Title searchers and examiners conduct searches of public records to determine the legal chain of ownership for a piece of real estate. Searchers compile lists of mortgages, deeds, contracts, judgments, and other items pertaining to a property title. Examiners determine a property title’s legal status, abstract recorded documents (mortgages, deeds, contracts, and so forth), and sometimes prepare and issue policy guaranteeing a title’s legality. There are about 64,580 title searchers and examiners working in the United States.
History of Title Searcher and Examiner Career
To mortgage, sell, build on, or even give away a piece of real estate, the ownership of the land must be first proven and documented. This ownership is known as a title. Establishing a clear title, however, is not an easy task. Land may change hands frequently, and questions often arise as to the use and ownership of the property.
In the United States, most major real estate dealings are publicly recorded, usually with the county recorder, clerk, or registrar. This system began in colonial Virginia and has spread throughout the rest of the country, giving the nation a unique method for keeping track of real estate transactions. In some areas of the country, a title can be traced back 200 years or more.
Over that length of time, a parcel of land may change ownership many times. Owners divide large pieces of land into smaller parcels and may sell or lease certain rights, such as the right to mine beneath a property or run roads and irrigation ditches over it, separately from the land itself. Official records of ownership and interests in land might be contradictory or incomplete. Because of the profitability of the real estate business, the industry has devised methods of leasing and selling property, which makes the task of identifying interests in real property even more complicated and important.
The Job of Title Searchers and Examiners
Clients hire title searchers and examiners to determine the legal ownership of all parts and privileges of a piece of property. The client may need this information for many reasons: In addition to land sales and purchases, a lawyer may need a title search to fulfill the terms of someone’s will; a bank may need it to repossess property used as collateral on a loan; a company may need it when acquiring or merging with another company; or an accountant may need it when preparing tax returns.
The work of the title searcher is the first step in the process. After receiving a request for a title search, the title searcher determines the type of title evidence to gather, its purpose, the people involved, and a legal description of the property. The searcher then compares this description with the legal description contained in public records to verify such facts as the deed of ownership, tax codes, tax parcel number, and description of property boundaries.
This task can take title searchers to a variety of places, including the offices of the county tax assessor, the recorder or registrar of deeds, the clerk of the city or state court, and other city, county, and state officials. Title searchers consult legal records, surveyors’ maps, and tax rolls. Companies who employ title searchers also may keep records called indexes. These indexes are kept up to date to allow fast, accurate searching of titles and contain important information on mortgages, deeds, contracts, and judgments. For example, a law firm specializing in real estate and contract law probably would keep extensive indexes, using information gathered both in its own work and from outside sources.
While reviewing legal documents, the title searcher records important information on a standardized worksheet. This information can include judgments, deeds, mortgages (loans made using the property as collateral), liens (charges against the property for the satisfaction of a debt), taxes, special assessments for streets and sewers, and easements. The searcher must record carefully the sources of this information, the location of these records, the date on which any action took place, and the names and addresses of the people involved.
Using the data gathered by the title searcher, the title examiner then determines the status of the property title. Title examiners study all the relevant documents on a property, including records of marriages, births, divorces, adoptions, and other important legal proceedings, to determine the history of ownership. To verify certain facts, they may need to interview judges, clerks, lawyers, bankers, real estate brokers, and other professionals. They may summarize the legal documents they have found and use these abstracts as references in later work.
Title examiners use this information to prepare reports that describe the full extent of a person’s title to a property; that person’s right to sell, buy, use, or improve it; any restrictions that may exist; and actions required to clear the title. If employed in the office of a title insurance company, the title examiner provides information for the issuance of a policy that insures the title, subject to applicable exclusions and exceptions. The insured party then can proceed to use the property, having protection against any problems that might arise.
In larger offices, a title supervisor may direct and coordinate the activities of other searchers and examiners.
Title Searcher and Examiner Career Requirements
You must have at least a high school diploma to begin a career as a title searcher. Helpful classes include business, business law, English, social studies, real estate, real estate law, computers, and typing. In addition, skills in reading, writing, and research methods are essential.
Because their work is more complex, title examiners usually must have completed some college course work, but a college degree is generally not a requirement. Pertinent courses for title searchers and examiners include business administration, office management, real estate law, and other types of law. In some locales, attorneys typically perform title examinations.
Most title searchers and examiners also receive on-the-job training.
Certification or Licensing
A few states require title searchers and examiners to be licensed or certified. Title firms may belong to the American Land Title Association as well as to regional or state title associations. These groups maintain codes of ethics and standards of practice among their members and conduct educational programs. Title searchers and examiners who work for a state, county, or municipal government may belong to a union representing government workers.
You must be methodical, analytical, and detail-oriented in your work. As you study the many hundreds of documents that may contain important data, you need to be thorough. Overlooking important points can damage the accuracy of the final report and may result in financial loss to the client or employer. It is important not to lose sight of the reason for the title search, in addition to remembering the intricacies of real estate law.
In addition to detailed work, you may have to deal with clients, lawyers, judges, real estate brokers, and other people. This task requires good communication skills, poise, patience, and courtesy.
Exploring Title Searcher and Examiner Careers
There may be opportunities for temporary employment during the summer and school holidays at title companies, financial institutions, or law firms. Such employment may involve making copies or sorting and delivering mail, but it offers an excellent chance to see the work of a title searcher or examiner firsthand. Some law firms, real estate brokerages, and title companies provide internships for students who are interested in work as a title searcher or examiner. Information on the availability of such internships is usually available from the regional or local land title association or school guidance counselors.
Title searchers and examiners work in a variety of settings. Some work for law firms, title insurance companies, financial institutions, or companies that write title abstracts. Others work for various branches of government at the city, county, or state level. Title insurance companies, while frequently headquartered in large cities, may have branches throughout the United States.
If you are interested in a career as a title searcher or examiner, you can send resumes and letters of application to firms in your area who employ these types of workers. Other leads for employment opportunities are local real estate agents or brokers, government employment offices, and local or state land title associations. Graduates from two- and four-year colleges usually have the added advantage of being able to consult their college placement offices for additional information on job openings.
Title searchers and examiners learn most of their skills on the job. They may gain a basic understanding of the title search process in a few months, using public records and indexes maintained by their employers. Over time, employees must gain a broader understanding of the intricacies of land title evidence and record-keeping systems. This knowledge and several years of experience are the keys to advancement.
With experience, title searchers can move up to become tax examiners, special assessment searchers, or abstracters. With enough experience, a searcher or examiner may be promoted to title supervisor or head clerk. Other paths for ambitious title searchers and examiners include other types of paralegal work or, with further study, a law degree.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual earnings of title examiners, abstractors, and searchers were $35,120 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $21,300 to more than $64,120. Title searchers and examiners may receive such fringe benefits as vacations, hospital and life insurance, profit sharing, and pensions, depending on their employers.
Title searchers and examiners generally work a 40-hour week. Because most public records offices are open only during regular business hours, title searchers and examiners usually will not put in much overtime work, except when using private indexes and preparing abstracts.
The offices in which title searchers and examiners work can be very different in terms of comfort, space, and equipment. Searchers and examiners spend much of their day poring over the fine print of legal documents and records, so they may be afflicted occasionally with eyestrain and back fatigue. Generally, however, offices are pleasant, and the work is not physically strenuous.
Because the work is conducted in a business environment, title searchers and examiners usually must dress in a businesslike manner. Dress codes, however, have become more casual recently and vary from office to office.
Title Searcher and Examiner Career Outlook
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment of title searchers and examiners is expected to increase at a slower rate than the average occupation through 2014. The health of the title insurance business is directly tied to the strength of the real estate market. In prosperous times, more people buy and sell real estate, resulting in a greater need for title searches. While the real estate business in America continues to operate during periods of recession, activity does slow a little. In general, title searchers and examiners can find consistent work in any area of the country with an active real estate market.