If you have ever bought or sold real estate, you have probably paid for title insurance. What exactly is title insurance? Why do we need it? How can I save money on title insurance? These are common questions asked by real estate investors.
Whenever title passes, the seller usually gives a deed containing certain guarantees or "warranties" (hence the name "Warranty Deed"). The seller warrants that title is good, that is, no one will come challenge the integrity of the title. For example, if a deed that was passed before him was forged, all subsequent transfers are void. Other problems may be more subtle, such as a deed with an incorrect legal description or misspelled name. Any irregularities in the "chain of title" will place a "cloud" on the integrity of the title.
When you are ready to sell a property, a title search is performed by a title company or attorney. The title searcher follows the chain of title back about 50 years, tracing the ownership through deeds recorded in pubic records. The searcher also checks to make certain that previously recorded mortgages and other liens have been released. Based on documents found in public records, the title company or attorney will prepare a "title insurance commitment." A commitment is a statement that based upon certain documents found by a search of public records, the company will issue a title insurance policy for a certain fee.
The title insurance policy, unlike most insurance policies, covers past events. For example, if the daughter of a previous owner claims that her father conveyed a deed while not mentally competent, the current ownership may be in jeopardy. The title insurance company will defend the claim and pay for any damages (usually the value of the property). The policy does not cover claims based on events that occur after the policy is issued. Furthermore, the policy usually contains numerous exceptions, such as claims based on information undisclosed to the title company. Thus, if you are aware of any potential problems that might lead to a claim, your failure to disclose this information to the title company will lead to a denial of a claim based on those events.
A title insurance coverage starts from ancient history and ends from the date you transferred title. Since most transfers are insured by a title company, the longer you own the property, the more the policy costs. Consider this: if you buy a property and the transaction is covered by title insurance, then you sell it six months later, what are the chances that something went wrong in the last six months? The answer is that the chances are slim to none, so the risk of a claim against the title are slim to none. For this reason, title companies offer a "re-issue" rate. The re-issue rate is a discounted price (usually about 40%) on the title insurance policy if another policy from a title company was issued on the same property within the last few years. The rate is lower because any claims that arise from events before the previous owner are covered by the previous policy. Thus the new policy really deals with the risk of claims from events that occurred while you owned it.
If you are buying a property with the intent of re-selling it within a year, ask the title insurance company for a "hold-open" policy. For a small fee (usually an additional 10% on the policy), the title company will hold a title commitment open for a year or more. Rather than issue a policy based on the first transfer (from the seller to you), they will issue a policy on the second transfer (from you to the next buyer). Since the seller usually pays for title insurance, you can pay the additional 10% when you buy, saving 90% on title insurance when you sell.