How Far Back Can They Search?

The Texas Department of Insurance requires title companies to be able to search back to 1979. However, most title plants can search further back than that, says Moore. Title companies can find starter files that refer to older documents. A 1990 starter file may include background information on a 1940s easement, she says.

A few microfilm records go all the way back to the beginning of title history in Texas and were authorized by the king of Spain, she notes.

You’re no stranger to working with title companies. Escrow officers help your clients get title insurance and coordinate closings, among other tasks. But how much do you know about what they do and the title industry as a whole?

Title insurance is essential to the real estate and lending industries, says Dawn Enoch Moore, founder of Allegiance Title Company. Without it, your clients couldn’t feel confident they truly own their homes—or borrow against their collateral.

Ensuring ownership

Title insurance is different than other types of insurance.

Most consumer insurance policies—think car or homeowners insurance—assume risk. A policy gives you money if an adverse event qualifies for reimbursement.

In contrast, title insurance eliminates risk. For a one-time fee, you get an assurance that title will not be taken away from you once you own the property. That’s because the title company will defend against any lawsuits attacking title, or if there is a covered loss (such as the title being vested in an owner different from the one stated on the policy), the title company will compensate you for the amount of the policy.

Title companies do this by searching property history to ensure there are no unpaid debts, liens, or heirs that could contest the buyer’s ownership. Companies also resolve any fraud or forgery found in the chain of title before the buyer purchases the property.

Seller Impersonation Fraud

The biggest issue the title industry is dealing with right now is seller impersonation fraud.

“Bad actors are impersonating sellers and engaging the services of real estate agents,” Moore says. “It’s fraud, but to an agent, it can sound legitimate. We have 10 underwriters, and we’re probably getting three memos a week, warning everyone about a particular person or property.”

To learn more, read the article on page 22.

Discovering property history

How can title companies ensure no valid claims can be made against the buyer’s ownership?

To be licensed in Texas, title companies must own or lease a title plant: special software or a filing system to search geographically indexed title records. Escrow officers search the records using a property’s legal description and review a run sheet of property information. Officers also search for the buyer’s and seller’s names to ensure there are no tax or judgment liens filed, Moore says.

In the rare event that a county does not have a local title agent with geographically indexed title records, title professionals have to go to the county courthouse and manually do a grantor-grantee search. That’s tracing the property history backward one sale at a time.

Most properties need some kind of correction, or curative work, to their title information, according to Moore. It may be something simple like correcting a prior instrument with an error in the legal description, ordering proof of a mortgage payoff, or ordering homeowners or property association information. If the problem is small, the title companies can handle it themselves with the seller’s permission.

The escrow officer’s work depends on the property, Moore says. “If a property has changed hands often and everything’s up to date, we could close in as little as three days.”

Working on a property that’s been in the same family for generations is not as easy as you might think, though. Title agents need to trace the property back through probate and wills to determine heirship. That may take 30 to 45 days.

Officers must also do significant work when a deceased homeowner’s estate isn’t organized, she says, such as if there is no will. “We have to make sure there are no unknown heirs. Sometimes people sign affidavits and they forget to include someone, or they don’t think an estranged son is entitled to the property. We have to search obituaries or just Google these people.”

Complex issues, such as untangling IRS tax or judgment liens, bankruptcies, or imminent foreclosures, may require involving attorneys. Title companies can work to get lien releases against the property, but these do not release the debtor from any personal liability on the debt if a balance remains.

What Does an Escrow Agent Do?

An escrow agent can countersign title insurance forms, supervise the preparation and signing of title insurance forms, sign escrow checks, and close the transaction, according to the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI). TDI issues two-year licenses to escrow agents, who must complete continuing education. On-the-job training is key for escrow agents, Moore says.

Why title matters

In theory, you can buy and sell a property without title insurance, Moore says. If you pay cash and all of the paperwork is clean and in order, it can be done. But doing so comes with risks.

For the vast majority of transactions, title insurance builds the trust required to conduct business. Buyers want to know they truly own the property.

Homeowners take out second mortgages and borrow against their homes to pay for a child’s education, for example. Clean title records allow this to happen.

Title insurance is the product title companies offer, but title companies also offer other important services during the real estate transaction. “We collect the funds, liens, and bills, and then handle the final exchange between buyer and seller,” Moore says. “Then we record the transaction and make sure everything’s in the deed and that ownership passes.”

Title companies handle the actual closing and amend all of the records so everything’s up to date and accurate. If title companies disappeared tomorrow, the property records would be in disarray within five years, Moore estimates. “We are constantly cleaning them up and correcting legal documents, sometimes requiring the prior owners’ signatures. And if you wait a few years, you may have to track down the executor of the owner’s estate.”

How you can make the title process smoother

Moore advises agents and brokers to maintain good communication with escrow officers.

Real estate professionals shouldn’t expect the process to be seamless or that escrow officers will never need to talk with clients. Questions will arise, but with good communication, surprises won’t, Moore says.

Staying in touch is essential for preventing fraud during the transaction, she adds. “We have to be more cautious and make sure the people reaching out to us are the legitimate sellers.” Agents should know their sellers, do due diligence in verifying information, and stay in contact with escrow officers.

“Good communication is so important. Work with us as a team and we can figure it out together.”