In real estate terms, a “title” refers to a guarantee that a person actually owns the residential or commercial property described in a deed. “Title” can also refer to the person’s rights in the land as an owner, such as usage rights.
Disputes over property can lead to what is called a “title search”, which is when a person searches local records to find out who has the title to a land in question. Title searching is often a good idea if someone is purchasing property that has changed hands through several owners over time.
Recording a Title
Upon the sale or purchase of property, the buyer or seller is generally required by the laws of their state to record the event. This is done by recording at the city or county recorder’s office. The recorder’s office is the local department that handles registration of title records. Recorded titles may often take priority over unrecorded titles.
When the title is recorded, it will also make notes of any existing “encumbrances” on the title. Encumbrances, often called “clouds on title”, are any type of previous limitations that could affect the future owner’s rights. Common clouds on property titles may be mortgages, easements, liens, and any restrictions on natural resource usage on the land.
Conducting a Title Search
A person will usually conduct a title search prior to the sale or purchase of property or in the event of a property dispute. A title search involves examining county records in order to learn the property’s ownership and usage history. The purpose of a title search usually is two discover two things:
- To verify who the actual, legal owner of the property is
- To determine whether title to the land is “clouded” or not with encumbrances
A title search may be initiated by a buyer or anyone who is interested in the property in question. They will usually employ a commercial title company or an individual with knowledge in such matters such as an attorney or an escrow agent. The title company will also inquire as to whether the title is insurable or not.
Items and Matters that Title Search Reviews
Title searches can vary in their scope because each county recorder’s office is different by county. Also, title companies and attorneys have their own different procedures for title searching. In general, a title search will usually conduct a review of:
- The “chain of title”, which outlines the passing of the property from one owner to the next
- Public records and court files involving the property
- A legal description of the property, such as delineation of property boundaries and geographical features of the land. The description is usually recorded at the recorder’s office
- Tax records on the property
- Mortgages, liens, and other encumbrances
- Easements (usage of the land)- these may or may not be recorded at the recorder’s office
Perhaps the most important aspect of a title search is the “chain of title”, which lists all the previous owners as well as transfers of the property. If a person obtained the property without recording the title, they are said to be “outside the chain of title”. Depending on the jurisdiction, titles which are outside the chain of title may or may not be considered valid.
What Title Searches do not Reveal
Title searches do not cover everything. If transfer of property has not been recorded, then a title search will obviously not reveal the event. Other issues that a title search might not uncover are:
- Evidence of illegal acts such as fraud or a forgery
- Errors attributed to good faith efforts made by a clerk or county recorded
- Improperly processed documents such as a will
- Confusion caused by people with the same or similar legal names
If it is available, a person may purchase title insurance through the title company. Title insurance guarantees that the title company will search the public records thoroughly to ensure that no one else can claim ownership to properties which you have a deed for. Also, the company should be able to defend your interests if there is a cloud on the title or if someone else is claiming ownership or usage rights.
Points to Consider
Issues involving title to property are important. Much dispute over lands often involves the title, so it is essential to know what a proper title search entails. If you will be conducting a title search, you may wish to team up with a lawyer who can help guide you through the process. Here are some points to remember in title searching:
- Title searches usually have two main goals: to determine the rightful property owner, and to discover any encumbrances on the property
- Familiarize yourself with the recorder’s office and with any court records as well
- If you have recently acquired title, be sure to record the event at the recorder’s office. In many jurisdictions, a title that is recorded will be valid over an unrecorded title
- Title insurance is available to defend your interests
- Consider working with a lawyer or a title company
by Ken LaMance