By Sandy Gadow
Special to The Washington Post
As the record-setting volume of home purchases and mortgage refinancing continues, many borrowers are becoming concerned about how to make settlement go as smoothly as possible. The right choice of a settlement agent is one way you can speed up your mortgage closing.
The settlement agent is the person who coordinates all the paper-pushing that goes into a closing. Generally, the agent has some sort of connection to a title insurance company.
Closing agents, however, are not all alike. You may have heard that title insurance rates and closing fees can vary from company to company, but you may not be aware of the differences in service you will receive from one company to the next.
Many borrowers also are not aware that they have the right to choose title insurance agents. Under the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, the seller cannot require you to buy title insurance from a particular title company. The lender may request that you use a title company it finds acceptable, and it likely will recommend some companies, but in most cases you have the choice. The lender usually always agrees with your pick.
This power of choice is a tool you can use to be sure your closing goes as smoothly and quickly as possible. Depending on where you live, you may choose among a title company, an escrow company, a lawyer or a real estate agent. Whichever entity is used, you will want to ask some basic questions before making your choice.
Your choice of closing agent will largely be determined by the state in which you live. In a number of eastern states, a lawyer will probably close your transaction. In the western part of the country, escrow or title companies typically handle closings. In many states, including Virginia and Maryland, as well as the District, there are attorney-assisted closings, title company closings and closings assisted by real estate agents. None of the local jurisdictions require a particular type of closing agent.
Closing is about preparation and service. Expect good service, and ask for it. Making the right choice ahead of time will be the magic key that opens the door to a speedy settlement.
Ask how quickly a title search can be performed. Ask the turnaround time for issuing a title commitment or title report. Ask who will communicate with the lender, appraiser, real estate agent, inspector and lawyer, if one is involved. Some title officers or closing agents don’t have assistants to help them get the reports out quickly. They can become bogged down with files, and yours may be on the bottom of the stack.
Ask if the title company or agent uses a “transaction-management system” or other means of internal or Internet software system to transmit information, or even documents, electronically. Many lenders have what is called “digital document delivery systems,” which means they can transmit your loan documents to your closing agent by way of the computer. The title company can receive your loan documents almost instantaneously. Funds to close escrow can be received electronically.
What this means is that if there is a change to the documents, a last-minute correction or addition, it can be handled within minutes.
When selecting a title company or closing agent, ask if they use this means of rapid document delivery. Ask if they use a system of instant communication for reports and documents. Ask ahead of time what kind of service you can expect.
The five major national title insurance companies are Fidelity National Financial Inc., First American Corp., LandAmerica Financial Group, Old Republic Title Co. and Stewart Title Co. Among them, they issue about 90 percent of the title insurance policies, said James Maher, executive vice president of the Washington-based American Land Title Association. Regional and one-state companies handle the remaining policies, he said.
All the national companies have transaction-management systems in place. This is important because information can be exchanged, approvals obtained and errors corrected almost instantaneously. In some cases, title reports can be read on a hand-held communication device or on cell phones so that most of the parties to the settlement have access to the information. In some cases, home buyers and sellers as well as professional service providers can log in.
Many regional insurers and larger closing agents have their own systems.
If you use a lawyer to handle your closing, you will want to ask how frequently the law office handles title searches, how large the staff is that will process your file and how quickly the closing date can be arranged.
Many law offices do not rely on real estate closings as a primary source of income, but rather as a way to accommodate clients or to generate further business. Be sure your lawyer has the staff available to quickly process your file. Ask if the lawyer will provide the closing documents to you one day before closing.
Many borrowers arrive at a closing only to find the lawyer or closing agent reading through the documents for the first time. Make it clear that you would like your closing documents to have been read and reviewed before you come in for signing. If there are discrepancies, these can be resolved before closing.
Do not be afraid to exercise your power of choice. Even if your lender recommends you use the title company that normally handles its closings, get several quotes on your own.
If you find a closing agent or title company that offers you a savings on title insurance, closing costs, title exam, search or courier fees, let your lender know. They may agree to match those cheaper fees. Get your quotes in writing, and present them to your lender. Your savings could be substantial.
You may be entitled to a discounted rate on your title insurance policy. If the previous title policy was written in the past two to five years, ask if you qualify for a “reissue rate.” Title companies may not offer the discounted rate unless you ask for it. The savings could be 20 percent or more of the original title policy, so be sure to ask.
Compare reissue title rates. Lawyers are not regulated by the state’s insurance agency and may charge a different rate from that of a title company. Similarly, reissue rates may vary from title company to title company.
This column may not be resold, reprinted, resyndicated, or redistributed without the written permission of Escrow Publishing Company.