When you close on a home and take possession, you’re most likely thrilled that your hard work has paid off and the property now belongs to you.
But that’s not always the case. Without a title search, it’s possible to find out later that you bought your home from someone who had no legal right to sell it, or that a creditor has placed a lien on the property that you now must pay.
A home title search verifies a property’s ownership and finds any outstanding claims or liens on it. A title search is the best way to know in advance that the home you’re buying will, in fact, be yours when you close on it.
Why Get a Title Search?
Lenders typically require a title search before they approve a mortgage to buy a home. But there are more good reasons for doing a property title search than your lender requiring it.
Here are several good reasons to get a title search.
To confirm ownership of the property
A property can have a long history of changing hands. A title search will identify all past and current owners to establish a chain of title that helps ensure the seller is legally entitled to sell the home to you.
To confirm the property’s boundaries
The seller might tell you that the property you’re buying extends from the white fence to the tree, but only an examination of the public record can confirm where the property lines fall.
To uncover any liens or claims against the property
When homeowners incur debts, creditors may place liens on their property. The lienholder has a legal right to recoup what it’s owed from the value of the property, and may be able to foreclose on the home or block any sale until the debt is paid. Most mortgage lenders will refuse to approve a mortgage to buy a home that has unpaid liens on it.
“Title searches can also uncover unpaid bills that are liens against the property or outstanding property taxes that the current owner needs to settle before a sale is finalized,” says Jo-Ann M. Marzullo, a real estate attorney at Ligris + Associates in Newton, Massachusetts.
To find potential restrictions on the property
If your home is zoned for a specific use, you may not have the right to do as you please with the land. A title search on property will uncover any legal limits.
To verify who can legally transfer ownership
The house title search will confirm that the person you are buying the home from has the right to sell the property to you.
The Title Search Process
- You hire a title company or attorney to conduct the search.
- The title company examines all available public records related to the property.
- All relevant information — ownership transfers, liens, encumbrances — is collected and sent to you in a document called an abstract of title.
How Long Does a Title Search Take?
A thorough title search usually takes 10 to 14 days. If you’re in a hurry, some states offer expedited searches with a turnaround of only a few hours.
Causes for a title search delay
Older homes may have longer public records that are more difficult to find, and there could be gaps in the public record for any number of reasons. As the property’s story grows or gets more complex, there are more documents to find and review, and the title search takes longer to complete.
Common reasons for a title search to be delayed include:
- The home’s age. Older homes will have longer ownership histories, and may have gaps in the record that could take more time for the researcher to fill in.
- The number of relevant documents. If a home has a complicated ownership history, there may be more documents to review in the title search.
- If problems are found with the title. Finding any liens or other issues with a title will require the extra step of figuring out how to cure them.
- The type of home. Some home types may require a more detailed title search.
How Much Is a Title Search?
A title search usually will cost anywhere from $75 to $250. Location and the difficulty of the search will affect this cost, so ask for an estimate beforehand.
What Problems Does a Title Search Look For?
A title search involves discovering any defects connected to the property’s title. Common title issues include:
- Inaccurate public records. Clerical or filing errors may introduce errors into public records that need to be corrected.
- Fake or illegitimate documents. Forged signatures or other impersonations of the owner could muddle ownership of the home, as could documents signed by people who did not have legal rights to the property.
- Undiscovered liens. If previously unknown liens for unpaid taxes or other debts are discovered, the owner will need to resolve them before they can sell the home.
- Unknown heirs or inheritances. If it’s found that a previous owner died without naming heirs, or those heirs were never notified of their inheritance, their claims to ownership would need to be resolved before the home can be sold.
- Boundary disputes. If records show the expected boundaries of the property are inaccurate, there may be a conflict with the owners of neighboring properties that will need to be settled.
- Easements or encumbrances. The record may reveal that third parties have the right to use or pass through the property for certain purposes, which may affect both parties’ understanding of the sale.
Resolving Common Title Issues
If the title search finds problems with a property before the sale closes, the seller will be responsible for resolving them.
The title search company may be able to resolve small problems before closing. Larger issues may require an attorney.
If the seller cannot offer a clear title to the property, the buyer’s lender will not approve a mortgage to buy it with and the sale would have to be canceled.
If title problems turn up after the sale is completed, the new owner would be responsible for resolving them. If you bought owners title insurance when buying the home, that policy would protect you against the expenses associated with such claims.
Here are answers to common questions about the title search.