Property deeds, wills, maps, newspapers, and census records might all be used to locate information about property ownership. As is usually the case, these resources may be found online, in archives collections, in published sources, like maps and atlases, directories, and local histories.
Included in this section is information about a selection of those resources.
ACRIS: The Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) allows you to search property records and view document images for Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn from 1966 to the present. You can trace ownership back to the 1960s: check Property Records. You will need your building's Block and Lot number to search this database — keep an eye out for digitized pdf copies of property deeds. Below is an image of the results of a search for deeds for the Block and Lot 593 / 28. Included are links to digitized images of the deeds.
FamilySearch has digitized deeds and indexes for New York state (not the Block and Lot indexes), through to about the late 1860s, including the boroughs that make up the current City of New York. Browse the grantor / grantee indexes or search by name at United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975: requires you create a free account.
For assistance using ACRIS, call the ACRIS Help Line at (212) 487-6300 or email the ACRIS Help Desk.
Property deeds on microfilm: Prior to the 1960s, you will need to visit the borough City Register (or the Office of the County Clerk, in Staten Island) to look at indexes and deeds on microfilm. You will need to consult the Block and Lot Indexes and then check the Liber and Page numbers listed in the Index to access full land conveyance records. Land conveyances and their availability across the five boroughs of New York City are described in more detail in this separate blog post. Make a note of the owner of your building listed in ACRIS, to help you begin your search of the Block and Lot Indexes.
You can compile the information in the form of a Chain of title, "the historical record of ownership transfers of a specific piece of property." The chain of title can be used as a jumping off point for researching the owners of the property - who they were, what they did for a living, whether or not they were owner occupiers, and so on.
Collections are sometimes relocated. so always check the website of the City Register's Office about the current availability of property deeds, block and lot indexes, deed abstracts, and grantor and grantee indexes, in print and on microfilm in New York.
UPDATE: Manhattan and Brooklyn print indexes have been moved to the Queens County City Register's Office.
You can also contact the Division of Land Records using their electronic form.
Bronx County Office: 3030 3rd Ave, 2nd floor Bronx, NY 10455
Kings County Office: 210 Joralemon Street, 2nd floor Brooklyn NY 11201
New York County Office: 66 John Street, 13th floor New York, NY 10038
Queens County Office: 144-06 94th Avenue, Jamaica, Queens 11435
Property deeds for Staten Island are kept at the Office of the Richmond County Clerk.
Above: Land conveyance witnessing the sale of Block 593, Lot 28, Manhattan by George Hillen (Grantor) to Carsten Gerken (Grantee): April 17th, 1873, Liber: 1250, Page: 198
Real estate sections in historic newspapers sometimes contain news about the construction and sale of property, especially if your building is more recent — The New York Public Library has many newspaper titles. In addition to this, trade papers may contain information about a building's construction — the Real Estate Record (1868-1922), digitized by Columbia University, is a particularly useful example, that includes abstracts of deeds, mortgage information liens, and more.
Historical newspapers, then as now, included news about real estate, and are described in detail in the following research guides
Above: New York Herald “Building Prospects.” (1877) (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
"“Have you $20? Have you $50?” reads the invitation for real estate developers, prospective home owners, investors, and speculators to bid on undeveloped lots in the Eastchester section of the Bronx in July 1920. The pamphlet, distributed to interested parties by the auctioneer Joseph P. Day, contains maps, birds-eye views, and descriptions of the property, a broad swath of land poised on the brink of development."
A number of censuses, state and federal, describe property ownership. The following censuses ask if head of household owns their home:
1910 US Federal Census: "Ownership of home"
1900 US Federal Census: "Ownership of home"
1890 US Federal Census lost.
1880 US Federal Census: no real estate questions.
Though the address is not always described state censuses may include information or clues about home ownership.
Above right, and below: U.S. Federal Census, 1900, NY, NY, Manhattan, ED 100, 10B. This excerpt from the census includes, on the far righthand side along from Carsten Gerken's name - far left - the letter "O," denoting that he owns the property he lives in (135 Waverly Place), and the letter "F" declares he owns that property outright.