Recording Errors and Title Insurance

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I just got a google search where the question asked was "What if the mortgage is recorded in the wrong county?"

I've never actually seen this (and San Diego County, once upon a time, included what is now Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties), but if it's the mortgage on your loan, no big deal. You should get a copy of the recorded trust deed, and the county recorder's stamp should tell you the county it was recorded in. You probably want to record it in your own county, as when the document is scanned in both recorder's stamps will appear, thus making it obvious that these two documents are one and the same. There may be better ways to deal with it. Since the error was (everywhere I've ever worked) your title company's, they should be willing to repair it to eliminate the cloud on your title. If and when you refinance this loan or sell the property, make sure that the Reconveyance is recorded in both counties, and references both recordings.

More dangerous is the issue of what if it's the previous owner's loan that was wrongly recorded. The previous owner is obviously no longer making payments on the property. The lender may or may not have been paid off properly; if they were there may not be any difficulties. It could just disappear into some metaphorical black hole of things that weren't done right and were never corrected, but just don't matter because everybody's happy and nobody does anything to rock the boat. However, unlike black holes in astronomy, things do come back out of these sorts of black holes.

However, if the previous lender was not paid off correctly, or if they were paid but something causes it to not process correctly, they've got a claim on your property, and because the usual title search that is done is county-based, it won't show up in a regular title search. Let's face it, property in County A usually stays right where it's always been, in County A. There is no reason except error for it to be recorded in County B. Therefore, the title company almost certainly would not catch it when they did a search for documents affecting the property in County A; it would be a rare and lucky title examiner who caught it.

In some states, they still don't use title insurance, merely attorneys examining the state of title. When the previous owner's lender sues you, you're going to have to turn around and sue that attorney who did your title examination for negligence, who is then going to have to turn around and sue whoever recorded the documents wrong. If it's a small attorney's office and they've since gone out of business, best of luck and let me know how it all turns out, but the sharks are going to be circling for years on this one, and the only sure winners are the lawyers.

In most states, however, the concept of title insurance has become de rigeur. Here in California, lenders don't lend the money without a valid policy of title insurance involved.

Let's stop here for a moment and clarify a few things. When we're talking about title insurance, there are, in general, two separate title insurance policies in effect. When you bought the property, you required the previous owner to buy you a policy of title insurance as an assurance that they were the actual owners. By and large, it can only be purchased at the same time you purchase your property. This policy remains in effect as long as you or your heirs own the property. The first Title Company, which became Commonwealth Land Title (now part of LandAmerica), was started in 1876, and there are likely insured properties from the 19th century still covered. If you don't know who your title insurance company is, you should. Most places, the company and the order of title insurance are on the grant deed.

The other policy of title insurance is a lender's policy of title insurance. This insures your lender against loss on that particular loan due to title defects, and when the loan is paid off (either because the property is sold, refinanced, or that rare property where the people now own it free and clear), it's over and done with. Let's face it, most people are not going to continue to make payments if they lose the property. If you take out a new loan, your new lender will require a new policy of title insurance. You pay but they are the ones insured by the policy.

To get back to the situation, what happens when you order title insurance is that a searcher and/or an examiner go out and find all of the documents they can find that are relevant to the title of the property. These days, they typically perform an automated search, and sometimes documents are indexed and cross referenced incorrectly and therefore they do not show up when they should. Nonetheless, the title company takes this list of documents and tells you about known issues with the title, and then basically says "We will sell you a policy of title insurance that covers everything else." This document is variously known as a Preliminary Report, PR, or Commitment.

Now it shouldn't take a genius to figure out why you want a policy of title insurance. Around here, the average single family residence goes for somewhere on the high side of $500,000. You're committing a half million dollars of your money on the representation that Joe Blow owns the property and that if you give him half a million, he'll give you valid title. I would never consider buying property without an owner's policy of title insurance. Even with the best will in the world and my best friend whose family has owned it since the stone age, all kinds of issues really do crop up (Another agent in the office has a client right now who bought a property via an uninsured transfer - and there was an unrecorded tax lien. Ouch. Say bye-bye to your investment). The lenders are the same way. No lender's policy, no loan.

So what happens when this old mortgage document is uncovered? Well, that's one of the hundreds of thousands of reasons why you have that policy of title insurance. You go to your title company and say, "I have a claim." Since they missed that document in their search, they usually pay off the loan (there are other possibilities). After all, if they hadn't missed it, it would have been taken care of before the Joe Blow got paid for the property and split to the Bahamas.

None of this considers the possibility of fraud, among many other possibilities, but those are all beyond the scope of this article.

So when buying, insist that your seller provide you with a policy of title insurance. When selling, it really isn't out of line for your buyer to require it - it shows that you have a serious buyer. Some places may have the buyer purchasing his own policy, but most places that use title insurance, the seller pays for the owner's policy out of the proceeds. Of course, anytime there is a loan done on the property, the lender is going to require you pay for a lender's policy. If the quotes you are given do not include this, be certain to ask why.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on November 26, 2007 7:00 AM.

Privacy Concerns in Real Estate Transactions was the previous entry in this blog.

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