Within the United States, public records for real estate are available in your county courthouse. Registry of Deeds and additional real estate information, including detailed maps and current landowners, may be obtained at your county tax office. It is your right to view these records and these facilities are always open to the public during normal business hours.
How to Search at the Courthouse
At your county courthouse, use the "Grantor-Grantee" indexes to locate the sales of land involving your ancestors. These indexes cite the proper deed book and page for every land sale in the county back to when it was formed. Once you have the deed book and page, go to that book and take a photocopy of the deed if possible. If you have a portable laptop computer, you may want to install the software DeedMapper. It costs $99 for the software, with additional charges for extra map layers. This invaluable software lets you enter metes and bounds descriptions from the original books into your laptop as you search.
Other places to find real estate information include the national archives ancestral estate files. These estate files should include all the items relating to your ancestor's estate including wills, land divisions between heirs, and itemized accountings of all the property, real and personal, owned by the deceased.
You may be fortunate enough to find that some wonderful genealogist, a society or association has already transcribed early deeds for your county. If this is the case, you can pour through these land records at your convenience in the library, and make a note of any transactions involving your ancestor. These transcripts of early deeds are invaluable since they are indexed and will also show every deed in which your ancestor was a co-signer, witness, heir or mentioned as a neighbor. Your library may also have all the early deeds available on microfiche.
Locating Public Records for Real Estate
Cyndi's List offers a page full of real estate resources on finding land patents, researching land grants, titles, etc. - all to do with locating real estate owned by your ancestors.
United States Land Bureau
The Official Land Patent Records Site of the United States offers a free searchable database of more than two million Federal land title records for Eastern Public Land States. These land titles were issued between 1820 and 1908. The records include scanned images. The Eastern Public Land States covered in this database are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. You may also view images of serial patents, issued between 1908 and the mid-1960s.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
If you're fortunate enough to live near the Salt Lake City main library, you'll find that it offers the world's largest collection of microfilmed state and county records. You may order rental copies to be delivered to your local stake (or Mormon Church branch). They will charge a small fee and notify you when the copies arrive at the local stake. You may examine and abstract the records, but not remove them from the church's library. Additionally, they have microfilm and microfiche records available for purchase. These records are from all over the world, not just from Utah.
Microfilm or CD-ROM Records
Most states have record preservation programs, and may offer microfilm copies of county records and colonial grants for sale. Some states even offer their land records online on the official state website.
The General Land Office Records (homestead patents before 1908) are available on CD-ROM for Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. More states are being made available all the time. The CDs cost around $15 (2009 prices) and may be ordered from Superintendent of Documents, PO Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA, 15250-7954.
Many historical or genealogical societies have transcribed early deeds into books, or copied them into CD-ROM or microfilm formats.
Estate records are another avenue for finding real estate records for your ancestors. Some ancestors received new frontier land as payment for military service.
Local Historical and Genealogical Societies
The above list is by no means exhaustive. There are hundreds more avenues to locate public records for real estate. Check with your local or state historical and genealogical societies for additional resources.