An Introduction to Title Deeds

Key information
  • Title deeds are best understood as proof and history of ownership of a piece of land.
  • HM Land Registry holds copies of the title deeds for around 85% of the land in England and Wales.
  • Title deeds play a key role when it comes to buying or selling a piece of land, as they are key to the transfer of ownership.

Title deeds are an integral part of land ownership and, therefore, land transactions. Understanding what they are, what they're used for, and how you can access yours will help you navigate the tricky process of buying or selling land. The jargon associated with title deeds will feature heavily in the vocabulary of your conveyancing solicitor and mortgage lender, so understanding this terminology will make your conversations with them much easier. 

We've written this quick guide to introduce you to the concept of title deeds, and define the key terms associated with them. No matter where you are in your land-buying journey, Team Addland is here to Make Land Easy.              

What are title deeds?

Before we dive into the web of legal rights and covenants that can be generated by title deeds, it's best to understand what a deed is, in and of itself. A deed is a written legal document. The purpose of a deed is to create or transfer an interest, right or property. An interest or right can be anything from an entitlement to rent on that piece of land, to the setting out of who has control of its use.

Owners of land are said to have a 'title' over that land. Title deeds (note the plural) are thus a group of legally enforceable written documents that create a title over a piece of land, or transfer an existing title from one legal person to another (a legal person isn't necessarily a single human, but can be an individual, company or other entity). It's easiest to understand them as proof and description of ownership. Title deeds come with two sections: the title plan (which shows, visually, the boundaries of the plot of land) and the title register, which contains a written description of all the elements below:

- legal ownership: WHO owns the land
- tenure: WHAT sort of rights a person has over the land (e.g. whether it's freehold land or leasehold)
- boundaries: the extent and shape of the land 
- encumbrances: any restrictive covenants on the land, which prevent owners from doing certain things
- any mortgages secured against the land
- any wills the land has been included in 

What does this mean in practice? Title deeds are essential in proving property ownership and establishing the chain of ownership over a piece of land, going back in time. They are what create your ownership over land, and their emendation to name the new owner will be what actualises any sale of that land you might make. They will also act as a record of previous owners of the land.

Why are title deeds important and what are they used for?

Being able to prove ownership of land is essential not only if you want to sell your land but also more generally. Without the necessary ownership documents included in the title deeds, you could theoretically be considered a squatter. This is rare, however, and the vast majority (~85%) of land in England and Wales is now registered with relevant title deeds - in other words, HM Land Registry will hold a copy of your land's title deeds, even if the original copies (which can often date back decades) have been lost or destroyed. In the case of unregistered land, you may have to produce evidence and ownership details going back about 15 years - potentially through copies of documents, which can be held by the solicitor who handled the last sale of your land. Good documentation and secure filing on their part are crucial to ensuring documents, such as a conveyance or contract pertinent to a previous sale of the land, are not lost. Choice of conveyancing solicitor is thus an important part of buying or selling land - a good solicitor can often hold paper deeds or actual conveyancing deeds, even if HM Land Registry does not.

Title deeds are amended every time the land is sold - thorough conveyancing can make a future sale much quicker. They can also be used as a source of truth in disputes over that land, since they include the likes of a property description and title plan. Alternately, Addland draws data directly from the HM Land Registry database and displays it visually on an interactive digital map. You can use it to view HMLR info that would normally be included in the title deeds, such as land boundaries and ownership type.  

Where can I find my title deeds?

Since registering land transactions became a legal requirement in the Land Registration Act 2002, all land bought, sold, gifted or mortgaged must be registered at HM Land Registry (HMLR), a non-ministerial (i.e. headed up by a civil servant rather than a government minister) government department. HMLR  has been recording land/property ownership since it was founded in 1862, and today it holds copies of the title deeds for all registered land in England and Wales. These copies are updated every time a piece of land is transacted, as part of the conveyancing process. You can request to see a copy of a piece of land's title deeds by paying up to £6 to HMLR. It costs £3 to see the title plan and £3 to see the title register, should you only need to see one. You can also get a property summary for free. Addland also draws on a lot of HMLR data and even displays it visually on an interactive map. You can even export the info in to Land Report, which contains HMLR info and much more, which you can then print or share limitlessly. All that's needed is a free Addland Essential membership. 

The only time HMLR won't hold a copy of the title deeds is if a piece of land is unregistered. This might be because the land has not been transacted for a long time, which can be the case if it's been owned by the same family or institution for decades. In this case, you'll have to find the original deeds. The paper title deeds might be held by the solicitor who conveyanced the last time of purchase.     

Glossary 

Title deeds: written legal documents that establish ownership and confirm the owner's title to that piece of land (and accompanying property). They are comprised of the title register and the title plan.   

Title register: one of the two main documents contained in a piece of land's title deeds. The register is a description of the property, its tenure, ownership history and other legal charges on the land.                   

Title plan: a document showing, with a red outline, the boundaries of the piece of land being transacted. It also shows rights of access, watercourses and the like.    

Unregistered land: land for which HM Land Registry does not keep a copy of the title deeds. Only about 25% of the land in England and Wales is unregistered, often because it hasn't been sold in the time since land registration was made mandatory. 

Land Registry: the governmental organisation responsible for maintaining the register of land and its owners in England and Wales.   

Addland
Published: 20 June 2022
Last updated: 22 June 2022

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