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What is a title search?

It helps determine ownership before you buy

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Written by Jennifer Schurman
Edited by Cassidy McCants
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A title search is a review of public records to confirm legal ownership of the property, typically completed by a title company. This is one of the most crucial steps when you're purchasing a house — you can expect your mortgage lender to require a title search before approving your home loan.

What is a property title?

A property title defines the legal ownership of the property. It’s different from a deed, which is a physical, legal document that shows the transfer of ownership from one party to another. The title, on the other hand, isn’t a physical document — it’s more of a concept of ownership.

You’ll hold title, or ownership claim, in the property when the seller signs the deed over to you at closing. The deed is then filed with your local government (generally the county recorder’s office) and made public record.

How does a title search work

The title search is conducted during the closing process, which occurs after your offer has been accepted by the seller and before you officially become the new owner. Closing generally takes at least 30 days, and the title search is an important step in the process.

Title search fees are included in closing costs and typically range from $75 to $200.

If you get a mortgage, your lender will almost always require a title search. You’ll pay for this service as part of the closing costs. The price of a title search can vary, but costs usually fall between $75 and $200.

The title search requires a thorough review of public documents. The title company pulls records from the registry of deeds, the recorder’s office, the courthouse and other places to find any issues that could affect the new owner in the future, including judgments, liens, foreclosures or building code violations. The title search may also uncover errors in public records, gaps in ownership or boundary disputes.

Once the individual conducting the title search (called an abstractor) has completed their research, they detail their findings in a document called the abstract of title. The abstract includes the property’s ownership history in chronological order.

Who does a title search?

You can hire a title company or a real estate attorney to complete the title search. Some states require a real estate attorney to research the title and submit their findings to a title insurance company, but the requirements you’ll have to comply with vary depending on where you live.

Technically, you can conduct the title search yourself, but it’s often recommended that you hire the pros instead. Most buyers don’t know what to look for when reviewing legal documents related to ownership. Also, if you have to purchase title insurance, the insurer will generally only accept findings from a professional in the field.

Types of title searches

There are two types of title searches: full coverage and limited. Full-coverage searches are used for real estate purchases; limited searches are typically for refinancing.

A full-coverage search goes back decades, sometimes 40 to 60 years, to find any issues that may affect the title. A limited search usually deals solely with the present owner and any records related to their claim on the property. Since full-coverage searches are more extensive, they can take longer to conduct.

How long does a title search take?

In general, title searches should take about 10 to 14 days to complete.

Several borrowers on our site mention the title search process taking longer than expected. “The title part took close to two weeks, but that was just the way the process was,” reported Wayne from Baldwinville, Massachusetts, even though they were happy with their mortgage process overall. 

The time it takes to conduct a title search varies based on a number of factors. For example, the process could take longer for an older home that’s had multiple owners over the course of several decades. It also takes time to gather the required documents and thoroughly research any issues the abstractor may uncover.

FAQ

What is a title company responsible for?

The title company researches ownership claims on the property in question. Title companies may also issue title insurance, conduct property surveys, prepare abstracts of title, act as closing agents or hold escrow payments.

How do you find out who owns a property?

There are a few ways to find a property’s owner. Sometimes a simple web search of the property address brings up the owner’s name, but this might not be correct.

You can try to look up the property tax records, which are usually available online through your local assessor’s office. You might also visit the website of your county or local government, search for property taxes and plug in the address you’re considering.

If you can’t find the information you need online, you can check with your county’s clerk's office — they should have access to a variety of public records, including deeds.

How do you get the title for your house?

You get the title for your house once you officially own it. However, since the title is a concept that reflects ownership of the property, you won’t necessarily obtain a physical title for the property you buy.

If you want to obtain a copy of the deed (the legal document showing you own the property), you can request one from the appropriate office of your local government (county recorder, county clerk, recorder of deeds, etc.). You can also hire an attorney or a title company to acquire a copy for you, but you’ll probably pay a fee for this service.

What is title insurance?

Title insurance is a policy that protects the homeowner or the mortgage lender if a dispute over the home’s title causes them financial loss. If you purchase a home with a mortgage, your lender will generally require a lender’s title insurance policy before closing. You can also purchase an optional owner’s title policy, which could come in handy if you’re ever taken to court over ownership claims.

Bottom line

The title search is a crucial step in the closing process — if any issues arise regarding ownership of the property, the sale may fall through. Though you can complete a title search on your own, it’s a good idea to leave this research to a title company or a real estate attorney. Otherwise, you risk losing money (or your home) to lawsuits over ownership claims in the future.

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