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Ask the Lawyer: Why every buyer should do a title search

Ask the Expert
Gavel-Court
. AP

In August 1997, I started law school and landed a job as a clerk at a Merrimack Valley firm. On my first day, the senior partner welcomed me into his office and said I was going to become a title examiner. I didn’t know anything about it, but I smiled, nervously, and thanked him for the opportunity.

Back then, public land records were not available online, so I needed to go to the registry of deeds. Before I went there the first time, the senior partner gave me a 10-minute explanation of what a title search is and what to look for. He said I needed to trace the ownership of the property, ensuring that the owner has a good title, also known as a “marketable title.’’

A title search is an examination of a property starting with the current owner and the records associated with that particular parcel. The title examiner starts with the current deed and searches prior ones to establish a chain of ownership for a period of no less than 50 years. Then he or she copies and reviews all of the deeds in the chain to verify that ownership had been transferred correctly. There are things (known as “latent defects’’) on a deed the new owner could inherit — an incorrect property description, for example.

Once the title examiner has established the 50-year chain, he or she then maps the ownership starting from the first deed, verifying that all liens and other encumbrances have been released. For example, I have a mortgage on my home. This is considered a lien, which makes my title less than marketable. If I decide to sell my home, I would have to pay off the mortgage using the proceeds from the sale in order to give the new owner a good title. A few examples of other encumbrances could be unpaid condo fees and municipal or Internal Revenue Service liens for nonpayment of taxes. These liens need to be dealt with prior to a sale, because a new owner could be held responsible for them if they are not addressed.

Examinations typically cost $175 to $300, depending on the extent of the search. If you are buying a house and need a mortgage, your lender will require a title examination, and you will foot the bill. If you’re buying a home but don’t need a mortgage, I highly recommend that you hire a professional title examiner anyway. Better to be safe than sorry.

Hugh J. Fitzpatrick III is the founding partner of New England Title and Fitzpatrick & Associates PC, a Tewksbury-based law firm specializing in real estate conveyancing. Send your questions and comments to Address@globe.com. Subscribe to our newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp