I’m working on a National Register historic district nomination and looking for correlations between changing lot sizes and neighborhood demographics. I got the current lot sizes from the tax appraisal district, and I’m using Sanborn maps to show how the lots were subdivided over time; then I’ll see if my city directory and U. S. Census data reveals any corresponding patterns in terms of changes in owners vs. renters, families vs. individuals, Caucasians vs. African Americans, etc. The data management aspect of this work can be challenging, but it’s also SO interesting. I don’t know what I’m going to discover for this district, but whatever the story turns out to be, I just really enjoy this process.
This is a good time to talk about tax appraisal information, which is generally available online here in Texas. (And, one would hope, everywhere else in the U. S.) I mentioned in a previous post that you can find legal descriptions in the tax appraisal records, but you can find a lot of other valuable information as well. Because it’s often available online, current appraisal district data is easy to get.
Depending on the county, the central appraisal district may provide a search function for deed records that goes back several decades — as far back as they’ve digitized the records, at least. I always check, because if they have this information online, it saves a lot of time when you’re researching chain of title. Williamson County, Texas, is an example of a CAD with a terrific website for looking up property history (http://www.wcad.org/). After a while in this line of work, you really come to appreciate a good county clerk’s office and CAD.
Towns and cities are usually platted — laid out by a surveyor — using blocks, which are subdivided into lots. Therefore, a legal description might be as simple as “City of Springfield, Block 24, Lot 2” or, as parcels are subdivided and re-platted over the years, you could end up with a legal description that looks like “City of Springfield, Block 24, Lots 2-4, 10 ft of Lot 5, plus vacant alley.” Additions to the town plat are often named for the person who owned the property, such as “Morris Addition.” For newer developments, the legal description might include the name of the subdivision or the person or organization who was responsible for it, such as “Crown Pointe West Section 4, Lot 27” or “Anderson Replat, Lot 7A.”
Whatever the legal description is, be sure you note it in its entirety.
One thing to be careful of, though … you can’t always trust the construction dates shown on the tax appraisal database. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but you really need to take that date with a grain of salt! Often these dates were estimated. They could provide a good start, but if a building was significantly remodeled — for example, a Queen Anne home changed to a Craftsman-style farmhouse in a recent survey that I did — the appraiser might have incorrectly dated the building based on its current appearance. This is particularly true for older buildings; the dates for newer construction are usually correct.
If you’re working on a district nomination, it’s pretty easy to copy and paste the property information (current owner, current owner’s address, current street address of the property, legal description, etc.) into an Excel spreadsheet. Eventually you’ll have a lot more information to include, so it pays to become familiar with Excel or some other spreadsheet program that allows you to sort your data.
Legal descriptions can offer a great deal of useful information about patterns of community development over time. They’re an important piece of the research puzzle!