How do you perform a property title search?

In real estate business and law, a title search or property title search is the process of retrieving documents evidencing events in the history of a piece of real property, to determine relevant interests in and regulations concerning that property. Property title records are kept in a county government’s deed room and it is open to the public not just realtors or real estate attorneys. Jenifir Dimo, a real estate attorney, with Stewart, Melvin & Frost is our guest this morning. She will give us some insight on property title searches.

Question: Will you give us an overview of the Deed Room and who uses it?

Jenifir: First, the Hall County Deed Room/Record Room is located directly across from the Courthouse and it is open to the public, not just professionals associated with real estate. When going in, you will see a myriad of individuals. There will be real estate attorneys who are looking up deeds, title examiners or abstractors who are running title to build a chain of title, surveyors determining boundary lines, and ordinary citizens who just curious about their property or the property they are going to purchase.

The information contained in the Deed Room is essentially all of the deeds, easements, liens, plats, and all other instruments conveying interests in property or affecting title to one’s property. This overwhelming information is organized into indexes to assist the searcher to find what affects an individual property.  Most deed rooms are organized the same way, but each has its own nuances, which is where experience comes in.

So, imagine all of the deeds of Hall County, back from 1900 shuffled up. It would be excruciating to locate a deed, let alone create a chain of title. What has been done to alleviate such pain is called a grantor/grantee index. In layman’s terms, a grantor is someone who gives an interest in property and a grantee is someone who receives an interest. Generally, the grantor is the person selling the property and the grantee is the purchaser.

Question: If an ordinary citizen is curious about the history of their property or a property they are interested in purchasing, how would they find their way through all the documents?

Jenifir: The indexes are books organized by year and within each year, by last name. So, every person who has conveyed an interest in real estate in Hall County is in that index, by the year they sold and last name.

Likewise, on the opposite side is every person who has received an interest in real estate. So before the advent of technology, a title examiner would first grantee back from the current owner to know who has ever received an interest in that property.

Here’s an example: So, I am thinking about buying property from you. I look up your name on the grantee index and find that you bought from Joe. Next, I look up Joe’s name on the Grantee index to find who he bought his property from…and so on and so forth. That is how we begin to build the chain. But that is only half of the story. Imagine that when Joe bought the property, he sold to you and he sold to Jane. So now, you are selling this property to me that Jane also has some interest in. To find out that Joe had “clear” title when he sold to you, we have to run the property though the grantor index as well.

Beginning with the first person, we run their name through the grantor index until we find where they sold the property. Then we run the name of that buyer until we find who he sold to . . . and so on and so forth until we come down from Joe to you. We make sure as current as we can, that you did not sell the property or give anybody an interest in the property until you sign that Deed to me.

The only nuance today is that there are computers now. Through various county tax assessor programs, we can grantee back quicker electronically. Because all that we really want to know is the earliest person who had the property. Once we know the person who had that property way back, we can run his name through the grantor index to make sure there is only one chain.

Question: What are some problems that an ordinary citizen could run into trying to research a title themselves?

Jenifir: We touched on this before, but one possibility is that there are two record owners of a piece of property. For example, somewhere back in time the property was sold twice by an unscrupulous person. Most of the time, this will be picked up by the tax office – where a bill will be sent to 2 different people. You go to pay your tax bill and find out that it’s already been paid! That is not someone trying to be nice – that is a red flag that there is an issue of title.

Question: There are issues that can arise in a title search, as a real estate attorney, how do you resolve them?

Jenifir: Each state has a variation of the recording acts but Georgia determines priority by two prongs.

1) Race; essentially it’s a race to the courthouse. That is why we record interests as quickly as possible because whoever records first wins.

2) The person must have paid fair value and not have any notice of the conflicting interest. By recording, you are giving the whole world notice that you have this interest in this property so that they cannot have priority over your interest. That is why it is so important to record.

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