slightly different abbreviations for the records listed in its index of recorded documents.
Thus a deed of trust, which is a mortgage loan, might be abbreviated as “d tr” at one recorder’s office, “dd trust” at another, “deed tr” at another, or “tr dd” at yet another recorder’s office.
Here’s a chart listing in alphabetical order abbreviations commonly used by recorder’s offices, along with the names of the documents they stand for and a quick description of each type of document.
These are documents a reporter most likely will be interested in looking up at a recorder’s office.
|Abbreviation||Full Name of Document||Description of Document|
|abst judg||abstract of judgment||summary of ruling in civil court case|
|assign d tr||assignment of deed of trust||bank sells a mortgage loan to another bank
(see “deed of trust” below)
|cnc not def||cancellation of notice of default||notice of delinquent mortgage loan cancelled, usually because mortgage payment was made
(see “notice of default” below)
|cnc tt sale||cancellation of trustee’s sale||foreclosure sale cancelled
(see “notice of trustee’s sale” below)
|deed||property deed||sale of a piece of property|
|d tr||deed of trust||mortgage loan|
|d tr w rnts||deed of trust with rents||mortgage loan in which the lender also gets rental payments on the property
(essentially the same as “deed of trust” above)
|grant deed||grant deed||sale of a piece of property
(essentially the same as “deed” above)
|mech lien||mechanic’s lien||contractor’s notice claiming failure by the property owner to pay for work performed|
|not def||notice of default||notice of failure to make mortgage payments (see “deed of trust” above)|
|not sale liq lic||notice of sale of liquor license||liquor license transferred to new establishment|
|not tt sale||notice of trustee’s sale||foreclosure sale imminent on delinquent mortgage loan (see “notice of default” above)|
|ptp||partnership||papers for partnership filed|
|recon||reconveyance||mortgage loan paid off
(see “deed of trust” above)
|rel tax lien||release of tax lien||back tax payments made
(see “tax lien” below)
|rel mech lien||release of mechanic’s lien||dispute resolved with contractor over payment for work performed, thus removing lien on property
(see “mechanic’s lien” above)
|tax lien||tax lien||back taxes owed to a government taxing agency|
|tt sale||trustee’s sale||foreclosure on mortgage loan
(see “notice of tt sale” above)
The property sales document, usually called a deed or grant deed, lists the names of the seller and buyer, the date of the sale, and the address, assessor’s parcel number or other description of the location of the property.
Also listed will be a county “documentary transfer tax,” which can be used to compute the sale price of the property.
Also look at the upper left hand corner of the deed, where a box will show the name of the person (usually either the buyer or the seller) to whom a copy of the deed should be sent after it is recorded.
This box may contain a different address for that person than the address of the property being purchased.
Sales Prices – Documentary Transfer Tax
You can compute the sales price of a piece of property using the documentary transfer tax listed on a property deed.
In California, $1.10 in county documentary transfer taxes must be paid for each $1,000 of the sales price of the property (but see the exception for San Francisco below). This affects all property back to 1968.
Thus, if the county documentary transfer tax is listed as $110, that means the sales price of the property was $100,000.
To calculate this, take the dollar amount listed for the county documentary transfer tax on the property deed, divide that number by 1.1 and then multiply the result by 1,000.
In the example above, divide the $110 in tax by 1.1 (which equals $100), and then multiply by 1,000 (which equals $100,000 for the sales price).
Also make sure you are looking on a deed at the documentary transfer tax for the county, not for a city.
City Transfer Taxes
Some cities also track on a separate, additional documentary transfer tax, and the rates for those vary from city to city. See the chart at the dirtlawyer.com website, which is run by a law firm that specializes in real estate law. It shows some of the city transfer taxes that have been imposed in California.
San Francisco Documentary Transfer Tax
Because San Francisco is simultaneously both a county and a city, its documentary transfer tax is a combined county and city tax. Thus in San Francisco County the documentary tax rate is different from other California counties.
See this section of the website for the San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder for information on the documentary transfer tax rates on property sales in San Francisco.
Limitations on Using the Documentary Transfer Tax
There will be occasions when the documentary transfer tax does not reflect the actual sales value of a piece of property.
For example, if a buyer assumes responsibility for repaying an existing loan or other liens the seller had on the property, those are not included in calculating the tax. The tax is only on the actual money that exchanged hands in the transaction, not on the assumption of previous debt.
Thus if a buyer paid $80,000 in cash for a home, and also assumed a $20,000 loan on the home, the documentary transfer tax would only be based on the $80,000 (and no public documents usually are filed listing the assumed loans or liens).
These cases are relatively rare, however, as most loans and liens are paid off in escrow when a sale occurs and thus are included in the sales price. So in most instances the documentary transfer tax will reflect the full sales value of the property.
Still it’s important to verify any sales price calculated from the documentary transfer tax with the buyer/seller.
A buyer also may file a Declaration of Transfer Tax to keep confidential the amount of the tax paid. This too is very rare.
Some property transactions, such as gifts between family members or changes of property ownership that are the result of divorce settlements, are exempt from the transfer tax.
Finally, you can’t use the documentary transfer tax formula for properties sold prior to 1968. That was the year the California Legislature authorized counties to collect a documentary transfer tax on property transactions at a rate of $1.10 per $1,000 of sales price (almost all California counties now do so).
Prior to 1968 there was a similar federal stamp tax on each real estate transfer. The federal stamp tax was enacted in 1914 and the rate varied over the years, rising to the $1.10 per $1,000 figure until it was repealed in 1967. The $1.10 per $1,000 figure then was adopted by the California Legislature for counties in California.
Using Property Deeds and Documentary Transfer Taxes in a Story
To see how property sales prices can be used in a story, read this San Diego Union-Tribune/Copley News Service story about a member of Congress from San Diego County, Randall Cunningham, who sold a piece of property there at an allegedly inflated price to a government contractor (Cunningham subsequently pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion).
You can go to the San Diego County Recorder’s Office online index to see references to the two property sales mentioned in the story.
For example, at that page do a search for:
Fifteen Twenty Three New Hampshire Ave
Click on the link to the second document to see some of the details on the sale of the house by Randall Cunningham to the company, Fifteen Twenty Three New Hampshire Ave L L C. The online index doesn’t list the sales price on the property, but you could get that information by going to the San Diego County Recorder’s Office and looking up this document.
A mortgage loan document in California and many other states is called a deed of trust. It lists the name of the borrower (the “trustor”), the name of the lender (the “beneficiary”), the amount of the loan, the date of the loan, and the address or assessor’s parcel number of the property being put up as collateral for the loan.
In some cases, such as loans with variable interest rates, the terms of the loan also will be listed, such as the interest rate and due date on the loan.
You will also see a notation for a “trustee” on the deed of trust. This is usually a bank department or title company that simply acts as an intermediary on the loan transaction to protect the interests of the borrower and lender. The trustee is not making or receiving the loan, and the particular trustee used in a transaction is almost always inconsequential.
Sometimes the original lender on a mortgage loan will “sell” the loan to another lender, which is called an assignment of a deed of trust.
This is very common – a bank will provide a mortgage loan to a property owner and then later transfer the loan to another bank in exchange for the cash value of the loan (a bank may do this, for example, if it needs to raise cash for some other purpose).
The new bank then assumes the loan and receives the loan payments from the original borrower.
The property owner is notified of this and makes payments to the new bank. The payment amounts and other terms of the loan remain the same. The only thing that changes is the bank that is holding the mortgage loan.
To determine if a loan has been sold, check the recorder’s index under the name of the lender or the borrower after the date of the original loan for an assignment of a deed of trust. This is the document in which the original lender transfers the deed of trust and mortgage loan to another lender.
If a borrower falls behind on payments on a mortgage loan, documents will be filed at the recorder’s office by the lender alerting the borrower that the loan payments are delinquent and the borrower is in danger of defaulting on the loan.
Notice of Default
A notice of default is the first document filed with the recorder’s office by the lender when the borrower is failing to make payments on time. The default usually is not filed until after a loan has been delinquent for 3 months.
The notice of default informs the borrower of the amount owed, and is the first step in a possible foreclosure action on the property.
Notice of Trustee’s Sale
A notice of trustee’s sale then is filed if the borrower does not make the delinquent payments within 90 days from receiving the notice of default.
The notice of trustee’s sale states the loan remains in default, informs the property owner of the amount that is owed, and warns that unless the back payments are made (or the loan is repaid in full), the property will be sold at a foreclosure auction. The date of the foreclosure auction is listed on the notice.
This notice of trustee’s sale usually is filed a little more than 3 months after the first notice of default is filed, and it must be filed at least 14 days before any foreclosure auction sale occurs.
It’s called a trustee’s sale because the trustee on the original deed of trust/mortgage loan will conduct the auction, often on the steps of a courthouse.
Finally, a trustee’s deed will be filed with the recorder’s office if the borrower does not make the payments on the loan and the property is sold in foreclosure at a trustee’s auction.
The trustee’s deed will list the date the auction sale occurred, who submitted the highest bid and purchased the property, and the amount paid for it. Frequently the lender will submit the highest bid, and then re-sell the property later.
The proceeds from the sale will first go to the lender to repay the original loan plus interest and penalties. Other creditors also will be paid off, such as another bank that may have made a second loan to the owner of the property.
The remaining money from the sale, if any, will go to the borrower who owned the property.
Rescinding Notices of Default/Trustee’s Sale
If at any stage after the filing of a notice of default or notice of trustee’s sale on a mortgage loan, and before the actual trustee’s auction, a borrower makes the delinquent loan payments, rescissions of the notice of default or the notice of trustee’s sale will be filed with the recorder’s office.
This means the loan is no longer in default, loan payments presumably are now current and the threat of foreclosure has been removed.
So when you see a notice of default or notice of trustee’s sale filed against a property owner, be sure to check for these rescissions to make sure a property owner hasn’t subsequently cured a default on a loan by making the delinquent payments.
Mortgage Loans Repaid
When a mortgage loan is repaid by the borrower, a loan document called a reconveyance is filed with the recorder’s office.
This means that the original deed of trust is being reconveyed by the lender to the borrower, relinquishing the lender’s claim on the property.
A reconveyance will be listed in the recorder’s index under the name of the borrower, but that listing will not include the name of the lender.
Similarly, a reconveyance will be listed in the recorder’s index under the name of the lender, but that listing will not include the name of the borrower.
(The reason the lender and borrower aren’t listed together in the index is is because there’s an intermediary on a mortgage loan called a trustee who handles the filing of the reconveyance and the transfer of the property to the borrower)
Since one person may take out multiple loans, there’s no way to know from the index listing for a reconveyance which loan the person is repaying.
You will need to look up the full reconveyance document to determine which loan is being repaid. On the reconveyance document look for a recorder’s document number for the original deed of trust/mortgage loan that is being repaid through this reconveyance.
Liens are documents filed against a person or business by creditors who claim they are owed payment for some service or product they provided or by government agencies for failure to pay taxes or fees.
The liens are placed on a piece of property owned by the debtor and allow the creditors to collect what is owed to them if the property is ever sold.
In some cases a creditor can force the sale of a piece of property to collect what is owed, a process called foreclosure on a lien. But these cases require filing a civil lawsuit to force the foreclosure.
There are several different types of liens.
Tax liens are filed by:
- the IRS or the California Franchise Tax Board for failure to pay personal income taxes
- the California Employment Development Department for failure to pay payroll taxes
- other local government agencies such as the county property tax collector or even a municipal garbage collection service
These liens list:
- the person or company that owes the back taxes
- the amount of back taxes owed along with any penalties and interest
- an address for the taxpayer, which is the property on which the lien is being placed
Mechanics liens are filed by contractors or suppliers who say they weren’t paid for services performed or goods supplied to a person or company.
These liens list:
- the name of the contractor
- the name of the person for whom the work was done
- the amount owed
- the address where the work was performed
- a description of the work
On all liens, if the person or business that owes money to a taxing agency or other creditor pays the money owed or otherwise settles the dispute, a release of the lien will be filed with the recorder’s office (this is sometimes referred to as a cancelation of a lien).
This means the original creditor no longer has a claim on the debtor’s property. This sometimes is referred to as removing an encumbrance on a property.
So if you find a lien filed against a person or business, be sure to check if the lien and the debt were subsequently removed with the filing of a release or cancelation of the lien.
Civil Court Judgments
When a person or company wins a lawsuit against another person/company in a civil court and wants to “attach,” or put a lien on, the losing party’s property, they file an abstract of judgment with the county recorder’s office.
This lien entitles the person who won the suit to collect the money that was awarded by a judge or jury in the lawsuit if the losing party’s property is ever sold.
An abstract of judgment lists:
- the person or company that won the lawsuit and their attorney
- the person or company that lost the lawsuit
- the monetary amount of the judgment
- the date the judgment was awarded by the court
- the court in which the lawsuit was filed and the judgment entered
- the case number of the lawsuit (so you can look up the lawsuit at the court where it was filed)
The lawsuits may have been filed in any court anywhere in the country, but the judgments are filed in the county in which the person or company that was sued owns property.
Thus the filings of judgments at a county recorder’s office are extremely valuable in providing leads on lawsuits that may have been filed against a person in other counties or states.
A business or person that is about to buy a liquor license from another business or person that already has an existing license to sell alcoholic beverages in California, will file a notice of intent to sell alcoholic beverages with a county recorder’s office.
The document lists:
- the business or person from whom the license is being purchased
- the business or person buying the license
- the name and address of the bar, restaurant or other establishment that will sell the alcohol.
Alcoholic Beverage Control Department
The ABC also has an online database you can search by an address or by the name of an individual or business to get information on liquor licenses.
Business partnerships operating in a county, especially partnerships set up for real estate deals, often will file partnership papers with a county recorder’s office.
The partnership documents will list the general partners and the shares held by each of the partners.
The limited partners are only listed in rare instances. Limited partners are essentially only passive investors and are not playing an active role in the company.
The partnership papers at the recorder’s office are only indexed by names of the partnerships, not by the names of the individual general partners or limited partners.
For more on partnerships, including how to get information at the California Secretary of State’s online database on partnerships, see the section of our guide on California Secretary of State Partnership Records Online.
Recorder’s Office Records Online
Many county recorder’s offices are putting their indexes of property transactions and other records online.
Some include summary information on the documents in their online databases.
But almost none put complete electronic copies of the actual documents online. In California a law was passed that prohibits recorder’s offices from putting the recorded documents online, because of privacy and identity theft concerns
One Web site that tracks recorder’s offices that have put their indexes online is:
A private real estate research and information company, NETR has a map of the United States on its home page you can click on to bring up a list of all the county agencies in a particular state that handle property sales and ownership. These include recorder’s offices.
Agencies that have an index of their records available online are noted with a Go to Data Online link.
San Francisco Bay Area Recorder’s Office Records Online
In California, recorder’s offices are prohibited from putting copies of recorded documents online.
But many have put searchable indexes to the documents and summaries of the documents on their websites.
In the San Francisco Bay Area they include:
Alameda County Recorder (select the Official Public Records option)
Contra Costa County Recorder (select the Search Recorded Documents option)
San Francisco County Assessor-Recorder (select the Search Recorded Documents option)
Santa Clara County Clerk-Recorder (select the Official Documents link on the left)
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.
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