The relationship between an independent title agency and its title insurer is a unique one; we rely on each other for our mutual success. So when a claim occurs, it’s no fun for anyone. Claims are a fact of life for any insurer, but thankfully, some of the costliest claims are entirely preventable if time is taken to appropriately review and analyze information that is part of the transaction.
What are these costly and preventable claims? Based on our experience at Alliant National, the top five categories for claim files over the last three years have been in the following areas:
- Missing or erroneous legal descriptions,
- Lack of capacity or authority to convey title or release a lien,
- Unreleased mortgages or deed of trust,
- All other unreleased liens and judgments, and
- Unpaid taxes and assessments.
To take this a step further, when we compared all of our closed claim files against closed claim files classified as “agent error,” we found that claims involving “agent error” tend to be more costly, particularly when it comes to the top five claims categories.
You ask, what can I do to reduce these preventable claims and thereby reduce the costs and other impacts of claims? Based on our experience, here are a few items to consider in every transaction:
- Carefully read documents. Real estate transactions involve a lot of detail, and all those details are important. Take time to carefully read what the prepared instruments and documents say. This includes those that may have been delivered to you by a party to the transaction, a third-party or within a lender’s package. Do not assume anything. Here’s one example. Let’s say the lender does not include a spouse or a co-titleholder’s name on the mortgage or deed of trust. In several states, if the borrower is married, the spouse must join on the mortgage or deed of trust. Just because their name was not originally included, the lender may fall back on what the closing instructions required. In this case, it would be important to take a minute to contact the lender and make the necessary adjustments.
- Do not be afraid to communicate. We’re all in a hurry, but it’s important to take the time to ask questions and be willing to ask for clarification when something is not clear. Then, of course, we need to listen to what is being said. In some cases, there may be disclosures of matters – not known until that moment – which can alter the transaction. Also, it’s helpful to consider whether everyone is using the same terminology to describe the same thing. We use a lot of jargon in this industry, so be careful not to think that “everyone uses this term” or that they understand things the same way you do.
- Avoid being solely persuaded by the seller or borrower not to collect funds required at the closing. We oftentimes hear that the seller or borrower told the closer that the delinquent taxes, mortgage, or homeowner assessment was already paid outside of closing and to just disregard any payoff or estoppel letter that was previously collected. Experience tells us that you should not just take the person’s word but instead contact the creditor, lienor, or lender that is owed the funds, at a properly verified number, and confirm whether a payment has resolved or made current an amount owed. If appropriate, it may be good practice to hold back those collected funds until a certain time has passed, and it is confirmed that the account is current and/or the lien has been satisfied or released.
- Spend time in understanding the subject of the closing. This includes the parties in the transaction and the property. Understanding the intricacies can help you spot types of fraud involving the conveyance of title or unpaid liens and taxes. With a critical eye, review the person’s ID and other documents that are presented since a number of fraudsters and imposters are impersonating others in transactions.
- Promptly discuss concerns and matters with the underwriting and claim teams. We at Alliant National are always ready to review and discuss issues and matters of concern with our agents. Please don’t hesitate to call us. Waiting until the last minute or after closing to discuss a known issue may cause problems. In some cases, it may be too late to deal with an issue brought to the title underwriting team after the closing, as a claim may now exist.
Everyone is excited when a closing occurs and funds are disbursed, but this enthusiasm can quickly change to concern when a title matter is submitted involving that transaction. Thankfully, taking time to review, understand and analyze transaction information can reduce the possibility of errors and help avoid those top-five pesky and preventable title claims.
If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
I’m sure at some point in life, each of us has thrown up our hands and said, “I’m not worrying about the details, this is good enough.” Of course, when you deal with real property transactions, you quickly learn that the small stuff matters.
The claims team has seen several areas that can be typically resolved in the transaction or post-closing without ever rising to the level of a claim. Let’s look at three of those areas – Release of Liens, Release of Revolving Line of Credit / Home Equity Line of Credit, and Property Taxes – which all require attention to detail.
- Release of Liens
Let’s say you’ve obtained the payoff letter from the correctly identified and verified lienor, closed the transaction, sent the funds to the lienor, and now you are moving on to the transaction. But wait! The lien is recorded in the county land records, so how are others to know it has been paid? Several lienors will handle recording a release in the proper county land records, but there are few lienors who fail to do so. Either the lienor sends an unrecorded release to their borrower, to the title company, or does not prepare one at all. In a few states, there are statutes that provide a timeframe in which a lienor must record the release after receipt of payment. In other cases, the instrument may have a clause that discusses the obligation of the lienor when the debt is paid. In all cases, as part of a post-closing, best practice process, a release or satisfaction should be promptly filed in the property’s county land records before the file is classified as completed. This may require a few follow-up communications with the lienor to satisfy this requirement, but it will be worth it in the long run.
- Release of Revolving Line of Credit / Home Equity Line of Credit
The Revolving Line of Credit or Home Equity Line of Credit loans allow a borrower to draw funds, when needed, and the borrower can use the line of credit over and over while being secured with the property. Many closers may take the same steps as a typical payoff of a mortgage or deed of trust, but there are a few additional steps required to properly close down and have the loan released from the property. Just sending the payoff funds is not enough.
To properly address these types of loans, a written request from the borrower to close the account upon receipt of the full payoff is typically required. Many lenders request a signed letter from the borrower requesting to close the account. So, if you are wiring the funds, the seller’s written request to close the account will still need to be delivered to the lender. To provide evidence that the borrower’s written request was sent to the lender, a best practice would be to track the delivery of the request to the lender, either by facsimile, mail or email. Once you receive confirmation that it has been delivered and received, keep a copy of this information in the file along with a copy of the written request. Similar to the Release of Lien section above, a release or satisfaction should be properly filed in the property’s county land records before the file is classified as completed.
Whether you are using a tax company to provide a report on the outstanding property taxes or doing the research yourself, if not handled accurately, unpaid property taxes may result in a homeowner being subjected to additional taxes and penalties or losing the property. In a few states, just looking at the county’s tax collector site is not enough as there are other entities required to be paid that are situated outside of the tax collector’s office. If you are doing business in such a state, identify all the tax entities to which taxes are due and payable when a property is conveyed or refinanced.
Another tax example involves states that are reviewing prior owner exemptions. If an exemption was deemed to have expired in an earlier conveyance, the tax collector’s office is sending letters to the current homeowner seeking payment for the difference caused by the changed exemption for the prior years. As an example, if there is a homestead exemption reflected but a company has held title to the property for several years, this may require a discussion with the tax collector’s office as to the proper calculation of taxes owed if the exemption is no longer valid. With this information, the proper amount of taxes can be collected at closing.
Our final tax example involves prior year’s unpaid taxes or issued tax certificates. In these cases, make certain the proper payment amount is collected and timely delivered to stop a tax lien sale or, if sold, any certificate holder from obtaining a tax deed. Depending on the state, the expiration of the redemption period after a tax deed is issued may result in a loss. As a best practice, the title company should confirm with the tax collector’s office or its designated entity that it has received payment and that the payment is being applied to the correct account(s).
Attending to the details in these three areas will provide assurance to all those involved in the transaction. Having properly addressed these matters, a seller or buyer will not have to worry about being contacted in a few months, or possibly years from now, to address these issues. If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
After years of incrementally slow progress on the e-mortgage front, the pandemic succeeded in catapulting the mortgage and settlement services industry into the digital mortgage and closing age in short order. As state legislatures quickly rushed through a variety of pending remote online notarization (RON) laws, more agents jumped at the chance to add this capability to their tool belt.
In an April 12 release, ALTA reported that the number of title professionals offering digital closings more than tripled over the past two years, from 14% participation prior to 2019, to more than 46% in its most recent survey.
The question for agents is, do your partners and potential customers know about your new digital closing capability? And how can you get the word out?
MISMO has provided a national solution that you can capitalize on immediately to ensure potential customers who are looking for a service provider with RON capability can check on your status.
The MISMO e-Eligibility Exchange was created to accelerate industry-wide adoption of digital closings. According to a recent release from MISMO, the e-Eligibility Exchange provides centralized access to acceptance criteria that enables lenders and other industry participants to easily determine the right type of digital mortgage closing for each loan, including the use of electronic promissory notes (eNotes) or RON.
How Can Agents Get Into the e-Eligibility Exchange?
The only way to get into the exchange is by first getting registered in the ALTA Title and Settlement Agency Registry. ALTA announced that it will be the sole provider of title and settlement data to MISMO through the registry, which currently includes more than 9,000 locations, with more than 2,000 of them indicating they have RON capability.
The registry is free and ALTA membership is not required. After you register, your underwriter will confirm your information. According to MISMO, this verification, along with the uniqueness of the ALTA ID, ensures the accuracy of the data in the e-Eligibility Exchange for users.
If you are not yet signed up with the ALTA registry, here’s what you need to know:
- Visit alta.org/registry to learn more about the ALTA Title & Settlement Agency Registry.
- Download materials to register on the ALTA resources site to begin the registration process.
- ALTA will provide you with a unique 7-digit identifier, called the ALTA ID, which is automatically assigned to each new database record as a permanent ID number.
- ALTA ID numbers are available for free to title agents and to real estate attorneys.
- Once you are registered, your underwriters will be contacted to confirm your status.
Recent legislation has helped grow adoption of e-recording and e-notarization, but the lack of uniformity still makes it difficult for lenders to universally adopt electronic practices, forcing lenders to make a loan-by-loan decision about what documents can be electronically signed.
MISMO’s e-Eligibility Exchange helps address this challenge by allowing lenders to quickly assess requirements for individual loans.
More importantly for you, it allows lenders to identify the availability of title and settlement agents with electronic capabilities. Hop on the digital train in 2022. With the advent of the e-Eligibility Exchange, you now have the perfect opportunity to put yourself front and center for digital closing opportunities in the coming years.
In the final part of our series, we explore some of the remaining routine scenarios agents will face when closing real estate transactions.
In the first two editions of this series, we tackled several scenarios faced by agents during the real estate closing process. These issues run the gamut, illustrating how potential problems can arise even when the finish line for a transaction is in sight. In the final edition of this series, we will address the remaining issues that agents will likely deal with throughout their careers, including existing surveys, T-47 affidavits (in Texas) and lender-required conveyances.
Existing Surveys and T-47 Affidavits
During closings, agents may need to review an existing survey and determine if it is acceptable. In Texas, per paragraph 6.C of the TREC contract, the seller is required to provide both a survey and a fully executed T-47 affidavit, and if they fail to do so, the buyer can obtain a new survey at the seller’s expense. The T-47 affidavit must have all blanks filled in and be fully executed and notarized. If it is not filled in, it can cause problems. For example, what if the seller fills in the date with the purchase date and not the date of the survey? How would agents know that no changes were made before purchasing? A new survey may be required in this case.
Lender-Required Conveyances and Removal of a Spouse from a Contract
Sometimes lenders may require the removal of a spouse from a contract if they cannot qualify as a borrower. The spouse who agrees to this removal amendment must do so in writing. If the spouse does not join in the amendment, they may not realize their omission from the deed until later. It comes down to classification. “Non-purchasing” means they are not on the contract so they should not be on the deed. “Non-borrowing” implies they did not qualify on the note but should join in on the deed of trust to encumber both of their interests in the property.
During refinances, home equity and reverse mortgages, lenders may also require deeds moving between spouses. Customers need to know that this is not a title company requirement and they need to sign an acknowledgment. Instead, it is a lender requirement. If this difference is not discussed, it can cause issues, especially if it was a separate property and they end up getting divorced.
Closing the Gap
Lastly, agents need to address the “gap,” the difference between the date of title search (Issued Day on a Commitment) and the date records are certified as complete (Effective Date on a Commitment). A best practice is to request the title be “brought to date” when closing is scheduled and for the gap to be brought to 10 calendar days or less. After the initial commitment is issued, time passes and the gap between the Effective Date on a Commitment and the current date continues to grow.
When preparing new title work, the agent needs to review it and issue a new commitment with additional exceptions and requirements to both parties before closing. Agents should not hesitate to stop a closing if new matters come to light. Neither agents or underwriters should assume the risk for closing or insuring in the face of an unresolved issue.
After the transaction closes, the gap will continue to grow until the closing documents – including the deed for the owner’s policy and the deed of trust for the loan policy – are recorded, which ideally occurs the same day as funding. This is the gap insurers find most concerning. In a state like Texas, for instance, claims relating to documents recorded during this particular gap are covered by the title policies for which premiums were collected at closing.
At most, the recording should not take longer than 48 hours following funding, even if that means overnighting the documents to the recorder’s office. Agents should get confirmation on the recording of their documents and retain evidence.
As this blog series has shown, getting a transaction fully and successfully closed has become increasingly difficult. There is no shortage of complex issues. But by being meticulous and methodical in how they execute their responsibilities, agents can successfully rise to the challenge and ensure customer satisfaction.
In part two of a three-part series, we continue examining common scenarios agents face when closing real estate transactions.
Previously, we introduced the first of a three-part blog series on the issues agents routinely face during the closing process. The initial entry covered a wide range of issues – from summarizing agents’ fiduciary responsibilities to best practices when dealing with spousal transactions. The second part will continue examining common closing scenarios, including issues related to funding, family transactions and dealing with property and homeowner associations.
Escrow and Funding Issues
When funding a transaction, numerous issues need to be addressed. For instance, clients may want to use foreign currency. These are not “good funds,” and agents should not provide a receipt of funds until they have been sent through their escrow bank’s collection process and credited to its account. What if a party wants the agent to wire funds to a foreign bank? An agent should discuss the matter with management, but typically such a transaction is not recommended.
What about domestic transactions? Automatic Clearing House (ACH) is an electronic network for U.S. financial institutions to process common credits and debits. The ACH is not appropriate for escrow transactions as it lacks the necessary safeguards and reporting mechanisms to meet audit guidelines. Instead, all deposited funds must pass through the agent’s hands via check or authorized wire, or they risk potential scrutiny from state regulators.
Once funded, sale proceeds need to be made payable to the seller in the closing documents. Lender instructions typically include a statement indicating that you are closing and that funding has been carried out following agreed-upon terms. Agents run the risk of violating their duties to the lender if they distribute proceeds to anyone aside from the seller. If the seller is an LLC, proceeds should go to the LLC through a bank. And the LLC may need to set up a bank account if one does not already exist. The same goes for an estate.
Finally, agents may need to address splitting commissions. In Texas for instance, if a broker asks to split the commissions between broker and agent, the agent must have a Commission Disbursement Authorization form, and this form must be disclosed on closing statements or the form T-64.
Family transactions have their own unique complexities. One potential problem is a pretended sale of homestead property, usually based on the assertion of an invalid lien. Frequently triggered by foreclosure or bankruptcy, an assertion is often made that the property is owned by a family member who conveyed the property and not the borrower – invalidating the lien.
A family member sale can qualify as a bona fide sale; however, in a state like Texas, if property is claimable as a homestead, it can be rendered void if the conveyor continues to occupy or intends to use the property for homestead purposes. To be insured, the agent must determine that the property is not the homestead of the selling family member. Of course, it is different if it is a cash sale. There is less concern here and underwriting approval is not needed.
Property Owners’ Association (POA) and Homeowners’ Association (HOA)
Lastly, agents must be attentive when dealing with owner associations such as property owners’ associations (POA) and homeowners’ associations (HOA). Property codes require a POA to provide subdivision information. There can be multiple associations for one subdivision, and fees may have to be charged to get information from all of them. It is a best practice to obtain POA or HOA information on all transactions. Association dues are typically subordinate to purchase money and construction liens; and home equity loans (HELs) may also be subordinate to association dues. Agents must verify this by reviewing the Conditions, Covenants, and Restrictions (CCRs), and may need to obtain a subordination agreement.
When dealing with select lenders, agents may need to get a 60 or 90 letter from the HOA. In Texas, if the dues are not subordinated, the agent cannot provide all the coverage in the T-17 or T-19 endorsements. Agents should also check for violations, and if they exist, collaborate with underwriting if providing T-19 or T-19.1. If an HOA exists but has not been formed, an affidavit may need to be signed indicating its inactivity.
There are many different types of real estate transactions, and title agents need to be well-versed on how the details of a transaction can ultimately affect the closing process. By having a strong foundational understanding, agents can operate more effectively, upholding their fiduciary duties and safeguard their clients’ interests. In the third and final edition of this blog series, we will cover any remaining closing scenarios that agents will likely face throughout their career, including lender-required conveyances, Texas T-47 affidavits and more.