Real estate title records are a valuable source of investigative intelligence. By going beyond a simple “title search”, an investigator can discover factual data and intangible patterns which cannot be found elsewhere. True title research goes beyond just a database search of online or electronic title records. Obtaining the actual physical documents for examination takes some time, but they contain the true description of the events surrounding property activity. Forensic research of title records history can provide the following:
Invisible Pattern of Activity: Examination and analysis of real estate title records can uncover important details about a property or individual. The pattern and manner of transactions often are not immediately apparent when looking at a title report or title abstract. These documents are simply a snapshot of a specific point in time, in the present. A detailed examination of historical documents and a compilation of what they mean in their totality are infinitely more informative. Where was the closing held? Were the documents executed at the subject’s home? Out of state? Were there any quit-claim deeds? Has any lis pendens notice been filed, even if no foreclosure resulted? These filings often contain “CC:” notices to any third parties known to be associated with the subject.
Unconcealable Information: Since title records cannot be kept confidential, these are often the “open door” into the activities and finances of an individual or corporation. Title documents will also disclose partnerships and ownership alliances, which can lead to other avenues of investigation. It is also very common to find alternate spellings, and a.k.a’s listed on title documents. Legal recording of documents often requires listing of any alternate identities or names. In many cases, the legal documents contain a “Send to”” block, indicating where to forward the originals after recording. By noting these locations on historical records, it can be determined where they were at the time.
Deep Intelligence within Documents: Each document in a chain of title history contains pages of details which individually disclose legal descriptions, methods of ownership, and vesting. A standard property title report lists simply the date of transfer, sale price, and party names. Remember that the event which initiated the title transfer is chronicled on a legal document, which remains recorded even after subsequent transfer. Our process of reviewing each document for language, terms, or contract clauses identification provides infinitely more information than a title report. There may also be contingencies, such as life estates which change the meaning of the transfer. Purchase-money clauses can disclose arrangements with relatives or friends.
Relationship Slip Ups: We also observe the third parties associated with each document. The identities of witnesses to signatures are important details to collect, and we also compare the names of notaries and escrow company representatives, to see if they appear on documents executed many years apart. This could indicate an association with the person or firm. It can also indicate fraud. At the time when a deed or mortgage is executed, there is a requirement for 2 witnesses to sign, verifying the execution of the document. These need not be officials, and are often just whoever is in the room. (Wife/girlfriend/associate, etc.) There is little concern given to this by the subject, and it is a good source of leads, and follow up.
Mortgage Patterns: Historical mortgage instruments which were previously placed on the property title may no longer be active. Loans that were paid off or refinanced may no longer be appearing on title. However, by detecting these prior documents, a pattern of finances can emerge. Was the mortgage balance previously higher, indicating a large payment towards principle? Were there withdrawals of equity through cash-out refinancing, or equity loans? When did these occur? Do the terms on any of the prior loans indicate a sub-prime loan package? Was the total amount loaned against the property consolidated onto one loan, or split over multiple loans? Was the same mortgage broker used each time? Closing attorney? Notary?
Liens & Judgments: What claims have been made against the property, or even its owner as an individual? Liens which have been paid may not currently show on title, but old judgments can open a line of investigation into activities and other parties. Who is the plaintiff to the lien? What is their relationship to the subject? What was the underlying event or action which originated the judgment? The mortgage chain can also disclose financial institutions which would have financial statements and applications completed by the subject at different identifiable points in time. Government liens from the IRS, Child Support Enforcement, sales tax collections, etc., can lead to other public records with more information.
Tax Assessor’s Records: Is the property homesteaded, or a primary residence? Are the tax bills sent to another address, or were they ever in the past? Who is actually paying the tax bills? What improvements have been made to the property, and when? Does this indicate lifestyle changes, or financial improvements? Many assessors’ offices have sketches or photos of properties showing the layout and outbuildings.
Additional Properties: Does the subject own other properties? Are there partners or other owners on these properties? Is the subject a cosigner or endorser on a note or mortgage, or were they in the past? Even if the person does not own other property, they may have appeared on a mortgage as a cosigner.
Property Conveyance: Has the subject property been frequently transferred? Are there any recurrences of owners who reappear on title? Do any of the prior owners on the chain of title connect with parties related to the current owner? The subject name may not hit for current ownership, but prior ownership history can show property attachment in the past. Sometimes the property will have been “quit-claimed” to try and conceal ownership. This can be discovered.
Another advantage to title records is that no record is made of the inquiry. Title search or document retrieval leaves no paper trail or record of search.
We hope you find this white paper helpful, and gain insight into the use of title records as a tool for investigations or asset recovery. These are just a few examples of how we use title forensics as a means to provide intelligence to our clients. In the past decade, we have provided research, testimony, depositions, consulting, and analysis for clients such as the US Department of Justice, Treasury Department, US Postal Inspector, Fraud Discovery, Inc., Chubb Insurance Group, Environmental Data Research Group., Inc. and others.