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4 Smart Strategies to Identify Errors in Public Records
Title Agent Tips Title Searches

4 Smart Strategies to Identify Errors in Public Records

Mariah McQueen

Ideally, property records found online should be trusted to be free of human and technological error. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for documents associated with a property. Being that the information comes from multiple sources, there is room for errors to appear when that information is handed off between parties.

Some errors are harmless, while others are detrimental and require immediate attention before a home can close. Title insurance is meant to protect both the homebuyer and the lender in these cases but it’s much easier when you can catch the errors before they cause an unnecessary delay.

Avoiding these errors is close to impossible, but we’ve put together a few strategies that can be used to catch them, leaving you closing with confidence.

Tip #1: Compare Documents Side by Side for Matching Information

Property results can lack uniformity and not all information is updated on the same schedule. Performing a side-by-side analysis between sources can ensure the correct property is being searched. The Property Appraiser and the Property Tax Collector are among the easiest places to compare to find errors.

Property characteristics, assessment, and tax data are typically updated on an annual basis but not always during the same time of year. For example, assessment data typically updates early in the calendar year (most states adopt an annual assessment date of January 1), while taxation data updates around the billing period which depends on the location.

Common errors include:

  • The property’s age
  • Total square footage 
  • The legal description

 

An error in one of these fundamental property characteristics can significantly impact title clearance. Compare both sites and check for the following details below.

Owner Name

Look into all possible names that the owner could be under. For Example, Robert and Susan Smith could be under Bob and Sue Smith. Additionally, Susan Smith could also be found under her maiden name, Susan Johnson. 

To make matters more complicated, there could be potential descendants of a name (i.e. George Smith Sr., Jr., III., etc.) that could end up being a false positive – a name that may be correct but for the wrong person. 

The surname Smith occurs slightly more than 828 times per 100,000 people in the U.S. In Hillsborough County, FL alone, there are 3,425 matches under the last name Smith. Chances are, searching under the owner’s name may bring several pages of results so it’s important to pinpoint the correct person.

 

Address

The slightest details are crucial when it comes to how an address is laid out online. Pay attention to how the address compares to the address on other documents and make sure you are looking at the situs address, not the mailing address. This is especially important when it comes to investment and secondary residences as mistaking a mailing address for a situs address is more common than you would think.  

It’s important to note that a street address is not a legally binding description and often changes. An example of this would be alternative street names. For example, State Road 123 may also be known as Montgomery Road. Other occurrences that may impact the address are newly split parcels, newly built property, etc.

Additionally, minor details like misspelling or street directional usage can lead to the wrong property being searched. For example, 123 Blueberry Lane vs. 123 Blueberry Lane South could be two separate properties within an area. A wrong compass direction can change the boundaries and even the correct jurisdictions of the property.

 

Legal Description

The legal description is a document of county accepted detailed information that assists those in the industry to assure themselves that they are working with the correct property. An incorrect legal description is a fatal error. 

Scan through the legal description and ask yourself the following:

  1. Does the square footage match what is on other records?
  2. Does the listed acreage match what is on other records?
  3. Does the parcel ID correlate with the owner and address?
  4. Is there a unit number associated with this property?

 

Property tax and assessment records may use a brief description that appears to be comprehensive but is actually insufficient to legally describe a property, and therefore, may actually describe a different property than on the deed. The full legal description more accurately describes the property.

There is one flaw to this strategy – some information may not be available to third parties due to Privacy Rights. Confidentiality could either apply to select information like exemptions, address, owner name, etc., or apply to all property information. 

Some sellers choose to list their property with more discretion by requesting the concealment of their property’s information in the public records which ultimately, makes fewer resources available to Title agents. Acting as the middleman in these cases can be a major disadvantage and may require some owner involvement in order to get all of the needed documents to compare.

 

Tip #2: Check the Date of When Information Was Updated

 

“Data ages like fish, not wine – it gets worse as it gets older, not better.” - Gregg Thaler, Chief Revenue Officer of RingLead

 

In other words, the older the data, the less reliable the information is, and oftentimes may be inaccurate. Check when the legal description has been last updated. Best practice is to use the legal description and other relevant documents from the most recent deed to the property. 

In addition to the most recent sale, check for significant changes to the property like:

  • New Improvements
  • Hint: Check the Improvement Value on the Assessor’s site from the last 2 years to see if there are notable changes in value
  • Split or Combined Parcels
  • Modified Owner names that could signify a change in marital status

 

If any of the above changes apply, newer documentation may be required since the last deed to better represent current property conditions.

For example, a new legal description is required for parcel splits or combinations and outdated documents may not reflect the correct information for the parcel(s). Applications to modify parcel boundaries are not always searchable and could make the chain of title difficult to uncover so obtaining the updated legal description is crucial.

Tip #3: Use the GIS (Geographic Information System)

The usage of geographic information systems (GIS) started in the 1960s and advanced to reach the Real Estate industry by the mid-1990s. This tool was originally developed to automate geographic concepts but has proven to be useful in many industries including Real Estate. Utilizing this mapping software can improve better property data analysis than the standard assessment page as it gives more geographical insight.

Many counties provide public access to a GIS database through their Assessor’s or Tax Collector’s website that offers an abundance of information regarding relevant property details. 

Using GIS can reveal relevant information for properties such as:

  • Acreage
  • Boundaries and Zones 
  • Adjacent or split parcels
  • Jurisdictions the property resides in

 

The GIS Maps reflect what the tax and/or assessor’s office think is the real property associated with the tax bill.  Homeowners are not responsible for preparing a list of their real property so most owners do not check the listings or mapping of their real estate property maintained by the responsible office to ensure the information is consistent with what they own. Typically, if the listing or GIS Map is wrong, then the tax bill and other information are probably wrong

This tool can also be used to check surrounding properties to ensure the owner does not own any adjacent properties or split parcels.It is important for all potential buyers of real property to check the GIS Maps to be sure that the parcels listed and their depictions are consistent with what is intended to be purchased.

Tip #4: Call to Confirm That Information is Accurate

This may sound like an obvious course of action but with so much information readily available online, picking up the phone is no longer the preferred method of choice. However, as mentioned, technological errors still occur.

Calling to confirm information can be a safe practice due to the fact that the employees are trained to be experts with their online systems and to interpret information better than what may appear misleading online. Sometimes it takes time for updated documents to be added online. For example, delinquencies, pending legal action, tax payments that haven’t been processed, etc. 

 

How to Get Public Record Errors Fixed

Some errors may not be critical or may even “fix themselves” but others can be quite the headache and can occur during any step of the title search. Leaving a document with incorrect information can affect you or others in future transactions.

First, start off by telling the source of the issue. For example, if the Property Appraiser has the mailing address listed as the situs address for the property online, they will be able to confirm the error and know the appropriate procedures to fix the error. This applies to other offices or departments as well. Sometimes a simple phone call will be all that is necessary to have the error corrected. 

The responsible party will need to investigate the problem and may ask you to provide documentation that shows the correct information and how it conflicts with the error in the current public record files. Once the needed corrections have been submitted, it still may take several weeks for the changes to show up on the public record. 

Keep checking back to make sure the document gets updated. If they cannot easily fix it, further action may be required.

Read more about correcting errors in the public record here

Key Takeaways

  • Record errors should not be swept under the rug
  • Property verification can prevent future problems from affecting the homeowner
  • Information comparison and confirmation are key to identifying public record errors
  • Don’t be afraid to call for further information
  • Contact the appropriate party to inquire about fixing an error

 

In a market where searching for that perfect dream home is harder than ever, the last thing a homebuyer wants is another curveball thrown their way to complicate the process more. A clean transfer of ownership depends on the accuracy and reliability of public records and we can all do our part with just a little due diligence by all parties involved. 

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Mariah McQueen Marketing Generalist

Mariah McQueen is a Marketing Generalist at PropLogix who enjoys using creative outlets to break down intricate concepts to easier to understand the material. She currently lives in Orlando and enjoys rollerblading, documenting her travels across the US, and playing the piano.