What If A Title Search Misses a Lien?

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I refinanced my house and an existing lien was not discovered

Now the important question: Is it a valid lien, or has it really been paid, and just not released of record? If it has been paid, you don't owe money simply because the lien release on your property was not properly recorded. If you can prove it was paid off, either by yourself or a previous owner, you're out of the woods.

Since you are asking the question, however, I'm going to assume that it is a valid lien. Most are. You owe the money. It doesn't magically go away simply because the title company (or lawyer doing the title search) missed it.

Now, assuming you live in a title insurance state, it should make no difference to the state of your mortgage. You bought a lender's policy of title insurance as part of your transaction, and the title policy insures the lender from loss due to the extra lien.

You still owe the money, of course. Like any other bill, just because you neglected to pay it off or neglected to pay it on time does not mean you somehow don't owe the money. If it was in effect from before you bought the property, though, your owners policy of title insurance should kick in and pay it off. That's the way title insurance works - they tell you about known issues with your title, and then they insure (almost) everything else. They'll then go after the previous owner, of course. That's what subrogation is all about. They stepped in and paid to keep you from getting damaged, but they now assume the right to receive the money from the person who damaged you. If you live in an attorney title search state, my understanding is that you are going to have to sue the attorney involved, but suing attorneys is a tough proposition, and you can't recover the base lien, only increased damages resulting from that attorney's negligence. If the previous owner was really responsible for it, the title insurer is going to have to run them down and file a lawsuit, and quite often the previous owner has no assets that they can get at.

If the lien was your doing, as most are, you're going to have to start making an effort to pay that lien. How much of an effort depends upon whether you have a lender's policy of title insurance. If you do, it's really no huge deal, because the lender has access to the checkbook of a national megacorporation. If you don't, the lender can potentially force you to pay it in cash right now. They can also force you to refinance by calling your loan, or to take out a second mortgage to pay the lien off in many cases. It's possible they might just pay it and tack it on to your balance, usually boosting your payment in the process. Talk to a real estate lawyer in your state for details, but the lender is not generally going to leave an uncovered lien in place, when the pricing they gave you for that loan was predicated upon there not being such a lien. Since the lien predates their loan, it's almost certainly senior to it, by which I mean that if something happens and you have to sell the property to pay off the liens, it gets paid before your mortgage. The lender is not usually going to tolerate that.

Now suppose that you got a thirty year fixed rate loan at 3%, and suppose rates have gone up to seven and a half percent by the time you rediscover the lien. The lender can do better with that money from your loan, and so they are going to want to seize upon any excuse to make you pay it off. This, all by itself, is a really good reason to be careful with your liens.

If you intentionally hid the lien, the lender may even sue for fraud in many jurisdictions. If you intentionally hid it, for instance, it's quite likely that your policy of title insurance won't cover you or the lender, and the lender is going to be very unhappy about that.

Most people, however, don't intentionally hide a lien, they just forgot it was there, and when the title search comes up empty any worries in the back of their mind went away. If they even think about it, they mentally write it off. "Oh, I must have forgotten that I paid it." You still owe the money, and now that it's discovered, you're going to have to start paying on it, but if they've got lender's title insurance the lender shouldn't freak.

Missing liens is actually fairly rare, but once title insurers miss them, they usually will not be caught on subsequent title searches, because the title company will use the previous title search as a starting point (around here, they actually call them "starters", but I don't know how widespread the practice is) for their new title search. Sometimes they do catch them, and ask the previous title company for an indemnity (which basically says that the previous title company is still liable for having missed it).

Caveat Emptor

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2 Comments

Matt said:

OK Dan I have one for you that I am going thru that drew me to a google search to find your article.

I am the 3rd owner of the house I am currently in (NC). We are supposed to close on the sale of this house in 2 days and the buyers title insurance company found 2 lien's on our homes title from owner #1 plus muliple judgments on the liens that happened 2 years before we ever closed on this poperty. Now we have everything in our house already packed in the moveable store units ready to close on this home and buy our larger home next week(my wife home schools our 5 kids and this 3 bedroom for 7 people is tight 24X7).

I called the attorney for our closing 6 years ago and contacted the title insurance company i paid for at closing to see what the deal was and they said it could take 3-6 months to clear up. Now the buyers we have been waiting patiently for after 2 and a half years on the market and 80 showings later decide they want to walk due to the issues with the lien.

Do i have any ground to stand on to ask the title company from my closing to pay my current home mortagage until it sells due to them not uncovering these issues prior to me buying it? The new house is new construction and I have $10K already invested that I will loose if we dont close next week. also we looked for 2 years and this is the only house that meets the needs of our family in many ways.

Should I sue? Stop paying the mortgage on the 1st house and foreclose since I can buy the new one next week? Need some help on this one.
Thanks,
Matt

Dan Melson Author Profile Page said:

You can always ask, but they won't do it. I know you're not going to like hearing this, but problems with real estate take time to settle. Nor should you stop paying your current mortgage, and there is no way (short of major, go to prison level fraud that probably won't work even if you try) your loan on the new property is going to fund with your old loan outstanding.

You need to go talk with a real estate attorney in your state who has not been involved in previous transactions. Talk to that attorney about your options. Most likely they are going to include at least one lawsuit, and quite probably a complaint against the license of your current listing agent/broker who should have informed you of all of this a long time ago. Knowing about a problem with your current title and NOT informing you in a timely fashion? It is also possible that your Owner's Policy of Title Insurance owes you money both from the failure to deal with the lines and from the additional costs you have incurred due to that.

You've most likely got settlements coming your way but I know that's not going to help much right now.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on June 3, 2014 7:00 AM.

Changes In The Mortgage Market And Transparency Since 2005 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Perfect Time To Buy Real Estate is the next entry in this blog.

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