Individuals outside of the title abstracting industry occasionally will inquire about doing their own title searching. How realistic is it for an ordinary person to perform their own title search? The records system is designed for ordinary and reasonable person to use for searching. While most people consider it more cost effective and accurate to hire a professional title abstractor to do a search, it is theoretically possible to do your own search. There are 5 factors to consider to determine if this is a reasonable expectation.
1. Availability of information – All land title documents are public records. They are maintained in a government records office, normally at the county level. (In some states, particularly New England region, keep title records at the city and town level). Any ordinary person can visit the deed recorders office and access the documents needed to complete a search. Some counties may offer access to these documents using an online system as well. However, some of these systems may not access all of the records. Using online systems should be carefully considered and analyzed before using. Ordinary non-professional searchers should stick with using in-person records searches at first. Although slightly less convenient than searching online, it is a better and more accurate way to work through the documents for inexperienced searchers.
2. Complexity of process – Although the records are available for public access, there is a process required to locate all of documents to perform a search. The first thing an inexperienced searcher will discover is that there is no one document or even one file for each property. The current property status is determined by piecing together the prior events pertaining to the property. Each previous sale, transfer, mortgage, refinance, mortgage release, lien, assignment, etc. are part of a big picture that makes up the property “title”. Overlooking one of these prior events can change the results of the search. Understanding this, the searcher will find that these records are not all grouped together. They are filed in order by the date they occurred. So a mortgage from 2005 will be filed in a book from that year, while a deed from 2008 will be in a different place altogether. There is a system to locate all of the documents, using a name index. However, this system identifies the documents by name, not by address. So the searcher will need to first determine the names associated with the property over time.
3. Potential for error - The process for searching title is relatively straightforward, but tedious. Dozens of steps must each be followed in specific order to ensure good results. A reasonable person can easily accomplish this, as long as they pay very close attention to each detail, and think about all the possibilities as they progress through the steps. Rushing through the process or assuming you have everything are to be avoided.
4. Accuracy of results – Once all of the various deeds, mortgages, and liens have been found the documents themselves contain a great deal of information. Typical documents are multiple pages, and list the terms and conditions of the land record. Reading the content of the records is an important part of the process. For example, while a deed might describe a transfer from John Smith to Mary Jones, there may also be language in the deed specifying a remainder interest to a third person, or that the property reverts back to John Smith if Mary Jones dies, or the property is not used for a particular purpose, etc. A mortgage document may contain names of other parties who have some ownership interests, which names also need additional searching. Inexperienced searchers will discover a great deal of information within the document wording. Looking beyond the first section containing “grantor, grantee, and date” is part of the tedious process of complete searching.
5. Understanding of title status – Once the entire process of retrieving, reading, analyzing, and comparing all the property records is complete, the searcher needs to understand what it all means. It is reasonable to conclude who the owner, lender, and lienholders might be, but a searcher needs to understand the limitations of how absolute the conclusions are. There may be other claims against a property not contained just in the land title records. The tax assessor collects taxes each year, some of which are currently due. A property owner may have obligations to a homeowners association, or zoning board. In addition, judgment liens may have attached to the property outside of the land records through statutory civil court actions. The searcher should become aware of what title claims can exist in their jurisdiction, outside of the land records.
An ordinary and reasonable person can complete a correct title search for most properties. In some cases an unusual or tricky scenario can complicate a search to produce errors which a normal person would not discover, but these are relatively uncommon. While ordinary people do have the ability to do their own searches, most do not. A total of 4 or 5 hours is usually allocated to performing a title search, and another 1 hour for reviewing the documents. While there is little cost involved (a county may charge a nominal copy charge of $15 – $25 to produce copies of files for a typical property).
When the cost of a professional search is taken into consideration, most reasonable people opt to spend the $100 or so to have an experienced abstractor complete the search, to make sure they have some security on a $100,000 or more decision.