One risk of buying an REO (bank-owned) property that you rarely hear about is the potential for title issues. Buyers incorrectly assume that since liens are typically extinguished in a foreclosure, that the title is free-and-clear. Not always so!
Let’s discuss the process. Lenders require buyers to obtain title insurance on the property. These policies protect the lender, and if you opt for extended coverage, the buyer. (See my post on how to save money on a title policy on a non-REO purchase here.) The policy protects against defects in the title, competing claims, etc. To issue this insurance policy, the settlement attorney’s office will perform a title search, issue a commitment to insure (sometimes called a binder).
The REO addendum (see post on risks of that addendum here) is usually written such that the bank is protected even if the title they convey isn’t perfect, so you can’t come after them if you determine later that there is a title issue. More importantly, the addendum requires only that they convey insurable title, not marketable title, as is required in the standard Regional Contract. Remember that the addendum trumps the contract, so don’t go relying on that paragraph in the offer that requires marketable title.
What’s the difference between insurable and marketable titles? Marketable means it’s free from threat of litigation. Insurable does not guarantee clean title, but rather simply requires that there is a title insurance company willing to “insure over” the defect. (Ever wonder why bank addenda require that you use their title insurer and settlement agent?)
Why should you care about insurable versus marketable title? Because when YOU go to sell down the road, you won’t have the benefit of that trump card, the REO addenda, nor will you have a settlement attorney in your pocket that will “insure over” defects. It’s possible that the price on an REO deal will be such that you don’t care about the insurable versus marketable difference—but make sure you review, and ask lots of questions about, what is being “insured over,” or you may find yourself paying to cure title defects years later when you sell.
What can a buyer do to protect himself? First, choose your own settlement attorney. Have them perform a title search as quickly as possible to identify any problems early. If the bank insists on using their title company, consider shelling out the few hundred for your own concurrent title search. Many foreclosures have significant title issues, and many bank addendums provide a very tight timeframe for identifying and objecting to them. An example of an issue that might be identified would be if the listing included a parking space, but upon searching the deeds, the bank didn’t actually own the parking spot—how can they convey what isn’t theirs? Second, review that title search and make sure you understand all the possible defects. Finally, buy the best title insurance you can–it’s a one time cost at closing that may save you many times more than the cost of the policy.
Read more: Beginning of series on Foreclosure Risks
Resource: A great local settlement attorney – Ekko Title
If you’re interested in learning more about REO and foreclosures, or thinking of buying one, I’d love to advise you on the home buying process.