When buying a piece of property, it’s important to ensure you only receive one thing — the property. That’s why a title search is key.
"You’re trying to make sure the seller has a free and clear marketable title with no judgments or liens on the property," said Lisa Logan, a lawyer.
Examples of problems with a title include judgments for credit card companies against a person that affect the property or IRS liens against a property for unpaid taxes.
Even though such judgments start with proceedings against the property owners, the claim is against the property, and if a purchase is completed and closed without such issues being discovered, the new owner becomes responsible for paying.
Lawyers research the history of a property’s title to avoid such problems.
"We go back at least 40 years, which is the standard," Logan said. "We go back to prior owners to make sure past items are paid off. We also check on real estate taxes that may be unpaid.
"All of these things attach to the property."
The lawyer goes to the courthouse to research the title and goes to a number of offices in the course of verifying a clear title.
In the Register of Deeds office, the grantors index is checked, to verify the mortgages attached to the property that will have to be settled at closing. The lawyer checks the chain of sellers to buyers through the history of the property.
Next comes a visit to the civil clerk’s office, to look at the judgment index. The prior owners are researched to ensure there are no judgments against the property. At the property tax office the lawyer verifies that the taxes are paid and up to date.
Also at the civil clerk’s office is a check for special proceedings. Problems that could be found here include recent name changes of the seller or mental incompetency proceedings.
If there’s a name change, the previous name has to be checked for judgments that could attach to the property.
If the seller is not mentally competent, perhaps because of age or mental illness, he cannot sell the property.
After checking everything, if the title is clear, the lawyer declares such.
"We’re passing our opinion on title," Logan said. "We’re saying this title is good."
The lawyer’s role in certifying a title is required by state law. Once the title is approved, a title company issues a title insurance policy before the closing.
"Insurance covers anything the attorney couldn’t have found — like fraud," said Logan, who practices in Durham, Orange, Chatham and Wake counties.
For example, Logan said, a man may have sold a piece of property, but his wife’s signature was forged. Then, after the closing, his wife comes forward and says she didn’t agree to sell the property.
The title company strives to settle such situations and, if necessary, pays out a settlement, she said.
David Bennington, senior vice president of Investors Title Company in Chapel Hill, said almost no title is perfect.
"There are many routine things that would show up on a title examination," he said. Most common are restrictive covenants in many subdivisions and utility company easements.
Such factors don’t mean a title is bad, but they have to be taken into account when insuring the title.
When researching a title, some things come up that a title company will not insure against, and these become exceptions to the title insurance policy.
For example, if a piece of property was part of an estate, and all the heirs of a person who has died were not able to be located, a title company would not necessarily insure against the possibility of another heir with a claim to the property.
"We review the work of the closing attorney and decide what must be excepted and what will be covered," Bennington said.
In some states, title companies perform the title search in addition to writing the insurance policy. North Carolina has kept lawyers involved, by requiring them to research the title.
Though Bennington said other methods work well in other states, he feels North Carolina’s system is best.
"The consumer actually gets a double layer of protection," he said. In addition to the insurance itself, the lawyer works for the buyer to improve the terms of the insurance, perhaps
negotiating the coverage of something the title company may otherwise have excepted.
With a closing attorney, "there’s someone advocating for those parties," Bennington said.
"They try to make sure a client gets the very best coverage."
Some transactions do not require a title search. With a cash deal, for example, a search is not required, but Logan still recommends one.
"I just think it’s smart," she said. "Even with family members, I want to do a search."
Sometimes people buying from family members just want a deed, and not a title search, Logan said. They feel that since it’s family and they know the history of the property’s owners, such a search is not necessary.
"There have been cases in my office where a credit card company has taken them to court and there’s a judgment against the property that they didn’t even know about," Logan said.
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