I bet the first thing to come to your mind when I say “title insurance” is not detective work.  Generally, that is because most people think of title insurance only when they buy property.  But the real import of title insurance is when someone claims an interest in your title after your purchase – and generally, long after your purchase.  It is then that you need to put on your detective hat, find your old magnifying glass and open your investigation.

Many title claims (easement, mechanics’ lien, prescriptive rights) involve questions about how property was being used at a specific time in the past.  Generally, information about use is not found in the public records.  More often than not, the owners involved at the time are deceased or no longer live in the area.

So what do you do if the question turns on whether there was a dirt road or waterway or building in use 25, 30 or even 50 years ago?   What steps do you take if you want to know if actual construction commenced on a site by a specific date 5 years earlier?  Well, all good detectives know that they must study as many documents, records and other information about the property that they can locate.

But only the truly great detectives raise their thoughts to the sky and also focus on an incredibly useful source of information – aerial photographs.  That’s right, historical aerial photographs are available for the vast majority of property in your state.  Depending upon the property location, photographs may have been taken several times a year at regular intervals.  Depending on the reason for the photographs, they may be taken as often as monthly or at even shorter intervals.

Why are historical aerial photographs important?  Quite simply, they may depict the very information you are trying to find.  If there is a road or a waterway, they will show it.  If there is construction on a site, these photos will reveal where the work started and likely show some of the equipment being used.  If you want to see if a building existed, it will also be shown.  In fact, virtually all of the geography and structure on the property will be shown.

How can you find these photographs?   How do you track down these historical aerial photographs?  Easily and quickly, simply search the web.  Indeed, in all likelihood it won’t be too long before the map applications created for your phone or tablet  will include historical photographs.  But, until then, we will just need to rely on the web.

Getting started.  To start, simply type into your browser the area where the property is located and some terms for historical aerial photographs, and you will be directed to a variety of websites that you can search for the perfect aerial photograph.  For example, if your property is located in San Francisco, simply search “historical aerial photography San Francisco,” and you will quickly be directed to more than 100 different websites.  Two very important considerations as you review photographs:  the scale used for the photograph and the clarity or resolution of the photograph.

Who offers historical photographs?  Who archives aerial photographs and offers them to the public?

  • Private companies
  • Government agencies
  • Universities
  • Libraries
  • Public interest groups (e.g., environmental groups)

But above all (pun intended), as you investigate your title claim, don’t forget to look for pertinent aerial photographs.