A recent question from a buyer client suggests it might be a good time to review some very basic concepts regarding title. Let’s start by understanding the word “title” is describing the evidence one has of right of ownership. A “clear title” basically means the ownership of the land is clear and without question.
When a buyer purchases a property, some assurance that the current seller has “clear title” is in order. I could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, couldn’t I? How do you know whether or not I own it and have the right to sell it? (I could create a fake deed and register it–the existence of a deed is not a guarantee I truly own the property.)
There are three important terms we use when we talk about title.
A title search is performed to establish the links in the chain of title and discover any potential clouds or problems (such as liens) with the title. This is the service buyers and lenders commonly get. (If you are mortgaging your property it will be required by the lender.)
A title opinion may be issued by an attorney. This becomes the attorney’s legal opinion that the title is “good” or clear. Because the attorney is assuming risk; these tend to be expensive. Do not confuse a title search with a title opinion.
Title insurance is a policy issued by a Title Insurance Company. Typically the policy is issued based on the title search. It ultimately is about risk management. Nobody really says “you have a great (clear) title”—the insurance company says “based on the title search we are willing to insure your title.”
If something or someone comes along after you’ve purchased that brings your title/ownership of the property into question, the Title Insurance Company will either defend your title or pay you for the loss of your property – up to the face amount of the policy. The premium for this coverage is a one-time charge and there are numerous options available to the buyer including an “escalating” policy in which the face amount increases automatically.
Don’t let your eyes glaze over when the topic of “title” comes up. These are not difficult concepts, really and you should insist on explanations that you understand well enough to make good decisions.