title agents

Definition of Marriage Changed in Dictionary

I caught a Closer Licensing Course last week.  Among the many issues that we discussed in drafting legal documents, was a conversation about marital status.  We talked about the fact that in Minnesota, you are either married or not.  If you are separated, you are still married.  If you are divorced, you are not married.  We also talked about the fact that marriage is recognized anywhere within the United States.  If you are married in Pennsylvania, we accept that marriage in Florida.  But the question came up as to whether or not we recognize marriage between two men or two women?  My response was that I had not run across that issue.  I suggested that they may want to talk to their underwriter.  Rule of thumb however it is that we accept marriages created anywhere within United States.

Interestingly enough, I saw a blog articles today in the Adjunct Law Prof that Marriage is no longer limited to opposite-sex unions, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which defined marriage as “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage,” in a post.

Any thoughts from title insurance underwriters or title agents?  Has anyone come across this issue? What was the response? And how does that affect title searches? We always searched Mrs. John Smith if we knew Mary Smith was married to John Smith. How do we search Jim Jones, married to Tom Brown?

 

Title Professionals – Are You Sleeping at Night

I was at the Louisiana Land Title Association conference yesterday.  There was a common theme among dozens of title insurance, abstracters and title attorneys I talked to.  The business has changed.  The standard of thorough title searching and fixing title problems before closing so that there are few claims is gone. One abstractor in particular told me he was getting out of the abstracting business.  It was no longer the kind of work he wanted to do.  He told me that over a period of 20 years he was proud to have had only one claim.  Someone in his office had missed a Federal tax Lien.  Yes, it was bound to happen, as he had done a significant volume of business over many years.  When the tax Lien was brought to his attention, he dealt with a like a man, and paid it.  He contacted the Sellers who owed the money.  The Sellers acknowledged that they did in fact owe the money.  He worked out a deal with the Sellers to make monthly payments until it was paid in full.  The abstractor never submitted a claim for that, or for anything else.  He was proud of his thorough search work and the way he did his business.  “But no one wants that kind of search any more” he sadly commented.

 For 100 years, title insurance and abstracting has been a proud business.  Title Insurers and abstracters have been proud of their record.  They thoroughly searched title, fixed problems, and had few claims.  But somewhere, in the recent past, when times were booming, houses were going up in value every day, and credit was easy to get, everybody wanted a piece of the action.  And the title business changed.  The traditional ways of doing business were no longer.  The care and attention given to detail went by the wayside.  Somehow, it became more important to do a large volume of business.  Be the biggest, not the best.  Everybody wanted market share.  Every title underwriter was looking for a title agent who could bring in more business.  And due to the volume of refis and sales, business, everybody flourished.  And suddenly everybody wanted to get into the title business.  Title insurance suddenly was seen as a lucrative sideline for real estate agents, mortgage companies, and even builders.  After all, if you could control the business, why not make an easy buck on the side.  You could pull down 80% or more of the premium, and lots of miscellaneous fees.  And the underwriters saw these new agents as an increase in market share, and thought it was good.

Now the majority of this premium had always gone to the old title agents who did the exacting, grunt, search and exam work- the detail guys, after all, they were the ones who identify the problems, solve the problems, and kept the title clean and the claims low.  They had been with their underwriters for years.  These were the long-term mom and pop shops.  Professionals with a long-term stake in the business.  Often second and third generation.  Professionals who were committed to doing an excellent job for people in their community.  Professionals who believed in the quality of their work, and the product they produced.  Giving a thorough title search helped them sleep at night, after all, these were their families and their neighbors, and they owed them the best they could possibly do.  Nobody was going to lose a house on their watch. If an agent had a claim, he might just pay the claim, he might put in a claim under his E and O, or if a huge authentic claim (being one totally outside their control, like a forged document) they might submit a claim to their underwriter.  Too many claims and they knew they would lose their underwriter.

But the new agents were not familiar with the exacting, grunt, search and exam work.  They did not sign up for this.  They were in the business to build houses, lend money, and sell real estate.  And they wanted a quick turnaround time.  Rationalizing that everyone was putting on a second and third mortgage at the time, that most houses were sold every seven years, and that the titles were examined regularly, it was determined a complete search would not be necessary.  Now who made this determination is unclear.  But along came the short search.  Just looking back a deed or two.  The short search allowed a quicker turnaround time, allowing more business with less staff, making it cheaper to produce.  And the underwriter saw only the increase in premium and increase in market share and thought it was good.

With so many new agents promising to bring in large amounts of business, title underwriters began to compete for that business based on larger premiums splits.  If 80% wasn’t good enough said a big potential agent, premiums went to 85%.  If 85% was a good enough said another, the premium when to 90% for the agent and 10% for the underwriter, and so it went.  And the agents signed with many underwriters.  After all, if one underwriter didn’t work out, switch to another.  Dime a dozen.  And the underwriters greedily ate up any builders, lenders, real estate agents or anyone else who could bring in business. Its a REALLY good deal when you get all that money and don’t even have to do the work!

And the old time title agents saw how fast these new agents were putting out title work.  They saw that they needed to speed up the process to compete.  The short search sounded pretty good.  And the title underwriters, in order to keep everyone happy, agreed.  And so now everyone was doing a short search.  And so the concept of thoroughly searching title, fixing problems and few claims went out the window.  And claims were born.

 

Now, somehow the thought that insurance being written by these new agents as a sideline, when the business was self serving wasn’t acknowledged.  Now you ask, “How could that be?  Does it make sense that builders should be insuring their own titles and guaranteeing over their own mechanics liens?” I don’t have an answer to that.  But, everyone moved the higher risk to the title underwriters.  And the underwriters, in order to compete, allowed it to happen The lenders were happy to control the money and the title.  The builders had a profitable, new sideline and so did the real estate agents.  Title insurance was seen as a profitable sideline, and a convenient one of that, as you could control both the speed of the transaction and handle the massive amounts of money involved in closing the transaction.  Now I’m not saying this is true for every builder, lender or real estate agent, but it happened- a lot.

 However, Title actuaries seemed to be left out of the loop on this, they went on as usual and continued collecting the same title premiums, with the lower title splits, and attempted to shrewdly invest the remaining premium for that rare occasion it might be needed to pay a claim.  Somehow it seems no one was thinking about the ramifications of the new way of doing business – the significant increase in risk because title problems were not being thoroughly researched, let alone fixed, or that more dollars might be needed in reserves to pay more claims.  Title premiums charged to the consumer remained about the same, having had few changes from year to year, or in some cases from decade to decade.  And so here we are today.  High claims and low reserves.  We’re in a fix.  Will the pendulum swing?  In order to be solvent do we need to go back to the traditional ways of doing business –thoroughly searching title, fixing problems, and having few claims?  Or more importantly, in order to sleep at night, do we, as ethical title professionals need to be more thorough in our work, so that none of our friends, family, or clients lose their house on our watch.

 

 

New Legislation Imposes Stricter Guidelines on California Title Insurance Industry

by Jarrod Clabaugh,  Printed with permission from Source of Title
   
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 133 into law on September 25, 2008. The legislation implements greater controls over the practice of title insurance in California. Introduced by Senator Sam Aanestad in January 2007, the bill focuses on inducements offered by title marketing representatives to real estate agents and brokers in exchange for the steerage of business to their title insurance companies. The bill was supported by both the California Department of Insurance and the California Land Title Association.
The bill provides the department of insurance with significant new powers to regulate marketing practices in the title insurance industry. In particular, the bill creates the first program in the country to register and regulate title company sales representatives.

According to the bill, a person is prohibited from being employed as a title marketing representative unless he or she holds a valid certificate of registration issued by the commissioner for a three-year period. Should a person market title insurance without a valid certificate, the commissioner can issue a cease and desist order prohibiting that person from further marketing.

Additionally, under the legislation, title companies must notify the commissioner when a title marketing representative is hired or terminated. It also establishes an application process for the certificate of registration and allows the commissioner to set a fee to obtain or renew a certificate in an amount sufficient to defray the actual costs of processing it. The legislation states this cost cannot exceed $200.

The submitted application must contain several facts about the applicant, including the person’s residential address, principal business address, and the applicant’s mailing address. The applicant must also submit a statement, signed by an officer of the business by whom the applicant is or will be employed, certifying that the applicant will be provided training within 60 days of the hiring date or date of application. The applicant must submit another statement as to whether he or she has previously had a certificate of registration revoked, suspended or denied.

Should a marketing representative violate any terms of the state’s title insurance code, the legislation states that the department can revoke, suspend, restrict or decline to issue a certificate of registration if it determines at a hearing that the representative did violate the law. Additionally, any title marketing representative who has his or her certificate revoked by the department is not permitted to reapply for another certificate of registration with the department for five years from the date of revocation.

The legislation also establishes that it is unlawful for any title insurer, underwritten title company or controlled escrow company to pay, directly or indirectly, any commission, compensation, or other consideration to any person as an inducement for the placement or referral of title business. The actual placement or referral of title business is not a precondition to a violation of this section, whether the violation is or is not a per se violation pursuant to subdivision.

While the legislation sets many guidelines as to what is considered an inducement, one particular aspect that alarms title agents is they can no longer pay for anyone’s food, beverage or entertainment but their own.

“So no more free lunches for clients,” said Greg Knowles, an agent with Lawyers Title in Santa Barbara. “That is a huge change in our business. I am having a hard time thinking I can’t take a good customer to lunch. I can’t take one of them to a baseball game or local sporting event.”

“Competing specifically on the quality of the work we do and the price we charge probably isn’t the worst outcome in the world,” he added. “I do have many close friends in this business that my wife and I may invite over for dinner, is that illegal as well?”

The legislation mandates that representatives can continue to provide parties with promotional items with a permanently affixed company logo so long as each individual item’s value does not exceed $10. These gifts, however, cannot be gift certificates, gift cards or any other item that has a specific monetary value.

The legislation states that the provision or payment of any form of consideration as an inducement for the placement or referral of title business not specifically set forth in the bill will be considered unlawful and is, thus, prohibited.

“Restricting the illegal activities by title marketing representatives is a win for businesses and consumers,” said Steve Poizner, the department of insurance’s commissioner. “By curtailing the practice of real estate agents and brokers recommending a specific title insurer to their clients due to incentives provided by title marketing representatives, competition and transparency are fostered in the insurance marketplace.”

The legislation was the culmination of several years of effort by the department of insurance to address the growing problem of inducements. While such practices are illegal, the department had no enforcement authority over the individuals who used them before this legislation was signed. Now, the department is provided with regulatory oversight of title marketing representatives.

“Senate Bill 133 enhances consumer protection while maintaining the healthy, competitive title insurance marketplace in California,” said Craig Page, the executive president of the CLTA. “The legislation is just the latest example of the industry’s effort to promote consumer choice in the title insurance market. The competitive market in California has led to title insurance rates that are below the national average according to Bankrate.com.”

“Senate Bill 133 is win-win legislation for California,” Aanestad said. “It is pro-business and it is pro-consumer. By curtailing the practice of some real estate agents and brokers who recommend a specified title insurer to clients due to the use of incentives offered by some title marketing representatives, it promotes real competition in the title insurance marketplace. Competition among insurers can transfer into lower rates and a better deal for homebuyers.”

 

 

Title Agents give Worthless Title Policies

I was HORRIFIED when a customer contacted me about a title policy from a local title agent for his $1,000,000. Owner’s Title Policy being done in conjunction with a mortgage policy. The title commitment gave virtually no information other than owner, taxes and outstanding mortgage information. Because the buyer wishes to place an additional storage building on the property, the real estate agent inquired about location of any easements and restrictions. The Title Agent said something to the effect that they “no longer attempted to look for such things, they just insured over any problems.”

As an abstractor and educator who has been advocating the new 2008 ALTA Owner’s Policy, I was shocked! Even a most basic search should show easements and restrictions. Not looking for these leaves the underwriter open for all sorts of expensive title claims.

I would like to hear if others are seeing title commitments like this, or if it is just a lazy, rogue title agent who controls a lot of business and has buffaloed its real estate agents into thinking they are doing the consumer a favor by buying an expensive piece of garbage. Someone needs to start SCREAMING about this. I believe these agents are perpetrating fraud on the consumer.

A Foggy Look into the Future of Title Agents

As is typical of our industry, we are always engrossed in something. Currently the talk is potential RESPA changes, Fraud, and the Woes of a Weak Market (along with that age old fist-fight about the fairness of aba’s of course.) And these issues certainly do affecting our day to day business lives. But the relationship between the non-affiliated agent and his or her underwriter is a much bigger long-term issue for the agent. Independent agents, who think they can not be replaced by national REI plants, captive agencies or your Underwriter, beware.

I started in the title business in 1976. We believed then that abstracts of title were doomed and could be replaced at any moment with title insurance, or something else. We were right – it just took about 20 years longer than we thought. (Things changed a lot slower then.) In those days, the insurer insured the policies and the agent brought in the business and sold the policies. Today, with technology, things are changing at warp speed. The Underwriter is completely in the driver’s seat and there is no choice, title agents, so get used to it.

Insurers have changed the way business is done. The public wanted title work faster and cheaper. The insurers accommodated the public. Experienced, long-term agents with high quality standards were forced to undermine their standards in order to compete. The thorough, thoughtful search of the past is gone, replaced by a quick and dirty rendition put out with a cursory title search, i.e. risk underwriting.

The independent agent that was once the cornerstone of the title industry is disappearing, partially due to the surge in affiliated businesses that shepherded the business away; partially due to a very poor market; and also because Underwriters have been growing by gobbling up agencies and turning them into branches. Underwriters today are no longer dependent on local agents. The days of title underwriters worrying about quirks in each county are gone, again, risk underwriting. And in the future they will be even less dependent, as technology and electronic recordings allow information to be recorded and made available within minutes, perhaps even with little human intervention. Moreover, due to high agency defalcations and the claims in the last few years, it makes sense. Underwriters can have more control over day to day operations. Plus, by replacing an agent’s traditional title plant with the underwriter’s superior Real Estate Information (REI) technology, adding flood information, tax information, assessor information, maps and more it becomes salable as many products instead of one.

Yes, I believe the days of the independent, non-affiliated title agent are limited. But then again, I thought abstracts would be gone overnight, and it took 20 years.

As the Pendulum Swings

I sometimes feel that life in the title industry is like life in a soap opera! Times are always either TOO good or TOO bad. We are always looking to hire, or looking to fire. For those who follow the Title Industry as a whole, lots of news arrived May 1st as the status of the industry swung once again the 1st quarter. There were a few positives and certainly many signs of corrections made. Here are some updates:

TradingMarkets reported that Title insurers as a whole again saw significant job declines, down 12.1% from March 2007 to 87,100. Title insurance employees saw weekly earnings fall 5.4%
HousingWire said LandAmerica posted a net loss of $24.2 million in the 1st quarter. The company cut 300 employees during the quarter, and has cut staffing by 25.4 percent of staff since the start of 2007. The company’s lender services division, that houses default outsourcing businesses, posted pretax earnings of $10.1 million, with increased demand for its lien monitoring, appraisal, foreclosure and reconveyance services as a driving factor. No surprise here. Meanwhile, it reports Stewart Title revenues at fell 25.9 percent, driving a net loss of $22.3 million for the first quarter.
However, First American posted a small profit in spite of the fact that its revenue fell 22 percent. Factors contributing to the poor revenue stream were the obvious decline in the number of title orders closed, decreases in the average revenue per order (housing prices are dropping after all) and the reduction of certain agency relationships (certainly a good thing.) On the other hand, profitable results demonstrate that the company made deep cuts to its expenses in the 1st quarter including salary and other personnel costs, which, according to PRNewswire, were down 26 percent from the same quarter of 2007. Also, First American’s information services group, that supplies information on defaults also had significant increased volume.

Yet, Demotech, reports that the financial solvency of the industry as a whole has rarely been better saying

2007 results provided dramatic observations for the Title insurance industry, with premiums decreasing by 14 percent as losses increased 32 percent over 2006 results. While the recent financial challenges are not to be minimized and recent forecasts point to a long and slow recovery, from a historical perspective, the Title industry remains near its peak. Since 1995, the industry increased its Direct Written Premiums and Policyholders’ Surplus an unprecedented 228 percent and 129 percent, respectively. This broader perspective reveals a cyclical industry in a down cycle, but also reveals an industry that is maintaining exceptional financial stability and is still near record performance.

For those of us who have seen the pendulum swing over the last 35 years, this swing in the market is nothing new. However, we have never seen mortgage defaults at such extremes, or the immediate horizon so bleak. Many in the trade will move on to other occupations – by choice, or not. Much of this will actually improve the industry, by weeding out the week and inexperienced, and illuminating for Underwriters those title agents who were problem children because of their ethics, or rather lack of ethics. Have we hit bottom yet? Who knows, probably not. It still looks depressing out there. But, being an optimist, I look forward to a sunrise with better times. As the proverb says…and this too shall pass.

Another Claim for an Accurate Five Minute Title Search

I believe in automated title plants. They are a good thing. Not to have to drive to the Courthouse every day, not having to physically handle musty, dusty, not to mention heavy old books. Not having to pull microfilm, aperture cards, paper copies, all of which deteriorate as they are handled. Not to worry about natural disasters – like fires and floods that wipe out public records. These are all good things.

But I hold the line when a company, like TitleEDGE, advertises it can provide:

“complete automated searches and preliminary examinations via a variety of title and foreclosure products in an average of five minutes. These results include the chain of title, general or name index, taxes maps, and other items are then, according to the company, “reviewed by a qualified title professional and delivered to title company customers in as little as 15 minutes.” After a review by the title company, the completed title product can be delivered to their customers in as little as one hour.

Once again, it would appear that whomever is using this product is providing casualty insurance. Yes, you can tell me that a competent title search, one showing all easements, restrictions, judgments, special assessments and dozens of other potential hazards is available in 5 minutes, but I do not believe it. I know from experience, a good title commitment and policy require significantly more oversight than that. It makes me angry to suggest that a 5 minute title commitment is accurate and true. What is true, is that the resulting product is a weak, cheapened version of what was a formerly strong, healthy title insurance product.

Why not admit it, creators and users, that the goal of this product is to simply keep costs down, and give faster delivery time. Keeping costs down and fast delivery are good things! Things a computerized title plant can offer. However, the claim of “improved accuracy,” in a title commitment? Now that is a fallacy. A good title product requires spending time to LOOK at each of the actual documents. That is the POINT of the recording system, to put in writing the intentions of the buyers, sellers, lenders, easement holders, etc. etc. etc. If you do not take a GOOD look, and use your noodle to figure out what is missing or wrong in the picture when examining title, the work is worthless.

I applaud those title agents and underwriters who take time to thoroughly LOOK at the documents, the good old-fashioned way…those who use their knowledge and expertise to put out a worthy product. We know legal documents contain a wealth of important information for our clientss and we need to inform our customers of what those complex documents mean to them. But, those who endorse and use of Five Minute Title Searches – beware. You will suffer mightlily with higher claims and your customers will suffer too.

Demotech Press Release Raises Questions on Financial Status of National Title Insurance Underwriters

A Demotech Press Release/advertisement for the 2008 Edition of Demotech Performance of Title Insurance Companies states that the major Title Underwriters are in good financial shape. The press release says:

“Although the severity and duration of the downturn in the real estate marketplace will likely challenge smaller, privately held, regional Title underwriters, the overwhelming majority of the Title underwriters, including the publicly traded underwriters, will sustain exceptional financial stability. They have the financial resources to respond and settle meritorious claims as payments come due. Similarly, the majority will continue to possess sufficient financial strength to withstand agency defalcations that tend to accompany periods of declining Title insurance production.”

My first question is – “what constitutes meritorious claims?” The title industry has long reserved for “title problems” such as fraud, forgery, incompetent or incapacitated parties in the chain of title, etc. But now it seem to have taken on the additional liability for closing issues – not only for such things as simple errors in closing, but also for breaches of contract, fraud, conversion of funds and theft, by providing “insured closing letters” to lenders.

My second question is- “Has anyone taken into account that the policy says the title company will defend ANY claim against title,” meritorious or not. Recent costs of defense have skyrocketed. And, the quality of work done over the last few years, as has been well known and admitted to by the Underwriters, has been deplorable. A few years ago the American Land Title Assoc. claimed one in four titles had defects. They no longer talk about these ratios – too embarrassing, perhaps? After all, the title companies have been responsible for most of the problems. I would not be surprised if one in two titles were now deficient. All of these problems should be mitigated. It will be expensive. Or perhaps the Underwriters will just “insure over” problems, hoping in time they will go away.

Lastly, considering the seemingly daily uncovering of bad apple title agents and recognizing that only a hand full of national underwriters hold a 90% plus market share, when the press release says “the majority will continue to possess sufficient financial strength to withstand agency defalcations” does that mean one or more of the National Title Underwriters are suspect for not being able to survive this crisis?

Info On Home Closing

Home Closing 101: An Educational Initiative of the American Land Title Association