A deed is a written instrument that transfers or conveys title to real property. A deed will list the old owner (also known as the “seller” or “grantor”) as well as the new owner (also known as the “buyer” or “grantee”).
In order for a deed to be valid, certain formalities must be observed, depending on state law. Many states, such as Washington and Oregon, have codified the form that a deed must take. (Note that under the Statute of Frauds, conveyances of property must be in writing; there is no such thing as an oral deed.)
A deed for the transfer of property must be filed publicly, typically in the clerk’s office of whichever county the real property is located in. Once the deed is transferred to a piece of property, the new owner has "title” to that property.
For example, imagine that Suzanne sells her Brooklyn townhouse to Bob. In exchange for the agreed-upon price, Bob will receive a copy of the deed. An additional copy will be filed in the Kings County Clerk’s Office. It becomes public information that Bob is the current owner and deed-holder of that piece of real property. Bob can also say that he “has title” to the property.
There are several kinds of real property deeds, each with its own characteristics and preferred uses.
Types of Deeds
Here are the three most common types of deeds typically used to sell or transfer ownership of property in the United States, and a description of how they typically work (though this is subject to variations depending on state law):
- General warranty deed. This is the most common type of real estate deed, which most Americans would use and expect when buying and selling a home. This deed typically contains covenants of title, which are promises by the grantor that he or she owns the property, free of tax or other liens or encumbrances (other than any already mentioned on the deed), and is conveying the entire interest to the grantee. The grantor warrants or guarantees against any acts or omissions on his or her part or on the part of any predecessors in title who might undermine the quality of the title and interest being conveyed.
- Quitclaim deed. This is a less common type of deed, but a nevertheless important variety to be aware of. A quitclaim deed gives all of the right, title, and interest of the grantor in the land described. It also contains no warranties. A quitclaim is used where the grantor intends to convey only such interest as he or she has, as opposed to a grant of the property with warranty of title. That is to say: Nothing is conveyed by a quitclaim deed if the grantor had no title to, nor interest in the property being conveyed. If someone attempts to use a quitclaim deed in an ordinary sale, this is a red flag to a buyer, perhaps signaling that the “owner” does not actually own the property. But a quitclaim is often used (appropriately) in real estate transfers that don't involve money, for example to switch ownership of a house from a parent to a child, or to place it in a trust.
- Bargain and sale deed. This deed simply recites that consideration (money or something of value) has been paid and purports to convey the described property. The deed contains no express warranties, other than in some cases, in which the owner promises not to have done anything him- or herself to encumber the title (such as take out an additional mortgage). Bargain and sale deeds are often used when the seller can’t promise full title because liens, easements, or other encumbrances may have been placed on the property by third parties (like neighbors or contractors), perhaps without the seller's knowledge. Why doesn't the seller know? Because, like the quitclaim deed, bargain and sale deeds are most often used for unusual types of transfers, such as when the seller has never lived on the property but is an estate executor, a foreclosing bank, or the IRS (after a tax sale). Any buyer presented with a bargain and sale deed should be wary of accepting it without first doing a comprehensive search for other potential title-holders or lien-holders on the property.
Formalities Required for Deeds
All conveyances of land made during the lifetime of the grantor must be in writing. This is the law in all U.S. states, again because of the Statute of Frauds. While each state and county might have its own particular requirements, the general requirements for written deeds include:
- identification of the grantor or grantors who are conveying an interest in real property by the deed
- identification or description of the grantee or grantees who are taking the interest from the grantors in the real property
- words of conveyance showing that the parties intended to transfer title
- description of the land being conveyed
- signature of the grantor, and
- indication of delivery and acceptance of the deed; the deed must be delivered to the grantee and accepted by the grantee.
How Deeds Are Recorded With Local Government Offices
Although deeds need not be acknowledged (or notarized) in order to be valid as between the grantor and grantee, most deeds are acknowledged to satisfy a common prerequisite to recording the deeds with the county recorder.
An acknowledgment is a statement that an instrument was in fact signed by the person whose signature appears on it. A certificate of acknowledgment is a notary public’s formal statement that the person identified the signature on the document as his or her own in the notary’s presence and that the person was, indeed, the individual who signed the document.
A deed is deemed to be recorded when it has been duly acknowledged or proved and is deposited in the office of the recorder of deeds, with the proper officer, for recording. A deed must be recorded by the county clerk (also known as the county recorder) in the county where the subject property is located. Recording is required in order to give notice of the transfer of real property to subsequent buyers and to people with claims against the property.
If you have any questions about real estate deeds, contact a real estate attorney in your area.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Will the seller's proposed deed give me the highest possible assurances regarding title to the real property that I'm hoping to buy?
- If, as a buyer, I accept something less than a full warranty deed, to what extent will title insurance protect me from liens and encumbrances that are discovered later?
- If I’m a seller and have potential problems guaranteeing clear title, what sort of deed should I try to give to buyers?
- What kind of interests do the various types of deed normally convey in our state, and what warranties or promises do they include?
- Should I accept a quitclaim deed for this piece of real property?
- Does the grantee have to sign a deed in order for it to be valid?
- Is the deed that the seller is attempting to transfer to me fully valid?