One of the most crucial steps to closing a real estate transaction is the title search. As an investor, you need to do prudent research and be 100% sure that the person you're buying from has a clear title to the property. You need to ensure that you're getting a deed and paying the actual property owner (not somebody else who thinks they own the property, or is lying to you and claiming that they own it). When I bought my first house, this whole concept really confused me and if you're new to real estate, it may seem confusing to you too…

Why A Clear Title Matters

titlesearchesIn a lot of ways, it's a similar process to buying a car.

Suppose you see a car parked in someone's driveway with a “FOR SALE” sign in the window. The car looks nice, so you walk up to the house, knock on the door and say “I saw this car parked in your driveway, is it yours?”

The person replies, “No – but I'll sell it to you for $20,000!

There's obviously something wrong with this picture. A person can't sell something they don't legally own – and while it sounds like a ridiculous conversation, you'd be surprised at how often I've come across situations just like this in the real estate business.

How does this kind of issue come up in the first place? There are a lot of ways…   but most often, I come across people who have inherited a property from their parents or relatives and somewhere along the way, the proper paperwork was never filed to give them the “legal right” to sell the property. Other times, people just buy properties without doing their own due diligence and then THEY get stuck with a property that doesn't have a clear title. As weird as it may sound – a person can actually end up with their name on the tax bill (and in some cases, even on the most recent deed) – but somewhere in the historical “chain of title” (as recorded in the county's records) the property wasn't transferred correctly from a seller to their buyer.

Another key reason you'll want to do a title search is to make sure there aren't any liens or mortgages on the property. Especially when you're offering people a very small amount of cash for their property (like I tend to do), there will be times when they conveniently neglect to mention that they have a $100,000 mortgage or $20,000 construction lien tied to that property. If you fail to catch this in your title search BEFORE closing on the deal, these issues will fall into your lap and become your problem, along with the property itself.

If you spend enough time in the real estate business, you will run into this issue eventually. Unfortunately, when the problem comes up, it doesn't always have a quick and easy solution.

Title Insurance As An Option

Most real estate professionals (realtors, bankers, insurance agents) would like you to believe that the only way to identify these issues is to pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a title company to research the property for you and issue a title insurance policy.

In many cases, buying title insurance is a smart move. A title insurance policy is essentially a guarantee from a title company (which usually comes with several conditions) that your property has been reviewed, it has a clear title and is free of any liens, mortgages or other unforeseen issues (unless specifically stated otherwise). In other words – once the transaction is closed, you are the official owner of the property, and there aren't any other hidden parties that have an ownership claim to your property.

I agree to some extent that title insurance usually isn't a bad idea. It gives you a solid layer of protection and can save you time and bring peace of mind – knowing that the process was done right (or at least, you'll have someone to fall back on if something goes wrong in the future).

That being said… what if you get a property under contract for $150 (something I've seen in my line of work quite often)? Can you really justify paying another $450 just for a title insurance policy, thereby tripling your cost to purchase the property? Is it worth paying more for a title insurance policy than for the property itself? Where do you draw the line?? How do you keep these costs from eating away your profit margin on smaller deals like this?

Title Research – The Cheap Way

There is a way to make this process MUCH cheaper (though it does take more time and effort on your part).

The way I handle this is to order an “abstract of title” from a local title agency or a professional abstractor (oftentimes, abstractors are the people a title company will hire to pull these records for them).

Abstractors can be found a few different ways. You can start with a Google search and see where it gets you (google: County Name, State Name, “Title Search”). You can also call your county Register of Deeds and ask if they have any recommendations on who can pull a title search for you. I've found that most Register of Deeds (aka – “County Recorder”) offices have all kinds of connections and can help you find different abstractors at a very reasonable price. Another way is to call your title insurance agency and ask them to pull a title search on the property (NOT a title commitment). This may not be the cheapest way to go, but they can almost always help you.

Invalid LeadPlayer video - ID not found!

The price for an abstract of title will vary based on who you talk to, and sometimes you'll need to get prices from a few different sources before you pull the trigger. In my experience, the cost is usually somewhere in the vicinity of $75 – $125 for this service (if the cost gets over-and-above $150, I'd recommend looking elsewhere). It will usually take the abstractor a couple of days (sometimes longer) to pull together a full list of the historical records on that property. Once you get the records back from them, it just a matter of examining each individual deed on record AND making sure there are no mortgages or liens hidden throughout.

When you get your abstract of title, the order of documents are typically laid out chronologically, from the most recent to the oldest record. If done correctly, this should make it easy for you to identify that the order goes from Owner A to Owner B, Owner B to Owner C, Owner C to Owner D, and so on throughout the history of transfers. For example, if John Smith sold the property to Joe Dirt in 1977, then the next deed on record should show Joe Dirt as the seller. If on the other hand, you saw that the next deed on record was Jane Doe selling to Jim Jones in 1988 (skipping over any mention of when Joe Dirt sold the property), this would be a problem. This is called a “break in the chain of title”. If a title company saw this in their research, they would not be able to issue their title insurance policy because there is a clear blemish in the historical records.

If you come across one of these situations, the best case scenario is that the seller might have some of these original missing documents in their files. If they do, you can ask them to get those documents recorded (or you can obtain the documents directly and do it yourself). I've seen this happen a couple of times, but usually we aren't that lucky. In most cases, when we see a significant issue in the title search, we will ultimately walk away from the deal. It isn't fun (because at that point, we've invested the time and money into the title search), but it's A LOT better to be aware of these problems and avoid them than it is to go into it oblivious and end up with a property that isn't really yours (because the seller didn't really have the legal right to sell it in the first place).

Knowing When It's Worth The Price

Admittedly, doing your own title search will open you up to some risk. There is always the possibility that you'll miss a crucial piece of information along the way. However, I've done at least a few dozen title searches on my own and I have never been burned by it.

The only time I ever do my own title search is when the market value of the property is less than $5K (i.e. – I'm talking about some very cheap, “rinky-dink” properties). As soon as I start dealing with properties that are worth more than $5,000, I never leave it to chance. At that point, a full-blown title insurance policy is more than worth the cost. Making sure it's done right and someone else is on the hook for any mistakes can go a LONG way towards my peace of mind (and to me, that's worth a lot).

Image Credit:

Join the discussion 44 Comments

  • Alex Goldovsky says:

    Protitleusa offers reasonable Title Searches that are very accurate and thorough. They include the Chain of Title, Judgments, Liens, Taxes and Mortgages. They even offer just a Judgment and Lien search for a property.

    • Seth Williams says:

      Thanks for sharing Alex!

    • Anthony Agustin says:

      We found and use (Google search) a couple of online title search websites for expedited service for title and lien records including deed image copies. One of the more well-rounded, comprehensive sites we found is US Title Records. They appear to cover every single County throughout the United States. Not only are their prices under industry standards, we get our reports within 15 to 25 minutes upon order. Amazing customer service also.

      Several properties we pulled information on had recorded foreclosure activity (NOD) in which we received reports on, complementary for the service.


  • Chuck Moreno says:

    Hi Seth. Just listened to your podcast #39 on bigger pockets. Hadn’t really thought about investing in land but I literally decided to go ahead and buy some land for a future home site and listened to the next podcast in my list and it was yours. Fate brought us together lol. Love the site. My question is about buying raw land at a foreclosure sale brought on by the HOA for unpaid dues. I just found out about the auction which occurs in 3 days. I would go at this property as a flip or owner financed for cash flow but not to hold for my future home. I have some access to money so I’d be able to purchase it if I get a good deal. Do you have any experience with these type of HoA foreclosures? Im sure I know the answer but is 1 business day enough time to do a title search to find out if there is a mortgage balance or other liens against the property. The property taxes are up to date which is strange since they didn’t pay the HOA fees. Something tells me the HoA fees have already been settled by the property owner. I couldn’t see them letting this parcel go over some HOA fees. Any quick help would be much appreciated.

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Chuck, I don’t have any experience with this precise kind of deal you’re talking about – but if you were able to move VERY quickly (and you knew where to get the information), sure – you could do a title search and find out what the situation is.

      This kind of weird stuff can happen with some properties (where the taxes are paid current but the HOA fees aren’t), and it’s not always easy to know why without doing some digging. There is usually a sensible reason, but you won’t know until you get down to the bottom of it… which probably won’t be easy to do in such a short time frame.

      Either way – I wish you the best!

  • Jeffrey says:

    Hey, I have two properties that I am looking at where the owner had went through bankruptcy over 3 years ago and the mortgage company who was foreclosing on the property did a voluntary dismissal on the foreclosure . My question is since they did a voluntary dismissal and never finished the process would that make this fall under the statue of limitations on a promissary note or would this fall under the Zombie title? If it falls under the statue concerning promissary notes, how can I go about getting clear title for the owner to finance the property to me? I really hope you can help me with this because I haven,t found anything that would clarify this for me in my research.
    Also anyone who would be interested in doing some real estate deals in NC, please contact me via email at Thanks

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Jeffrey, I wish I could help, but that question falls way outside of my area of expertise. If it’s really an important question to get answered, why not just order a title insurance policy? They should be able to tell you definitively whether or not this is actually a show-stopping problem (and if it is, you don’t necessarily have to follow through with closing on the deal). Whenever I encounter weird issues that I’m not sure how to handle, I just hand it off to the title company and I let them take care of the complicated ones.

  • sara says:

    Thank you for posting informative info for the everyday Joe! So, I do have a question that hopefully you can help. I have had a career in land surveying and construction, and worked closely with title companies. So I’m pretty experienced. Anyway, I always had a title commitment to pull my docs from. I have a property that I’m doing the title search myself and I’ve got almost everything, but I don’t know how to determine if there is a lien on it? ??? So that’s my question, how do I know if the title is free from loans/liens??? Or if the previous owner took out a loan against the property? ?? Thank you for your help!!

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Sara, if you got an abstract of title, I would think that this information should be included. If you wanted to double check and 150,000,000% sure, you could always call the county Register of Deeds (aka – Recorder) and ask them if there are any outstanding liens on the property. Most of these offices can do a quick check for you and verify in a matter of seconds.

  • Pam Hindman says:

    Hi, im selling a lot that my home use to be on (burned down) anyway the neighbors want to buy it , no financing involved, so do I just get a warranty deed and fill it in with grantor , grantee, legal description, amt selling for, get it notarized and then the buyers record it , do I need to get a title opinion? I know the taxes are paid in full and checked with court house for liens or judgements on property, anything else? ??

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Pam, it sounds like you’re on the right track. Luckily, closing a cash deal like this is relatively straightforward and simple. I’ve actually got a detailed blog post that explains how to go about this process – you can check it out right here.

      If that still doesn’t cover all the bases for you, let me know and I’ll see if I can elaborate.

      Good luck!

  • Richard thomas says:

    I have a question actually,I bought a trailer on land contract for 20,000.the owner says the bank says we owe 13,178 more on the trailer we have paid 13,200 so far didn’t know a bank owned it he never told us till now,so is he held bye the signed agreement of 20,000 or are we screwed

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Richard, when you say “trailer” – this is usually considered a separate asset from the land it’s sitting on.

      So with this in mind , my first question would be – did you buy the trailer, the land, or both? If there’s a bank loan involved, which of thees two assets does the bank have a lien on?

  • Michael Anthony says:

    This is great information

  • Sharon says:

    If my first mortgage didn’t come up on the insured title search but there is one although it was recorded late assignment of mortgage by countrywide. Can I sell my house anyway? The servicer now is not coperating with sending me paperwork.

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Sharon – I’m not sure I understand your question or the scenario you’re dealing with. Can you clarify or re-phrase your question at all?

  • harry says:

    I’m buying into a new property owned by Toll Brothers, Toll owns the property and all the rights of the property why should I pay a title company, a large sum of money, to do a title search when Toll has already acquired the legal and proper rights to the property?

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Harry – the research that Toll Brothers has done to protect their interests, won’t necessarily protect YOUR interests. If you trust them implicitly, then you’re probably fine – but if you want to verify that your ownership stake is clear, then you’ll probably want to do your own verification to make sure everything checks out.

  • Gary Bates says:

    If you have not yet been burned by doing your own title search, in time you will.
    Real estate transactions require legal opinions and legal documents, each one unique from another. There are to many things that can go wrong in a title search for a lay person to be doing the search. You are doing a grave injustice by advising people to DIY. I have been closing Real Estate transaction for 36 years, owner of a title company and a Title Insurance agent. Even with experience there are going to be mistakes made by yourself and those you rely upon for information.

    • Seth Williams says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Gary. I hear you – title searches do require experience and a trained eye in knowing what to look for. Some deals can be VERY complicated, while others are fairly straightforward.

      I certainly wouldn’t recommend everyone take this on themselves… this article is simply here for those who want to learn the basic mechanics of how to identify a clear chain of title.

  • Debra says:

    Hi..I have a question and not sure how to handle this. I just purchased a property via online auction that is next to my home that I own. This was due to bankruptcy by the owner who has owned the property for almost the last 20 years. This subdivision was just pasture land prior to that so has been developed as a subdivision only about 25 years or so. The original owner (developer) gave this person (current owner) this lot as “payment” for something and no other owner has ever been involved to my knowledge. The bankruptcy trustee (attorney) has selected a Title Company in a surrounding county to the one that the property is located in. They informed me that it will be more expensive for them to do a title search if I chose to have one done. I am wondering if I can ask the trustee to use another company in my county or if I should just contact my county recorder if they can check for any liens? I paid less than $5000 for the lot but will have to pay $550 in back taxes so I want to get by paying as little as possible. Any advice will be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Debra – depending on which state you’re in and how your purchase agreement was worded, you might be able to choose a different title agency. You could also order a title commitment yourself and try to work with it that way (though these can be a bit more confusing to work with). You can check out this blog post for more information on that:

      Best of luck!

  • Julie Gimbel says:

    I have questions about raw land in unincorporated Riverside County CA. Getting a property back that has cloudy title and ways to avoid it going to public auction if we foreclose on the last person on the title who didn’t satisfy terms

    • Seth Williams says:

      Okay – what are your questions Julie?

      • Julie Gimbel says:

        The chain of title is a land company, my husband, then a third owner who never paid it off. Third owner can’t be found. I assume we would need to foreclose and that the property would then go to public auction? He has kept taxes current. Any ways to avoid public auction? Would husband get back a portion of proceeds on the sale if he lost at auction?

        • Julie Gimbel says:

          Is it true that my husbands bud would start at the amount he’s owed on the property or the taxes he has paid?

          • Julie Gimbel says:


          • Seth Williams says:

            I’m not sure I understand the question/situation Julie. Have you tried asking the county (or whoever you’re submitting the “bid” to)? That might be the best place to start.

          • Julie Gimbel says:

            I’d be happy to clarify the question…what part of it is unclear to you?

  • Julie Gimbel says:

    My understanding is that if we, in order to get the property back would have to foreclose on the third owner.. with such forecloseure would it automatically go to public auction?… or is there an alternative

    • Seth Williams says:

      Who is this “third owner” you’re referring to? I’m not clear on what kind of situation you’re dealing with.

  • Julie Gimbel says:

    The third owner is who my husband sold property to that never paid it off

    • Julie Gimbel says:

      Wordering if we would need to foreclose on this person to get property back and would it definitely go to auction other is there an alternative?

  • Love Jesus chirst says:

    Hello my husband and I bought a manufactured home back in 2000 the bank took over from the first owners they had it
    We recently decided to refinance
    Everything went through
    When we were ready to close the escrow tittle office ask the bank if they had the tittle it was no where to be found they told us the title was never eliminated

    Then I went back to the original office where we first sight the papers to close
    They said they couldn’t find anything and that they destroyed all paper work after 7 years
    I’m beyond frustrated I can’t believe this is happening
    In my original documents when we first bought the house it shows the they charge us for the title elimination
    Apparently they can’t find the house register she told me it was like our house doesn’t exist what can I do I feel lost and I want to do my own research

    • Seth Williams says:

      Wow, I’m sorry to hear about that – that sounds like a nightmare! Do you have copies of the closing documentation from when you bought the home back in 2000? If you can find a copy of the title insurance policy (assuming one was included), that would be one place to start – as you could pursue the title company.

      Otherwise, if you’re hitting dead ends everywhere you turn, you could always talk with a local attorney about doing a “quiet title action” – and they could tell you if that’s a viable option in your situation.

    • Patrick Crowe says:

      I will weigh in on this one. As a real estate appraiser, It sounds like you are describing what is known as detitling of the manufactured home itself, and not the title to the land that this article is referring to. Manufactured home titles are typically handled through the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) and not the register of deeds office. Detitling a manufactured home means that the home becomes a permanent improvement to the land and is no longer considered personal property. The land and the manufactured home are then taxed as one piece of property.

  • Renee carrillo says:

    I did an owner financed sell of my property through a title company. The buyer defaulted because he was sent to prison for fraud. The title company had legal issues and was closed. So I can’t get any info from there. I went to the assessors office and they tell me the taxes are in the person who defaulted name. How could he get them in his name? They won’t let me get taxes back in name. What should I do?

    • Seth Williams says:

      Hi Renee – sorry to hear of the trouble you’re dealing with. If you want to get the property (and taxes) completely back in your name, the proper procedure will depend on what type of loan documentation you used when you originally closed the deal, and how the laws work in the state where this property is located. Some states will require that you go to court, but not all of them do.

      Admittedly, it can be pretty confusing at first (especially if you’ve never dealt with this before). It spent a TON of time trying to research the property in all 50 states and I was never able to completely get my arms around it.

      If it were me, I’d probably work with an attorney to make sure things are being handled the right way… but pay close attention to what they’re doing. Once you understand what they’re doing, you may be able to handle some aspects of any future repossessions yourself.

      Best of luck to you!

  • Jerryll says:

    I never understood the big deal about title searches… till a fellow investor was too eager to close on a property and after he realized there were liens on the property. Definitely do a title search. I never knew I could do them myself. Now I wonder if my attorney charges me extra for “doing them”..

    • You probably are being charged extra – but there’s also something to be said for their expertise. They’ve probably done thousands of title searches, whereas you’re relatively inexperienced… they’ll be much better qualified to identify issues that you might mess. Even so, if you have a basic understanding of what to look for, it’s not hard to handle most of these yourself.

Leave a Reply

Get Classified Access

Get Classified Access

Join the email list and get INSTANT ACCESS to the RETIPSTER TOOLBOX - with tons of free tools, downloads, video tutorials and more!

Check your email to confirm!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This