In England and Wales, we have freehold land and leasehold property.
Freehold refers to the land, the building on it, the earth below and the airspace above. If the land has been registered, your proof of ownership is the Title Number allocated to it by the HM land registry. If the land is unregistered, then the original legal conveyances and deeds are the legal title.
Whether it is the Title Number allocated by HM Land Registry or the original deeds, both are your proof of legal ownership and are your TITLE to the land.
All land in the UK will either be registered at the land registry with a Title number and a title plan or is unregistered land. The HM Land Registry is the public register in England and Wales, and you can download a copy of the registered title (deeds) and plan for all registered land in England and Wales. The legal title will cost you £3, and the title plan will cost you £3.
This will give you information such as the name of the legal owner, details of any legal charges or mortgages on the land, restrictive covenants, rights of access and, in some cases, the price paid.
The land registry has been around since 1862 registering land to maintain a record of the legal ownership. Since 1925 unregistered land became registerable when a transaction happens, such as a sale or a mortgage. Registration was phased in over many years to make it a manageable task. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that the last area in England and Wales became compulsory registerable (though only when there is a transaction).
This has been a slow process as land often doesn’t change hands for decades. Surprisingly
14% of the land is still not registered, so you will still come across land that is not registered at the land registry, and you will have to be a bit of a detective to find the legal owner.
When a transaction has not happened for decades and the compulsory registration of the land has not been triggered, then proof of ownership is still the hard copy of the original deeds.
This may be the last legal transfer or conveyance of the land; it could include a mortgage deed or perhaps a gift of the land. Sometimes if the plans with the old deeds are inaccurate or do not include measurements, it can be difficult for the land registry to identify the correct boundaries. If this happens, they will often inspect the land to check the boundaries on the ground.
If you are looking at a property and you cannot find the Title Number, it may be unregistered land. This means that someone has the deeds in their house or they are held by their solicitor. In the UK we still have a lot of unregistered land such as, roads, church land, verges and land next to highways or old buildings. Land that does not change hands and is not mortgaged, land that time forgot!
The HM Land Registry has a target to have all land registered by 2030, and they aim to have any land owned by public bodies registered by 2025. This will be a boost for property investors as all those interesting bits of land that no one knows who owns will become searchable at the land registry.
If you find a piece of land and it is not registered at the land registry, you can still buy it. You will need to be tenacious to find the legal owner. These are often the diamonds where you can add value.