Zillow: Understanding Title Insurance – and Why You Need It

You understand the benefit of car insurance and homeowners insurance, but chances are you’ve never thought about title insurance until you started the process of buying a house. What is title insurance? It’s a policy that insures that you won’t have any unknown claims made to the ownership of your home.

What could go wrong?

A clean or clear title is important because the title is what gives you ownership of a property. Imagine buying your dream home, closing the deal and then realizing the previous owner hadn’t paid property taxes for several years. Those taxes remain charged against the property and as the new owner, you are responsible. The taxing entity could even take your home. Or perhaps two sales ago someone sold the home without getting the signature of an estranged husband who now wants to stake his claim. Perhaps the previous owner didn’t pay a contractor for some work on the home and the company put a lien against the house. Or the power company shows up with a crew to take advantage of an easement though your new backyard. The scenarios are seemingly endless and tracking down every last possibility is more than you can practically do on your own. That’s where title insurance comes in.

An ounce of prevention

Unlike most insurance policies, you pay just a one-time fee and your property is covered for as long as you or your heirs own it. If you are taking out a loan to buy your home, the lender will require you to purchase lender’s title insurance to cover its investment. Essentially, the lender wants to make sure this is a legitimate deal with someone who has the full right to sell the property to you. But the lender’s policy will only cover the outstanding amount of the loan at the time a claim is made. You also want to make sure you have a policy that covers your interest, called an owner’s policy. When purchased together, the owner’s policy is a relatively inexpensive addition.

As you’ve probably guessed by the one-time fee, title insurance doesn’t work the same way most other policies do. The truth is that title insurers rarely have to pay out on claims. But that doesn’t mean you’re paying them for nothing. To the contrary, unlike other types of insurance, title insurance companies mostly incur their expenses upfront and help prevent any kind of title surprise later on.

While you are in the escrow phase of your purchase, the title insurance company will conduct a comprehensive search to make sure there are no such surprises lurking in the dusty files in some forgotten corner of the county courthouse. The title company searcher looks at deeds, wills, and trusts, tracing the history of the property back many, many years. The search can be manual or on a computer or both, depending on records in your area. Among the important questions is whether all past mortgages and liens have been paid. Does anyone hold an easement? Are there any pending legal actions? That’s where most of your insurance premium goes – to conducting that search. Then, just to make sure you’re protected in case they missed something, title insurance will cover your losses if it turns out later that they missed something.

In some areas, the cost of the title search and the title insurance are separate, while in other regions they are lumped together.

What kinds of policies are there?

What’s covered depends upon your policy. If you purchase only lender’s title insurance and end up losing your home to a previously unknown lien, your mortgage will be paid off. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you won’t get anything to cover the payments you’ve made, including the down payment. You’re out a house. That’s why experts advise buyers to get an owner’s policy as well.

Owner policies come in different flavors. A standard policy will generally cover you up to the purchase price of your home. If you want to protection that will cover inflation, you’ll want an enhanced policy or an inflation rider. That also provides coverage for liens filed after your closing date. Say, for example, you buy a new home and at closing everything is clear. The next day, a subcontractor who worked on construction of your home files a mechanic’s lien. Without an enhanced title insurance policy, you aren’t covered and may end up paying the subcontractor. It’s up to you to look at coverage and decide which owner’s policy you want to purchase.

Shop around

The only time you can purchase insurance is at closing. Whether buyer, seller or both pay for the coverage varies according to local custom. In some areas, the seller buys the owner’s policy and the buyer pays for the lender’s policy. Both policies take effect on closing day. The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act prohibits sellers from requiring you to buy coverage from a specific title insurer. However, if the seller is paying for it, the seller can use whichever company they want.

You can purchase title insurance from whichever company you choose. But the reality is that your lender probably has a preferred title company and it is much cheaper to piggyback your policy onto the lender’s. If you have a strong preference, you may be able to convince the lender to use the company you prefer. Costs are fairly similar from company to company in any region.

If you find yourself looking at the prospect of finding a title insurance provider with dread and want to just go with your lender’s choice, don’t feel bad. You buy title insurance whenever you purchase a home. Lenders buy it several times a day. In this case, the lender’s interest – a good, solid insurance provider – lines up with yours. So don’t beat yourself up for not pushing back on selecting your own title company.

Is there anyone who doesn’t need it?

If you are buying co-op housing, cross title insurance off your list. When buying a co-op you won’t actually own real estate. Instead you’re buying shares in a corporation so no title insurance is needed. Everyone else? Pony up.

Can I waive the Owner’s Title Insurance?

Answers from Zillow contributors:

“I don’t know of any lender what would close the loan if you didn’t have title insurance.” -mortgage lender Tommy Burris

“Owner’s Title Insurance is optional but always recommended, the same as any other type of optional insurance. Call the title company and have them explain exactly what the Owner’s Policy will cover so that you can make an educated decision.” -mortgage lender Barry Moore

“It’s never worth cheaping out on insurance. If something happens down the line, you will spend far more in attorney fees than you would on title insurance. Talk to a local title company and ask what they are covering. You may never need it, but if you do you’ll be glad you did.” -real estate agent Chris Nealy

“You cannot waive the lender insurance but you CAN waive the owner one. There are always risks. It depends how much you are willing to pay to protect against. Read the policy and make the right decision for yourself.” -Zillow user fsdfsdfs

“Your new home sits on land that was around for a long time, it may have even been part of a larger parcel. While very few owner title insurance policies ever pay out due to major title defects, it’s the one person that didn’t get insurance that will seem to need it the most.” -Zillow user shapiroamg


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