Title searchers are historical detectives searching through records to
determine the history of a particular piece of property. By tracing what is
called the "chain of property," they can tell who bought the property from
whom, as well as when they bought it.
Another important part of a title searcher's job is checking for what are
called "encumbrances" -- financial judgments against the property for things
like unpaid taxes.
A title searcher's work begins when someone decides to buy a piece of real
estate, whether it's a farm, a multimillion-dollar estate or a vacant lot.
When you apply for a mortgage to buy a house, the bank always insists on conducting
a title search.
The bank wants to protect its investment and make sure you're not going
to lose the house because the taxes haven't been paid or the person who sold
you the house wasn't the legal owner. And you can rest easier knowing that
no one is going to take your home away from you.
Of course, mistakes do happen. Title searchers can only do as good a job
as the records they are working with. Sometimes records, particularly older
records, are challenged in court.
For example, a will may have been written by a minor or by someone who
was declared mentally incompetent. These types of situations can lead to disputes
decades later about who is the property's legal owner.
This is why many banks insist that homebuyers purchase title insurance
-- insurance that protects you and the bank financially if this type of problem
occurs. Many title searching companies also sell title insurance.
Title searching has a long and noble history. The very first American title
company was founded in Philadelphia in 1876.
When he was a child, Abraham Lincoln's family lost two homes due to arguments
over who was the property's legal owner. Even Daniel Boone, one of the heroes
of the Alamo, lost his Kentucky landholdings because he had the wrong type
of title papers.
How far back does a title search go? It all depends. If there are no complications,
a title searcher usually examines records extending back between 30 and 75
years, depending on the county.
But there are exceptions. For example, if the property has been searched
recently, the title searcher may rely on that information and only check the
history of the property since that time.
In other cases, title searchers dig much deeper. "It all depends on the
previous title policy," says Steve Reick, an attorney who owns a title searching
business in Missouri. "If I'm not confident [in the previous title], then...I
may even go back to the very first land grant by the United States government."
Perhaps you picture a title searcher going through piles of dusty books
at the local land registry office. Then again, you may see them seated at
a computer terminal examining records that are displayed on the computer screen.
Actually, either image is a possibility.
Title searchers employed in small towns usually rely on the physical records
kept at the registry office, while those living in large cities normally work
with computerized files. Title searchers may work for a lawyer or a professional
title company, or decide to strike out on their own and freelance.
It takes a cool head to be a title searcher. "You can't get flustered,
because then you stop thinking," says Shelley Wepruk, who runs a freelance
title business. At the same time, she points out that you need to be accurate.
"There's no leeway for error in this job."
Being a quick learner also helps. That's why title searcher Shelley Porter
hires only university graduates. "University teaches you to assimilate a lot
of facts quickly, and you need to do that in this job."
Wepruk agrees. "Sometimes you'll get information about a parcel of land
that's 30 pages long, and you have to read it because you can't afford to
The ability to deal with all types of people is a must. "Communication
skills are very important," says Wepruk. "You're constantly talking with lawyers,
secretaries, banks and big companies. You must know how to present yourself."