Title Searches Missing a Lien

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I refinanced my house and an existing lien was not discovered.

Now the important question: Is it a valid lien, or has it really been paid, and just not released of record? If it has been paid, you don't owe money simply because the lien on your property was not properly removed. If you can prove it was paid off, either by yourself or a previous owner, you're out of the woods.

Since you are asking the question, however, I'm going to assume that it is a valid lien. Most are. You owe the money. It doesn't magically go away simply because the title company (or lawyer doing the title search) missed it.

Now, assuming you live in a title insurance state, it should make no difference to the state of your mortgage. You bought a lender's policy of title insurance as part of your transaction, and the title policy insures the lender from loss due to the extra lien.

You still owe the money, of course. Like any other bill, just because you neglected to pay it off or neglected to pay it on time does not mean you somehow don't owe the money. If it was in effect from before you bought the property, though, your owners policy of title insurance should kick in and pay it off. That's the way title insurance works - they tell you about known issues with your title, and then they insure (almost) everything else. They'll then go after the previous owner, of course. That's what subrogation is all about. They stepped in and paid to keep you from getting damaged, but they now assume the right to receive the money from the person who damaged you. If you live in an attorney title search state, my understanding is that you are going to have to sue the attorney involved, but suing attorneys is a tough proposition, and you can't recover the base lien, only increased damages resulting from that attorney's negligence. If the previous owner was really responsible for it, the title insurer is going to have to run them down and file a lawsuit, and quite often the previous owner has no assets that they can get at.

If the lien was your doing, as most are, you're going to have to start making an effort to pay that lien. How much of an effort depends upon whether you have a lender's policy of title insurance. If you do, it's really no huge deal, because the lender has access to the checkbook of a national megacorporation. If you don't, the lender can potentially force you to pay it in cash right now. They can also force you to refinance by calling your loan, or to take out a second mortgage to pay the lien off in many cases. It's possible they might just pay it and tack it on to your balance, usually boosting your payment in the process. Talk to a real estate lawyer in your state for details, but the lender is not generally going to leave an uncovered lien in place, when the pricing they gave you for that loan was predicated upon there not being such a lien. Since the lien predates their loan, it's almost certainly senior to it, by which I mean that if something happens and you have to sell the property to pay off the liens, it gets paid before your mortgage. The lender is not usually going to tolerate that.

Now suppose that you got a thirty year fixed rate loan at 5% back in 2003, and suppose rates have gone up to seven and a half percent by the time you rediscover the lien. The lender can do better with that money from your loan, and so they are going to want to seize upon any excuse to make you pay it off. This, all by itself, is a really good reason to be careful with your liens.

If you intentionally hid the lien, the lender may even sue for fraud in many jurisdictions. If you intentionally hid it, for instance, it's quite likely that your policy of title insurance won't cover you, and the lender is going to be very unhappy about that.

Most people, however, don't intentionally hide a lien, they just forgot it was there, and when the title search comes up empty any worries in the back of their mind went away. If they even think about it, they mentally write it off. "Oh, I must have forgotten that I paid it." You still owe the money, and now that it's discovered, you're going to have to start paying on it, but if they've got lender's title insurance the lender shouldn't freak.

Now, missing liens is actually fairly rare, but once title insurers miss them, they usually will not be caught on subsequent title searches, because the title company will use the previous title search as a starting point (around here, they actually call them "starters", but I don't know how widespread the practice is) for their new title search. Sometimes they do catch them, and ask the previous title company for an indemnity (which basically says that the previous title company is still liable for having missed it).

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 10, 2008 7:00 AM.

Dangers of a Poorly Written Real Estate Purchase Offer was the previous entry in this blog.

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