What is a Title Search?

A Title Search is the process of retrieving documents evidencing events in the history of a piece of real property, to determine relevant interests in and regulations concerning that property.

In the case of a prospective purchase, a title search is performed primarily to answer three questions regarding a property on the market:

  • Does the seller have a saleable interest in the property?
  • What kind of restrictions or allowances pertain to the use of the land? These would include real covenants, easements and other servitudes.
  • Do any liens exist on the property which need to be paid off at closing? These would be mortgages, back taxes, mechanic’s liens, and other assessments.

A title search is also performed when an owner wishes to mortgage his property and the bank requires the owner to insure this transaction.

A professional title searcher (also called Abstractor) is hired to perform a title search. Documents concerning conveyances of land are a matter of public record. These documents are maintained in hard copy paper format or sometimes scanned into image files. The information within the documents is typically not available as data format as the records are descriptions of legal events which contain terms, conditions, and language in excess of data.

The process of performing a title search involves accessing the official land records for the subject property. Each record is a document evidencing an event which occurred in the history of the property. A deed records an event of property transfer, a mortgage documents the collateral interest of a home loan, and a lien documents a claim against the property in favor of another, such as a creditor, vendor, or tradesman. The objective of the title search is to establish clear, marketable title by exposing any outstanding claims prior to transfer of title.

Each recorded document must name the parties involved, e.g., grantor and grantee. The grantor is the party transferring away a property right, and the grantee is receiving a property right. In the case of a deed the grantor would typically be the property seller, and the grantee the buyer. A mortgage grantor or mortgagor is the borrower of the loan, since they are giving away certain property rights to the mortgagee, lender, or mortgage grantee. More recent wording simplifies this language with “Borrower” and “Lender.”

The records are kept in a centralized government office, usually at the county courthouse (in states with strong county governments such as Washington State or Massachusetts, the title on the door would be something like Registrar of Deeds or County Recorder); or in the municipal offices (in small states such as Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island), often the title searcher must go to each individual town or county office to research the title.

The process of a title search begins with searching for and retrieving each physical document from the books which contain them. Every document is recorded by date in a special set of volumes called by various names such as Grantor-Grantee index, Land Records or Deed Records), which may or may not be digitized or scanned into a searchable file, depending on the financial resources of the county or town. An official stamp located usually at the bottom of the first page gives the name of the recording official, date, time, book and page number. If the document has been recorded, this stamp will ALWAYS be there.

The collected documents are then reviewed and analyzed to see how each affects the property, and which documents have been released by subsequent recordings. Contingent conditions within documents such as life estates and remainder interests may exist within the document language. This process is often performed by a trained professional called a title abstractor. Some title abstractors have certifications documenting their experience level and training and successfully having passed an exam.

The document produced by a title abstractor is called a title abstract, or abstract of title. This is not a document which exists in public records, but it is derived from recorded documents. The title abstract is provided to the Title Company, attorney, or end-user by the abstractor.

For example, a title report may also show any easements, or recorded encumbrances against the property or portions of the property. A previous owner may have legally given a neighbor the right to share the driveway, or the city may have a right to strips of the property for putting power lines, communication lines, water pipes, or sewer pipes. A few on-line services offer title searches for relatively little cost, and their accuracy is not inferior to what a title company or attorney will offer; however on-line businesses rely mostly on electronically available information, and for that reason could at times be limited both in completeness and geographical availability.

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