Is it important?
In most cases, it does not matter if you cannot find the title deeds to your property. This is because the legal ownership of property (traditionally shown by the title deeds) is registered in a centralised digital register known as HM Land Registry.
The requirement for compulsory registration dates back to 1925. The law requires that any disposition (eg. a sale, gift, or mortgage) of unregistered land must be registered at the Land Registry, otherwise it is not legally effective.
Around 85% of properties in England and Wales are now registered at the Land Registry. Where a property is registered at the Land Registry, legal ownership (‘title’) of the property is registered as conclusive proof – along with other legal and beneficial rights in and over the property. This means a separate paper deed is not required, though many people like to have a paper copy of their ownership (called an ‘Official Copy’) for their own records.
In short, if the property is registered at the Land Registry it does not matter if you cannot find any paper deeds or documents.
What if the property is unregistered?
If the property is unregistered and you cannot find the title deeds and documents, you will have to prove legal ownership, ie. that you have the right to sell or otherwise transfer the property (for our purposes, we will assume you are selling the property).
Once legal ownership is proved and the sale is complete, the property must be registered at the Land Registry. The Land Registry – and therefore the buyer’s solicitor – will require proof of legal ownership going back at least 15 years. This means you will need to produce documentary evidence showing a chain of legal ownership for the last 15 years. In practice, many solicitors acting for the buyer in these situations will require the seller to register their ownership at the Land Registry before the sale can proceed.
How do I prove ownership?
If you do not have the deeds because they have been lost or destroyed, you can try to locate them by contacting local solicitors to see if they have any documentation relating to the property. You could also place an advert in the Law Gazette stating the name of the owner/purchaser, the location of the property, and request information. A solicitor involved in the purchase may see the notice and contact you.
You should also search the property itself (and any other possible storage locations). There have been instances where relatives have found the deeds under the floor boards of the property, so you may need to think creatively.
If you still cannot find the deeds, you will need to complete an application for First Registration, and produce evidence in support of your application. You will need to demonstrate at least 15 years of unbroken ownership. If you cannot prove this, you must submit to the Land Registry any documents and other evidence you can to enable the Land Registry to consider some form of registration.
Evidence required for first registration
Any documents in relation to the property and its ownership will be required. This includes any death certificates of past owners and probate documents. You will need to make a ‘statement of truth’ to the Land Registry explaining all search attempts you have made, providing evidence of unsuccessful searches (eg. letters from solicitors). The Land Registry will need a full, factual account of the events that have occurred leading to the loss or destruction of the deeds and other matters relevant to the title. Further statements of truth or statutory declarations from others may be required in support.
You will also need to submit a plan to the Land Registry showing the boundaries of the property. If the neighbouring properties are registered with the Land Registry, you should ideally obtain a copy of the relevant Title Plans from the Land Registry and use them to outline the borders of your property.
The Land Registry will require evidence of your possession of the property. This may be proof of actual possession, such as copies of utility bills; or evidence that you are in receipt of rents or profits; or evidence that, for instance, you have inherited the property, such as the deceased’s will.
You can also ask neighbours, visitors or relatives to make a Statutory Declaration as to your ownership or use of the property to help your application for first registration. Please note that Statutory Declarations must be witnessed in accordance with Land Registry requirements.
What happens next?
Once your application is as complete as possible, send it with the relevant fee to the Land Registry who will contact you if they require further evidence. They are likely to send a surveyor to the property to check the borders before taking further action.
If they do not need any further information or evidence to satisfy your claim to legal ownership, they will register the property and send you an Official Copy. They will most likely register you with ‘possessory title’, which can be upgraded to ‘absolute title’ after 12 years.
It is important you check the information on the Official Copy is correct to avoid any difficulties when you come to sell the property. Also double check the title plan. If you have any enquiries or disputes you must raise these with the Land Registry within 3 weeks to ensure they are resolved.
This can be a complicated process. We strongly advise you to see a specialist property solicitor if you need to make an application for first registration at HM Land Registry.