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Property Title Search: How to Check for Liens on a Property

Michelle Wilson - June 27, 2022

Property Title Search: How to Check for Liens on a Property

Are you planning on buying a home or investment real estate? If so, you’ll want to ensure you’ve done your research on potential liens on a property. Looking into liens is particularly important if you’re planning on purchasing a short sale, foreclosure, or distressed property. A property lien on a house’s title will significantly hinder your ability to sell the property in the future, potentially costing you thousands to resolve. The last thing you’d like to encounter is someone else’s debts or liabilities when buying property. That’s why a property title search is critical to home buying.

Searching for any liens on a property can occasionally be difficult as you need to ensure the information is as accurate as possible. To help get you started, here are a few types of liens to watch for, as well as information on checking liens on a property.

What is a Property Lien?

A lien is a legal claim to any asset, allowing the holder to obtain access to the specific property. Liens are commonly placed against the property to hold the owners accountable for paying off the loan. Before starting your search for property information, it’s essential to understand what a lien is and how it might influence your purchase.

When a lien is placed on the home’s title, the property owner legally can’t refinance, sell, or otherwise transfer a clear title of ownership to the house. Although sellers can still technically sell the home, a property lien can prevent potential buyers from receiving a clear title on the property.

What Happens if Someone Purchases a Home with a Lien?

If someone purchases a property with a lien on the title, the lien automatically transfers to the new owners. The new owners are responsible for resolving the previous owners’ lien. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good surprise for buyers who have already invested significant money into the direct purchase.

What types of liens are there for properties?

Currently, there are two categories of property liens available. These include voluntary and involuntary liens. A voluntary lien consists of a mortgage loan. Should you have a home and mortgage, there will be a mortgage lien against the home’s title until the entire balance is paid. As a buyer, you enter this agreement willingly, understanding the house can be seized should you fail to pay the loan. A voluntary lien is often settled and cleared at closing, which is not usually an issue for buyers unless it’s a short sale.

Involuntary liens are placed against a homeowner’s property by a creditor for unpaid obligations. These debts do not include mortgage loans. An involuntary lien is often referring to tax liens where a homeowner has unpaid property taxes. Should you fail to pay taxes on the property, the local county can place a lien on your property until the debt is repaid. Should you fail to pay, the county can proceed with foreclosure.

Other Types of Liens

Although it may be the most common type of involuntary lien, tax liens aren’t the only type. Other liens include failing to pay contractors for renovations, utility company bills, or homeowners associations for monthly dues. Unfortunately, involuntary liens aren’t settled at closing and must be addressed before continuing with the sale.

How to check for liens on a property

Liens are seldom something a buyer wants to assume responsibility for when purchasing the property. Therefore, it’s imperative to research the property to ensure you put money into the right real estate. Here’s how to check the property for liens:

Check liens in person through county records

Liens are considered public records and can be accessed through your county. Contact the local tax assessor and county clerk’s office in the county where the property is located to receive this information. Searching for liens in person may require a few trips to several local offices. You may need to perform a public record search for all previous owners. This search will ensure all information is complete and accurate.

While checking for liens in person often requires more time and effort than other options, it’s more effective overall. Additionally, you can ask the office clerk questions about the documents you find, which may be helpful for your understanding. Occasionally, property lien information is available online through the assessor’s website.

Work with a title agent

When you don’t have time to research and compile the report, contact a title company to help you with these details. A title agent holds significantly more experience in these documents, knowing exactly what to look for and where to find it. A title agent will always include a detailed report, including the history of ownership, records, and liens. This saves you the trouble of doing it yourself, letting you focus on other aspects of the home purchase.

Unfortunately, this method comes at a high cost, as the time and effort required aren’t easy. Consider the expense part of the home buying process, giving you peace of mind overall.

Use Available Online Search Tools

Many third-party companies offer online title search services to help potential buyers with their title searches. These companies provide buyers with property record, title, and lien search services, compiling all information into a comprehensive report. Many of these search websites are state-specific, while others are available nationwide.

This method continues to come with a cost to the buyer, although it’s frequently less than hiring an independent agent. Again, it’s often better to consider these expenses as part of the home buying process instead of risking such a significant financial investment.

Can You Purchase a Property with a Lien on it?

Although properties with liens in the title technically can’t be refinanced or sold, there are a few exceptions to the rule. To purchase a property with a lien, you’ll need to settle the lien before continuing with the sale. Most often, paying the lien is easier with voluntary than involuntary liens.

While a buyer can undoubtedly pay off overdue debts, it’s probably not something you’ll want to do. As a buyer, you can negotiate with the seller to pay off the title debts or come to another financial agreement. Should you choose to work with a title agent, they may be able to clear the liens from the home’s title for you.

Is it a good idea to buy a property with a lien on it?

Purchasing a home with a lien on it shouldn’t be your first option, as it complicates the sale. May buyers will avoid properties with liens, and for a good reason. The biggest issue in purchasing a home with a lien is the length of the sales process. A lien can take months to remove or release after settling the debt.

Conclusion

Although the home buying process is an exciting time, it’s always a good idea to make an informed decision before spending thousands on a property. Completing a title search is always a wise idea to prevent unexpected future problems from arising. By knowing what a property lien is and how it might influence your sale, you’ll go into the home buying process with a better understanding and know-how overall.

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