New homeowners may assume that once they have signed all the documents at the closing table, they are officially the outright owners of their home. Unfortunately, there are some circumstances that could threaten their legal rights as the real estate title holder. These are some of the most common title defects and how title insurance and other services like Release Tracking help protect against hidden or future issues.
What does it mean to have a title defect?
A title defect refers to any potential threat to a current owner’s full right or claim to sell a property. The property has a publicly-recorded issue, like a lien, mortgage or judgment that gives another party a claim to the property.
Title is like a bundle of sticks that can be divided, tied up, and given away in a variety of ways to different parties. Each stick represents a type of right.
These rights can include the right of possession, the right of control, the right of exclusion, the right of enjoyment and the right of disposition.
Typically, the title holder is considered the owner of the property and has right of possession. This right may be limited in certain circumstances, such as if the title holder fails to pay a required property tax or a utility bill. When the title holder fails to make these payments, the governing authority will place a lien on the property in an effort to recoup the money owed.
If a homebuyer takes out a mortgage loan to pay for their home, the lender has a lien on the property and may foreclose on the borrower if they fail to meet the terms of the loan. To protect their interest in the property, lenders require title insurance. A title search will reveal any defects affecting the property. Many lenders will also require a borrower to pay for the property taxes as part of their escrow payments, so they don’t lose their lien priority to another entity like the county tax collector.
When the owner of the property goes to sell, they will need to clear any defects found during the title search. Typically, the mortgage is satisfied by the proceeds of the sale.
What are some types of title defects?
A title defect may also be referred to as a “cloud.” These must be resolved before selling the property, and they include some of the following:
- Errors in the public records
- Mechanic’s liens
- Liens for child support
- Liens for past-due spousal support
- Other unknown liens
- Delinquent taxes
- Illegal deeds
- Undiscovered encumbrances
- Unknown easements
- Boundary/survey disputes
- Missing heirs
- Undiscovered wills
- False impersonation of a previous owner
The American Land Title Association (ALTA) recently discovered that fraud and forgery cases between disgruntled spouses have become more prevalent over the past several years. This has to be resolved before the property can be sold. A common scheme committed by spouses involves one spouse forging the signature of the other on a document or deed to either eliminate their interest and profit from the sale or to add another individual to the title.
How do homebuyers avoid a title defect?
The first step is doing a title search. A settlement agent, either a title agent or a real estate attorney, will make sure there are none of the issues above on the property you want to buy, and there is no break in the chain of title or other important paperwork that tracks any current liens and the holder of those liens.
"Curing" the title, the process of clearing a lien or other encumbrances attached to a property, can take days, weeks, or even months and push back a closing. Title curative work can also be expensive and may require the help of an attorney to implement quiet title in some cases. So, homebuyers will want to make sure that they work with an agent to clear all these matters before the title is transferred to them.
How do settlement agents avoid these costly title issues in the future?
As a new homeowner, it's important to understand how governing jurisdictions can place a lien or other stipulations on your home that will also threaten your ownership and use rights.
Getting a homeowner’s title insurance policy will cover any future threat to the owner(s) by defending against any litigation that challenges the validity and legality of their rights to the property. Depending on your state, some basic title insurance policies may have exceptions for coverage. For instance, some underwriters won't cover boundary issues if an updated survey isn't obtained. Homebuyers should be sure to review and understand the exceptions, exclusions, and considerations of the Title Commitment.
The most common types of title insurance claims include:
- Errors in the public record
- Undiscovered liens
- Omitted heirs
- Boundary/Survey issues
These, of course, mirror the same problems that settlement agents must cure before the real estate transaction. It reflects why title insurance is such an important aspect of homeownership. If these issues come to light after buying a property and the owner did not purchase a homeowner’s title insurance policy, they would be stuck resolving these issues on their own.
It's also important to know that after the closing, there are still documents that need to be filed with the clerk of the court to officially close out the previous owners’ home loan, Home Equity Line of Credit, judgments, or other documents that may become a cloud on your title when you go to sell.
Preventing simple recording errors with Release Tracking
Every time a lien is recorded against a property, it must have a corresponding subsequent document showing it has been paid off. Depending on your region, these subsequent documents can be referred to by different terms. Following up with the county recorder to ensure these documents are filed on time so the title policy issued is marketable is called release tracking.
A mortgage is a type of lien, so when it has been paid off, either from the sale of the property or the borrower, the mortgagor, completes their mortgage payment terms, it will require a satisfaction, release, reconveyance, or deed of release. Until then, the mortgagee, the lender (typically a bank) in a mortgage, officially owns the property.
Paying off the mortgage will not satisfy other types of liens attached to the property.
Many of these title issues can be avoided by adhering to a post-closing process that ensures all documents are properly recorded.
Some reasons a lien release may not be recorded include:
- Some title agents or attorneys may issue a new title insurance policy before checking that all documents listed in the title commitment have had the subsequent releases properly recorded with the county.
- Sometimes homeowners are unaware that they must submit the payoff letter from a lender or other lien holder to their county recorder in order to record the release.
- Documents showing payment was fulfilled may be sent to the wrong county.
- Municipalities may transpose book and page numbers or reject documents if they are not submitted correctly.
- Municipalities or other parties, like a homeowner’s association, may record a lien against a property in error and the owner is unaware to correct the issue until he or she goes to sell the property.
While many title companies and law firms may have a post-closing department that is responsible for tracking all these issues, nearly 41% use other methods like setting a calendar reminder or following up when they remember.
One way to eliminate the risk of missing this critical piece of post-closing real estate due diligence is to partner with a third-party Release Tracking company.
PropLogix helps settlement agents track these documents after closing so nothing slips through the cracks and end up adversely affecting the resale of the property in the future.