Ever have a client who was sure their transaction had to be written on a large underwriter? Hey, I get it. Clients are sometimes drawn to the big title insurers, assuming that there are benefits to partnering with a large organization. They may feel a smaller underwriter won’t be able to meet their needs, and the deal is just too large or important to leave anything to chance.
As an independent title agent, you know the importance of selecting a trustworthy, reliable, and responsive partner to provide title insurance for your clients. In this blog, we’ll dive into the features that matter most when selecting an underwriter, debunk some common myths, and show why bigger isn’t necessarily better when selecting a title insurer. First, let’s consider some of the reasons a client might ask you to ensure a transaction with one of the big guys to see if that request aligns with their interests or if they are simply following a common myth.
If I go with a big underwriter, won’t I get better coverage?
There’s a common misconception that the product of the title insurer – the title policy and endorsements – often varies meaningfully in the terms and coverage between underwriters. It’s just not so.
The truth is that generally the product is the same regardless of who underwrites the policy. In states where the forms are promulgated by law, the insurance regulator determines for the entire industry what language is acceptable, and what terms and conditions will be incorporated into their contracts. In states where the forms are not promulgated, most insurers use either the American Land Title Association forms, or the California Land Title Association forms, with little variation.
Basically, the policy will be the same or similar regardless of the underwriter.
If I go with a big underwriter, won’t I get a better rate?
At first glance, this seems like a very reasonable question. In some industries, larger companies have a natural pricing advantage. But in title insurance, it’s hard for an underwriter, no matter how large, to distinguish itself on rates. In states where the rates are promulgated, the insurance regulator decides what to charge and all insurers must follow the regulator’s set rates. Even in those states where regulators do not mandate rates, there may be a ratings bureau that files rates on behalf of its member insurers – which means that most, if not all insurers, will be offering the same rates. And, in those states where insurers file their own rates, they are typically competitive and therefore very similar.
So, the rates will be the same or similar, regardless of the underwriter.
If I have a claim, won’t a big underwriter be in a better position to pay?
Again, this question seems reasonable. Title claims can run into the millions of dollars on commercial properties, so a client might think a big underwriter naturally has more resources to pay claims compared to a smaller underwriter. However, two broad factors level the playing field when it comes to paying claims: state regulation and reinsurance.
State regulators take great pains to protect the public by ensuring that title underwriters of all sizes have the resources to pay claims. Statutorily required reserves must be set aside to pay claims. Regulators carefully monitor the financial soundness of the insurers authorized to do business in their states, and title insurers submit both annual and quarterly financial statements. Title insurers have annual independent CPA audits and are subject to financial examination by the regulator, typically at least once every five years. This means that no matter the size of the insurer, there is a financial threshold that each insurer must meet to ensure its financial stability and continued operation. Moreover, many states have single risk limit formulas that cap the amount a title insurer may insure for a particular transaction risk without having to provide reinsurance.
When reinsurance is provided, there are essentially two insurers – the primary title insurer, and the reinsurer who stands behind the reinsured policy amount. So, while it’s true that a large title insurer may retain a larger dollar amount by itself as a single risk, a smaller title insurer utilizing reinsurance for that single risk is giving the insured two layers of financial security at no additional expense to the insured. A title insurer should be happy to provide you with information regarding its reinsurance, and as a customer or agent, you are entitled to ask for it.
At Alliant National, we reinsure high liability transactions up to $20 million with the Lloyd’s of London markets, and that’s one of the reasons we can confidently say: No title insurance underwriter can offer you better protection for your title risk than Alliant National.
So, if the policy and the price are similar, and the capability to pay claims is sound, what are the real differences between those big underwriters and a smaller underwriter like Alliant National? Moreover, what are the reasons a client might want to select Alliant National over a larger underwriter?
We Don’t Compete Against You For Customers
Alliant National does not compete against you for the customers in your market. Our sole focus is to support the independent title agent. Alliant National will never take a transaction or a customer from you. We strive to help you build better relationships with your customers, and to help you succeed.
Fast And Innovative Answers To Underwriting Questions
Underwriting delays put deals at risk. That’s bad for you and your clients. Sometimes big underwriters back-burner underwriting requests to service their company-owned title offices, and they sometimes provide “canned” or “by-the-book” responses when an underwriting challenge arises. Alliant National does not compete with its independent agents, so it’s able to put all of its underwriting resources to work for independent title agents and their clients. As a smaller underwriter, Alliant National also has the flexibility to find innovative solutions for you and your clients when underwriting challenges arise.
At larger underwriters, the agency and underwriting units can often be at odds with each other. There can also be communications breakdowns between corporate, regional, and state-based teams. At Alliant National, however, the absence of a multi-tier management structure gives our agency, underwriting and other teams the ability to work together closely and seamlessly. Everyone pulls in the same direction to deliver the best outcomes for our agents and their clients.
Real Service When Claims Emerge
We already discussed why the big underwriters generally are not “better” when it comes to the ability to pay claims. However, some big underwriters fall short when it comes to the claims process by making it seem like their goal is to pay no claims at all. At Alliant National, we have flipped the script when it comes to claims. We recognize that the claims department is where our title insurance product goes to work. We strive for timely and clear communication with insureds and agents, seeking first to understand the situation from all points of view. It’s a unique and collaborative approach to claims that agents and insureds value.
The Courage To Care When it comes to choosing an underwriter, it’s important to consider what really matters: finding a partner who prioritizes your needs and the needs of your clients. Unfortunately, larger underwriters may lack the flexibility and personal touch that independent agents and their clients require. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great people working at large underwriters, but size can lead to conflicts, friction, and a lack of flexibility. At Alliant National, we pride ourselves on being able to deliver customized solutions that meet the goals of the real people behind each transaction. Whether it’s a multi-million-dollar commercial deal or a starter home for a young family, partnering with Alliant National means choosing a team that truly cares about you and your clients.
For every type of insurance that you purchase, there are a variety of different coverages offered. For instance, if you buy homeowner’s insurance you may want to add extra coverage if you have valuable paintings or jewelry that may not be covered by the basic policy amounts.
The same is true for title insurance.
The standard Owner’s Title Insurance Policy affords basic protections against many title defects such as fraud, forgery, or matters in the public record. For example, the policy includes coverage for recorded liens, real property taxes, or legal documents within the transaction that were executed under an invalid or expired power of attorney.
The title agent’s intent is to research thoroughly the ownership rights of the property, as well as any judgments or liens that may exist that could affect your rights to the property. Then the agent clears or cures those issues to ensure that you have free and clear title to the property when you purchase it.
Although your title agent is diligent in searching out the facts about your property that are in the public record, not everything about your property is “of record.” Therefore, a standard title policy includes exceptions to coverage for certain matters that may be undiscoverable.
An Enhanced Owner’s Policy adds 22 new covered risks that are excepted in the standard policy. The enhanced policy is typically available to purchasers of an owner-occupied one-to-four family residence wherein each insured is a “Natural Person.” The term “Natural Person” is defined under the conditions of the title policy. With the enhanced policy, the policy insures against certain future activities and matters that would not be discoverable by the title agent’s search of the land records.
Coverage under an enhanced policy continues to be subject to the title policy’s conditions, exclusions and exceptions unless it is stated differently in the covered risk itself.
Let’s take a look at the additional coverage offered with an Enhanced Owner’s Policy.
One of the most important benefits of an Enhanced Owner’s Policy is inflation coverage. The amount of insurance automatically increases by 10% of the policy amount each year for the first five years, up to 150% of the amount insured for your home. This occurs, without payment of any additional premium, to cover increases in the value of the insured property.
Building Permit Violation
When you purchase a home, you may not be aware that the former owner failed to obtain a legal permit from the proper government office to put in a swimming pool, add a wing to the house or construct an additional dwelling unit (ADU).
An enhanced policy protects you if you are forced to remove or remedy your existing home, or any part of it (other than boundary walls or fences) because any portion was built by a previous owner without obtaining a building permit. This coverage is subject to a deductible amount and a maximum dollar limit of liability, as shown in Schedule A of the title policy.
Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions
Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) list the rights and obligations of a homeowners’ association (HOA). This could include your maintenance obligations, property-use restrictions, assessments and insurance obligations, among others.
Without your knowledge, these CC&Rs may have been violated prior to your ownership, resulting in a financial obligation to the HOA or loss of title. An enhanced policy covers you if you are forced to correct or remedy the existing violation or if the title is lost or taken because of any covenant, condition or restriction, which occurred before you acquired your title, even if the covenant, condition or restriction is excepted in the policy.
If any structures on your new property are encroaching onto your neighbor’s property, for instance if the garage is built partially on the neighboring property, the enhanced policy provides coverage in the event you are forced to remove those structures due to the encroachment. If the encroaching structures are boundary walls or fences, this coverage is subject to a deductible amount and a maximum dollar limit of liability, as shown in Schedule A of the policy.
In addition, the policy provides coverage in the event your neighbor builds any structures, after the policy date, that encroaches onto your land (other than boundary walls and fences).
An enhanced policy insures you have actual pedestrian and vehicular access to your property.
Map and Address Inconsistencies
If a map is attached to your policy, the enhanced policy provides coverage if the map does not show the correct location of the land, according to the public records.
Sometimes a taxing authority may assess supplemental real estate taxes not previously assessed against the land but covering a period prior to your purchase. This could be due to new construction or a change of ownership that occurred before the policy date. An enhanced policy would cover this liability as well.
If a previous owner added structures to the property that violate zoning laws, an enhanced policy provides coverage to you if you are forced to remove or remedy your existing structures, or any part of them, due to those violations. If you are required to remedy existing structures, the amount of insurance is subject to a deductible amount and maximum dollar limit of liability, as shown in Schedule A of the title policy.
In addition, you are insured if it is determined your property cannot be used as a single-family residence because it violates existing zoning laws or zoning regulations.
Property ownership is often more complicated than we know, especially if you are purchasing property in an unusual situation, where property has been recently subdivided or where there has been recent construction. If you have any questions or concerns, it may be advisable to enlist the help of a real estate attorney to review all aspects of your purchase. We also invite you to contact a local title insurance agent to learn how the Enhanced Owner’s Title Policy can provide you additional protection for your homeownership rights.
The number of residential property sales exploded over the past few years, but the hot real estate market may have driven at least one unexpected consequence when it comes to surveys. Amid the highly competitive market, some home buyers may have been told that it would take longer to close a transaction since surveyors were overwhelmed with numerous orders. Thus, some buyers elected to waive surveys. After purchasing the property, however, buyers may have discovered encroachment matters impacting their property or their neighbor’s property, or that a boundary line is in a different location than originally believed.
Every year the claims team receives several notices involving survey matters and boundary disputes. Here are a few scenarios that serve as a reminder about the importance of surveys, and what you can do when a transaction does, or does not, include a survey.
Scenario One: A new buyer does not obtain a survey at closing. She is visited by her neighbor a few days after purchasing the property. The new property owner believes it’s going to be a friendly visit but instead the neighbor says, “your driveway and garage are encroaching on my property, and we want it removed in 30 days or else you will be hearing from our attorney.”
Typically, such an encroachment would have been shown in a survey. Further, the title policy may not offer much relief to the beleaguered buyer in such a case.
A title policy will likely have reflected a standard survey exception in Schedule B which may read, “Any discrepancies, conflicts, or shortage in area or boundary lines, or any encroachments or protrusions, or any overlapping of improvements that would be disclosed by an inspection or an accurate and complete land survey of the Land.” Since a survey was not obtained in this scenario, this may result in the matter not being covered under the title policy.
Scenario Two: This next situation involves a seller who owns a large tract of land and decides to split the tract into three smaller lots. The seller only wants to sell and convey one of the smaller, unplatted lots. The legal description in the seller’s deed is for the entire larger tract. How will the parties determine which of the three tracks is to be sold and properly identify the location of the property and its legal description to include in the deed? The purchase agreement most likely is not clear and will require additional questions and written clarification between the agent and the parties as to what is intended to be conveyed in the transaction. Unfortunately, without clarification in such cases, the parties may eventually find themselves in an expensive lawsuit.
In either scenario, if a survey is not requested and purchased at the time of closing, it is a good practice to have the buyer sign a document that the party understands a new survey is being declined, and to keep the document in the closing file. On the other hand, if a survey is obtained ahead of closing the transaction, consider the following:
- Review the survey for accuracy of the survey and the survey certification. Are the correct parties identified? Review the legal description. Do you have a signed and dated survey from the surveyor?
- Carefully review the survey to locate any items beyond the boundary lines or encroaching onto the buyer’s property.
- Add any specific survey matters which are reflected on the survey as exceptions in the title commitment.
- Provide a copy of the survey to the buyer (and lender, if appropriate).
- As a good practice, have the buyer acknowledge receipt of the survey by having the buyer sign and date either the survey or a separate document confirming receipt, and keep a copy in the closing file.
Also, in certain jurisdictions, Survey Coverage or Survey Endorsement may be available for purchase to add coverage to an Owner’s or Loan Policy. If permitted in your jurisdiction to rely on a prior survey and an affidavit, discuss such a situation and the requirements with the Alliant National underwriting team before the closing occurs.
We understand not every case requires a new survey, but a buyer may find that a survey provides an understanding of what was conveyed and some peace of mind regarding their investment.
If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
2021 American Land Title Association/National Society of Professional Surveyors (ALTA/NSPS) Standards: https://www.nsps.us.com/page/2021ALTA.
American Land Title Association (ALTA): Frequently Asked Questions and other guidance for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys: www.alta.org.
One agency owner underwritten by Alliant National recounts his long, successful career in the title insurance field.
Rob Skidmore knows his way around title insurance. The owner of several agencies underwritten by Alliant National, he and his employees serve aspiring homeowners in Medina and northeastern Ohio and are driven to help home buyers achieve their dreams.
His journey in the title insurance field offers a fascinating portrait of a professional life well lived, as well as how the industry has changed over more than three decades.
Title insurance is a multi-generational endeavor for the Skidmore family. His father started Transfer Title in 1967, with Rob joining the business in 1985. He eventually took over the company with his brother. They gradually expanded the business, forming the joint venture company Transfer Title Connection in 2004 and acquiring Ohio Fidelity in 2018.
There were other factors behind Rob’s initial interest in title insurance, such as his passion for technology and computers.
“When I was in college, I had this class that required a spreadsheet. I created a settlement statement with macros that could compute settlement costs,” said Rob. “After graduation, I used it in business for maybe six or seven years before we updated to a new system.”
His interest in technology trends has continued to benefit Rob and his businesses, prompting him to be an early adopter of new technologies to increase efficiencies, improve customer experiences and grow profits. One such decision involved implementing RamQuest software early on, which made them only the second title company to do so in Ohio at the time.
“I love the technology – the experience of building out our IT department, purchasing our own server and so on,” said Rob. “My interest has pushed me to be an early adopter, which has benefited our employees and customers.”
Another factor that has influenced many of his decisions as a company owner was his background as a business major with a marketing concentration. Rob was immediately attracted to the prospect of overhauling his agencies’ brands.
“I quickly started working on our slogan, which ultimately led to a name change,” said Rob. “We also decided to do a major overhaul of the logo, which involved an internal focus group.”
Over the years, Rob has found his title career to be quite rewarding, especially the way it has benefited his community.
When asked if there is a central passion behind his work, Rob is unequivocal. “Absolutely. Our motto is ‘Insuring Reality, Conveying Dreams.’ People outside the industry don’t get that when you’re issuing title policy, handling escrows and doing closings, it’s a joyous occasion. Take a young couple who has the dream of starting a family. Or consider someone who is looking to downsize. It was their dream, and they are passing it along to the next family. In both cases, it’s an extraordinary thing.”
Another way Rob has been able to better his community is through charitable giving. As a long-time member of the local business networking group, Transfer Title annually sponsors families at Christmas and makes a variety of donations to local charities. In addition, the company is a supporter of the Mary Grace Foundation, sponsoring its 5K run each year and encouraging employees to run or participate. The money raised during the event goes to families impacted by breast cancer.
Transfer Title’s commitment to enriching the heart of the Medina community is perhaps best embodied in its support of Mainstreet Medina. A non-profit organization, Mainstreet Medina supports efforts related to the historic preservation, economic sustainability, and continued evolution of Medina’s Historic District as the community’s vibrant center. Transfer Title not only routinely sponsors Mainstreet Medina’s initiatives and events, but it has conducted title work for real estate revitalization efforts undertaken recently by the Recovery Center of Medina, which included pro bono legal work by Rob.
Rob has impacted Medina not only through his company, but also by serving on various community, business and industry associations. He is an active participant in the Ohio Land Title Association (OLTA) and has previously served as the President of the Medina City School Board, the Medina County Career Center, the Medina County Bar Association and the Salvation Army board.
In addition to witnessing the positive effects his businesses have had on the community, Rob’s long history in the field has given him a front row seat to the evolution of the title industry.
“The title industry has changed a lot, and I have seen different eras come and go,” said Rob. “Recently, it has been a very profitable era, which is positive in many ways. However, there is increasingly a focus on speed, with everything being go, go, go. Less emphasis is being placed on expertise and working diligently through a process. Marketing and newer communication mediums like social media are taking more precedence. Now, both are important. Very important. But expertise and doing good work will always trump everything else.”
As Rob sees it, prioritizing expertise matters, particularly when it is not always clear to the customer how the title insurance process works and why it is a critical component of the closing process.
“Sometimes during closings, questions will come up of how the company got involved. It’s important to properly educate the customers and remind them that we are here to insure their title,” Rob explained. “We act, essentially, as a guarantee on their claim of ownership. With a one-time premium, they are protected for life. As a third party, you need the expertise to work on behalf of the owner, buyer and lender. Simply put, it’s a very important function. We need to follow the directions of all parties, not to mention look at and assess all relevant risks.”
Rob emphasized that to succeed in the field requires building a team with the requisite expertise. But that is not all. Those working in title insurance must also be equipped to contend with the emotional intensity that can be a part of the closing process.
“Without a doubt, attracting and retaining top talent is one of the biggest challenges I face as a business owner, and we’ve been lucky to have some of the best staff in the business,” said Rob. “Employees need to know their field but also deal with the stress of closing on a property.”
Considering the complexity of real estate transactions, title insurance professionals must be comfortable expecting the unexpected.
“Quite often, things happen or there are forces at work beyond anyone’s control,” he said. “Thankfully, advances like ‘clear to close’ have changed the game and streamlined it. Technology helps.”
As with anything, though, technology is not without its downsides, as cyber threats like real estate wire fraud have exploded in recent years. Such developments once again underscore the need for high-quality IT systems and experienced professionals who can safely guide consumers through the process.
“You’re only as good as your weakest technological link in the transaction,” Rob cautions. “Cybercrime is a huge problem in this field. Title agents must communicate effectively with customers about all pertinent risks. We have spent a lot of time and resources implementing preventative measures like encryption. But sometimes, old school methods like snail mail are still the best approach.”
Another piece of the puzzle is finding trustworthy underwriters with whom to build effective and mutually beneficial partnerships. In Rob’s case, one such underwriter is Alliant National.
He is particularly appreciative of Alliant National’s great technological systems. In addition, he noted that the underwriting relationship is often a key factor in determining what properties can ultimately be closed. He explained that not all underwriters are the same in how they approach deals or navigate risks.
“There can often be potential defects in the chain of title,” said Rob. “Some underwriters may not like that. But with Alliant National, I have a lot of confidence in their management, technology and, of course, people in navigating those issues.”
After more than three decades in title insurance, few people are more well-versed in the field or capable of commenting on its evolution than Rob Skidmore. Through building out his businesses, he has achieved a great deal of both personal and professional satisfaction and shared the fruits of his efforts with his surrounding community. He has also continuously prioritized what has always been essential to a good and lasting business: focusing on people, creating relationships and establishing hard-won expertise. These are the principles that animate him. They are also what he seeks to impart to those who may come after him.
“Whenever you’re faced with making a customer happy or doing the right thing, always do the right thing, even if you lose some business because of it,” he said. “Business always comes back in other ways. There is an old saying about how it takes a lifetime to build a reputation but a second to lose it. I couldn’t agree more. In title insurance, you may find yourself faced with such decisions. Always, always, always, do things the right way.”
In a hot housing market, many buyers have turned to cash offers to get a leg up on the competition. Cash offers are often much more attractive to a seller, and it is not difficult to understand why. Cash can provide a pathway to a faster closing process. It frequently gives sellers more confidence. These offers even waive the requirement of having to conduct an appraisal.
Cash offers can also generate a bit of a confusion. For instance, how does eschewing a lender affect other parts of the closing process like a title search and insurance? Does it eliminate the need for insurance? If not, how and when should a cash buyer pursue title work? In this blog post, we will examine these questions.
Is Title Insurance Necessary for Cash Buyers?
Title insurance is critical for a buyer to have regardless of whether there is a mortgage. Without a title search and resultant policy, no one is looking into who owns the property and what its issue may be. When a buyer obtains a mortgage, a title search is routine. But the contract and the obligation exist only between a lender and the title company – the buyer has no direct protection. If a defect exists, the title company is not duty-bound to fix it; instead, the buyer/owner could be liable for a lien or another defect.
For example, consider a scenario where a home seller has a first mortgage for $100,000. A new buyer has obtained a loan for $125,000, and the property is worth $200,000 (in other words the buyer has invested $75,000 of their money). Meanwhile, there is a second valid but unknown mortgage of $50,000 against the property.
The lender uses this to assert their right to foreclosure and to take the property away. In such a scenario, the title company is required to defend the lender and protect their lien. The same can not be said for their relationship with the buyer. Instead, the buyer/owner must pay the unknown mortgage because they gave warranties of title to their lender.
Failing to do so could trigger a default. The lender, however, will not suffer losses. Under their title policy, there is enough equity to pay the newly discovered $50,000 mortgage and the lender’s debt. Without an insurance policy, the purchaser of the property could lose the title and, ultimately, their equity. They would be forced to pay the $50,000 to maintain ownership.
In each case, the seller is likely liable to the buyer for the $50,000, but when title insurance comes into play, the insurer will not only pay the loss but sue or pursue the seller for recoupment. But when there is no title insurance to speak off, all the costs fall on the buyer if they decide to sue the seller – who may not be able to pay even if the suit is successful. The same situation can develop in the case of a scam. If the seller is a bad actor and does not own the property, a buyer can wind up with nothing if no record search is conducted.
What should be clear from that example is that, for just a nominal cost, title insurance can offer an easy remedy if there is something wrong. More importantly, it allows the buyer to know of any issues before investing money in the property. Title insurance also does not impede the advantages inherent in making a cash offer. As noted, one clear advantage of a cash offer is that it can speed up the closing process. Conducting a thorough title search does not disrupt this accelerated timeline. Typically, title work can be completed in 2-4 days and, depending on what is found, a commitment can be issued shortly afterward.
How and When Should Cash Buyers Procure Title Insurance?
When considering title insurance, an interesting question emerges regarding who gets to select the title insurance provider: broker, buyer or seller? To some extent, who does the referral and who pays for it is a matter of local practice. Typically, the party that pays makes the choice, but not always.
If possible, purchasers should maintain control over the issuer of the insurance. The buyer should want to know everything they can about the title’s status. Additionally, if the insurance provider is selected by the seller, there is the possibility that they may try to show that the title has few to no problems.
When searching for an agency, a buyer or realtor should vet the agency issuing the title commitment and verify that they are in good standing by obtaining that verification from the insurer. There is a universal ID that the American Land Title Association (ALTA) maintains and will verify an agency’s legitimacy. The insurer can also be contacted directly to verify their legitimacy. Phone numbers for the insurer are typically on the commitments or an online verification may be available at the insurer’s website.
During a cash transaction, it is important to obtain a commitment to issue a policy from a reputable title agency or insurer as soon as possible. Receipt should provide an opportunity under the contract for purchase and sale to review and make objections – although there is usually a time limit. However, obtaining it right before closing does not allow time to object to an unacceptable defect.
To Buy or Not to Buy Title Insurance
It is not a requirement under the law that a cash buyer procures title insurance, so they can choose not to obtain it. However, there is no circumstance where skipping title insurance would be a good idea. Plus, with it being a relatively minor investment in the most expensive of jurisdictions, having the security that a thorough title review provides is more than worth the cost. You simply cannot put a price on peace of mind, and having a valid title policy is a great way to protect your all-cash investment.