Although deeds are legal documents that involve legal terminology, the process need not be difficult. The entire process can be broken into six steps:
- Locate the most recent deed to the property
- Decide how you will create the deed
- Create the deed
- Determine the recording costs and documentary transfer taxes
- Sign the deed in front of a notary and have it notarized
- File the signed, notarized deed and related documents with the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office of the county where the property is located
This step-by-step guide will give you all of the information you need to create your own deed.
Step One: Locate the Most Recent Deed to the Property
Begin with the most recent deed to the property. If you are the current owner, the most recent deed is the one that transferred the property to you. You will need at least two pieces of information from this deed:
- The exact name of all of the current owners to the property. The name used on your new deed match the name used on the prior deed. This match must be exact. For example, “John Barnes Goode” is not the same as “Johnny B. Goode,” even if both names refer to the same person. You must use the exact name used in the prior deed. (If the name has changed due to marriage or some other reason, our software can create a deed that includes the right language to reflect both names.)
- The exact legal description to the property. Don’t make the common mistake of using information from the tax records or the address of the property. This will not create an effective deed. Instead, you must use the legal description from the most recent deed. See our discussion of legal descriptions for more information.
Check your records for a copy of the deed. Look for a document with a title like Grant Deed, Quitclaim Deed, or Warranty Deed.
If you cannot locate the deed in your records, request it from the County Recorder’s office. Costs for obtaining a deed from the County Recorder’s office are usually under $5.00.
Step Two: Decide How You Will Create the Deed
The next step is to determine how you will prepare your deed. This decision has important consequences, especially when it comes to making the choices described in Step Three below. There are generally two ways that you can prepare your own deed:
- Use a generic fill-in-the-blank form; or
- Use our automated deed creation software to prepare your own deed.
The sections below discuss the pros and cons of both of these options.
Using Generic Fill-in-the-Blank California Deed Forms
Generic fill-in-the-blank forms are all over the place. Office supply stores have been selling them for a long time, and they are now available online. It’s easy for people to create low-quality forms and mass market them. There are three reasons why fill-in-the-blank forms are a bad idea:
- Not State-Specific – Most fill-in-the-blank deed forms are not state-specific, which means that the form will not meet the legal requirements of California law. And because the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office cannot refuse a deed for lack of legal sufficiency (see below), you may not even know that the problem exists until it is too late.
- Lack of Clear Guidance – As discussed in Step Three, important decisions need to be made in the deed drafting process. Fill-in-the-blank forms do not alert you to these decisions or provide guidance about how to make them. You are left to the mercy of the form designer and your own legal knowledge.
- No Flexibility – Fill-in-the-blank forms are static. The legal provisions of the form are fixed. The person who designed the fill-in-the-blank form made assumptions about what you want and included language to reflect those assumptions. These assumptions may not match your goals.
One benefit of fill-in-the-blank forms is that they are cheap (and sometimes free). But given the stakes involved when defective deeds create title problems, this is not an area where you want to use a low-cost, low-quality solution.
Using Our Deed Creation Software to Create Your Own Customized Deed
Our software was designed to provide a better alternative to fill-in-the-blank deeds. It offers the following benefits:
- Attorney-Designed to be State-Specific – When you create a deed with our software, you get a deed that was designed by attorneys to comply with the specific provisions of California law. This helps ensure that the deed will be accepted for recording and meet legal requirements.
- Clear Explanations of Key Decisions – Our software uses a simple question-and-answer interview. This interview alerts you to each decision that you need to make. It also provides plain English explanations to help you make choices that match your goals.
- Customized Text for Your Situation – Instead of locking you into a legal scenario, our software actually creates the legal provisions you need based on the answers you give in the interview. This helps ensure that the document you create is customized to your specific situation.
- Fast Turnaround – Your documents are provided to you as soon as you complete the interview.
Our software is also affordable, but with none of the drawbacks of fill-in-the-blank deeds.
A Note About California County Clerk-Recorder’s Offices
Many people mistakenly assume that if a County Clerk-Recorder’s Office accepts a deed for recording, it must be valid. This is not the case. In fact, California law prohibits the Recorder’s Office from refusing to record an invalid document. California Government Code Section 27201(a) provides:
The county recorder shall not refuse to record any instrument, paper, or notice that is authorized or required by statute, court order, or local ordinance that relates to the recordation of any instrument, paper, or notice that relates to real property to be recorded on the basis of its lack of legal sufficiency.
In other words, the Recorder’s Office cannot refuse to accept a document that is legally insufficient. This means that the Recorder’s acceptance of the document means absolutely nothing about whether it is a legally valid document. People fill-in-the-blank forms may think that they have created a valid deed, only to find out later that the document is legally insufficient.
Step Three: Create the Deed
At this stage, you are ready to create the deed.
- What Type of Warranty Should You Choose? – The type of warranty is an important feature of your deed. The title of the deed is often (but not always) determined by the warranty. In California, the most common options are Quitclaim Deeds, Grant Deeds (known as Special Warranty Deeds in other states), and Warranty Deeds. See our discussion of the types of California deed warranties for more information.
- When Should the Deed Take Effect? – Although deeds are often used to transfer immediate title, you can also use deeds for estate planning purposes like avoiding probate. Common examples of estate planning deeds include Life Estate Deeds and Transfer-On-Death Deeds. See our discussion of avoiding California probate with deeds for more information.
- What Form of Co-Ownership is Right for You? – If there is more than one owner, you will need to decide what form of co-ownership you would like to use. If the owners are married, the property could be titled as community property, community property with right of survivorship, or as separate property. If the owners are not married to each other, the property could be titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship or tenants in common. See our discussion of the forms of co-ownership for more information.
Step Four: Determine Recording Costs and Documentary Transfer Taxes
Once you create the deed, you need to determine how much you will pay to file it. In California, there are two separate charges:
- Recording Fees – Recording fees are paid to the clerk for recording the deed and any related documents in the land records. In California, recording fees are usually $15.00 for the first page and $3.00 for each additional page. Recording fees are always required.
- Documentary Transfer Taxes – Documentary transfer taxes are paid to the city and/or county for any “realty sold” within that city our county. Counties charge a tax of 55 cents for every $500 of consideration or value of the property being transferred. City documentary transfer taxes can be much higher, depending on the city. As a general rule, documentary transfer taxes are only required when there is a change of ownership.
See our section on California Documentary Transfer Taxes and Recording Costs for more information about these topics. You can also use our California Transfer Tax Calculator to determine whether you are exempt from documentary transfer taxes and, if not, to estimate the amount of documentary transfer taxes you will owe.
Step Five: Sign the Deed in Front of a Notary and Have It Notarized
The next step is to sign the deed in front of a notary and have your signature notarized. Wait until you are in front of a notary before signing the deed. You can often find a notary public at your local bank. Other common locations include shipping providers (for example, the UPS Store), city and town clerks’ offices, or courts. You can also search the internet or your phone book.
Once you are in front of a notary, sign the deed. Sign your name exactly as it appears on the signature line and in the body of the deed. Also be sure that the deed is dated on the date that it is signed.
The notary should watch you sign the deed, then complete the notary’s section of the deed (called an acknowledgment). The notary’s signature on the acknowledgment proves that your signature on the deed is authentic. The notary should fill out the acknowledgment, sign it, and stamp it with the notary seal. The notary seal must be legible for a microfilm reproduction.
California is very picky about the form of acknowledgment that the notary must sign. Most states allow notary acknowledgments to be in “substantially the same form” as the form used in the statute. California requires strict compliance. It is important that the notary use this form exactly as is and not make any changes other than filling in the blanks. Our deed creation software uses the exact form required by California law.
Step Six: File the Deed and Related Documents with the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office
The final step is to record the deed with the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office for the county where the property is located.
- The deed itself;
- Any related documents (such as agreements regarding marital property);
- A Preliminary Change of Ownership Report (contact the county for the correct form); and
- All recording fees and documentary transfer taxes.
If the property qualifies for an exclusion that will prevent it from being reassessed for tax purposes, you should also file a tax reassessment exclusion claim with the County Assessor. See our discussion of California Property Tax Reassessment or contact the County Assessor’s office for more information about exclusions from tax reassessment.
If you will file by mail, contact the clerk to verify the exact recording fees and documentary transfer taxes. Also send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the clerk to use to return the recorded deed to you.
Once the Clerk receives all of this information, the Clerk will record the deed and return it to the person listed at the top of the deed. This completes the transfer of real estate.