If you finance your home through the normal lending process, a title search will undoubtedly turn up any liens for delinquent property taxes, unpaid loans and unsettled claims by subcontractors for labor and materials.
Titles aren't exactly riddled with hidden defects, but problems sometimes arise. Some of the more common hidden deficiencies include forged deeds recorded in the name of a fictitious owner, conflicting wills filed by heirs of a previous owner who had bequeathed the property to more than one person and missing heirs who turn up years later with a legitimate claim to a house.
This is why mortgage companies insist on a search of the courthouse records. Before they lend anyone any money, lenders want to be sure that the seller really owns the property and that there is nothing to cloud the line of ownership.
One in three title searches reveals a problem — such as an unpaid contractor or a forgotten tax bill, according to the American Land Title Assn. And for the most part, those issues are resolved before closing a home sale.
Sometimes, though, something is overlooked or there's a problem that could not be found in a search of the public records. This is why lenders not only require title searches but also an insurance policy in place that protects the lenders' investment should a problem surface sometime down the road.
But most borrowers don't realize that they can shop for title insurance, just like they can shop for lenders. For the most part, buyers choose whomever their real estate agent suggests. And there's nothing wrong with that. After all, agents want a quick, clean closing as much as you do.
But if you are hoping to save some money, it often pays to look around for the best deal. Timothy Dwyer, founder of Entitle Direct, a new Web-based direct-to-consumer shopping channel, says borrowers can cut their title insurance premiums by an average of 35% by using his service.
We'll get back to that in a moment. First, although it is nearly impossible to generalize about title insurance, here are some things you need to know:
•There are two types of title insurance: the required loan policy that protects the lender and the owner's policy that protects the buyer. The borrower pays for the loan policy, but who pays for the owner's coverage depends on local custom. In much of the West the seller buys the policy for the buyer, but on the East Coast the buyer typically pays.
If you choose not to take the owner's insurance you may be asked to sign a waiver, depending on your state. But you should realize that the loan policy won't protect you should a defect in the title present itself in the future.
If there is a claim, title insurers have two options. One is to cure the title defect by spending whatever it costs to correct the problem. If the defect can't be cured, the other option is to reimburse the insured for the difference between what the property was worth without the defect and what it's worth with the defect.
For example, assume there's a defect that can be fixed by spending $25,000. If the title insurer can establish that the value of the property with the defect is above the amount owed on the loan at the time the defect is discovered, the lender has suffered no loss. And if there is no loss, then in almost all cases the claim can be denied.
At the same time, however, the homeowner will now have a property with a title defect that reduces the value of the property if it is not cured.
Also, depending upon the nature of the title defect and the terms of the loan documents, the lender may require the owner to correct the title defect. Many deeds of trust contain a provision requiring the borrower/owner to warrant to the lender that the title to the property is "clean" and to maintain it that way for the life of the loan.
If the lender has this right and exercises it, the owner would be responsible for curing the defect. If you have an owner's policy, the title insurer would pay to rectify the problem. But if you have no coverage, you would have to pay out of your pocket whatever it costs in legal fees to make the defect go away.
•Insurance rates are one-time fees that are paid at closing and are set in different ways in different places. In Florida and Texas, each company is required to charge the same rate, so there may be a zero price differential. Thus, when shopping for title coverage, you will be shopping not for price but for service and competence of the closing agent.
Elsewhere, state regulators approve rate requests. Once a rate goes into effect, an insurer can lower its rate but never raise it.
•There are different rates for different situations. There's a basic rate for the lender's policy and a reduced simultaneous rate if lender's and owner's policies are issued together.
If you are refinancing, you won't need a new owner's policy because the one you bought at closing is good for as long as you and your heirs own the property. But even if you remain with the original lender, you will need a new lender's policy because the lender wants to be sure there are no new encumbrances on the property. However, you may qualify for a reduced refinance or reissue rate, depending on your state.
•Roughly 80% of the premium goes to the closing or escrow agent, who orchestrates the entire settlement. The agent researches the title, pays off the old lender and the seller, pays recording fees and taxes, files the necessary paperwork at the local courthouse and sends the buyer's down payment to the new lender. In addition, these agents charge a fee for closing the loan.
•Shopping for service is tough enough, but shopping for the cost of title insurance is nearly impossible. That is why former investment banker Dwyer started Entitle Direct, an online platform at http://www.entitledirect.com where consumers can shop for prices. The company is licensed in 35 states, including California, and the District of Columbia. It is seeking approval in eight more states.
Of course, if you go with Entitle, you will have to close with the agent selected by the company.
On a $750,000 house in California with a $600,000 mortgage, for example, Entitle charges $1,647 for both lender's and owner's policies issued simultaneously, whereas a competitor might charge $2,480. That's a difference of $833, or 34%.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.