By Michael DeMarco
What’s better than making sandwiches?
Title searching. At least, it was for me. I started title searching during the spring semester of my first year in college. What began as a better than making sandwiches job for me became a career.
As I sit back and reflect on my 18 years in the Northeast title research industry, I’m struck by how much technology has impacted how we research titles. Yet, while technology is modernizing the title process, the complexities inherent in a highly fragmented weave of counties and towns that comprise the Northeast require on-the-street humans, i.e., “Masters of Search.”
On-the-ground searches in the Northeast differ from those found in other parts of the country, where properties were originally divided and described using grid systems instead of the abstract metes and bounds descriptions of the early settlers to the region. Counties in the same state can have vastly different online databases. Technology, while important, hasn’t yet solved the need for skilled humans in this geography to bring the pieces together. It’s a region where analog and digital co-exist and will be for the foreseeable future.
I was nineteen years old when I first walked into a searching vault. The sound of copy machines humming, keyboards clicking, future colleagues shouting, “Are you done yet? And “Hey, kid, you forgot your copy card!” still rings in my ears.
Even in the early 2000s, a searching vault looked like something out of the 70s, with columns of books of various sizes, which typically got larger the older the book. Microfilm was still used for specific records like surrogates. One needed to be part searcher and part librarian to navigate this place. You had to know how to search a “key letter” index to properly gather research of names past the 60s in most counties. The search process was and is still old school. It harkens back to a tradition that many of the men and women I work with still uphold: The quest for accuracy.
In other areas of the real estate industry, there have been massive shifts in the home-buying experience. Zillow and Trulia have changed how people engage and begin the home-buying process. Electronic signing tools like DocuSign and Adobe have sped up and simplified processes, bringing home buyers and sellers to the closing table more quickly and confidently. And home inspectors now come into a home armed not with pencils, paper, and measuring tape but with iPads, and laser measuring tools.
Interestingly, despite this innovation, when you look at the title research industry, there still seems to be a great divide between where technology is and isn’t used. In my years of searching, I’ve seen counties slowly adopt electronic databases to pull public records. And key integrations intended to make the title research process from search to close seamless. But to assume that these county records alone provide a clear snapshot of the title is not an assumption you can rest your hat on. The last mile of the search is applying the human skills of a veteran searcher and search operations teams to hunt down and interpret the missing elements not found in county databases. Getting close enough isn’t good enough.
While the digital divide is closing as more agencies integrate with technology workflows, there is still the need for expert searcher and human interpretation on the front end. The output is a fully informed digital record. The Pandemic was an inflection point for title professionals who needed a digital solution for fast and accurate research. But again, simply digitizing county databases didn’t eliminate the need for front-end human expertise- at least not here.
As we sit at the close of 2022, the industry is changing. Last week, ALTA released that our industry has taken a 20% drop in Q3 alone. We are standing at the forefront of change within the title research industry where new models relying on great people armed with fresh cost-efficient technical approaches are proving to be the way forward, avoiding the high stakes risk of having too many fixed costs that result in low to negative income during downturns.
For over two decades, ATR has called the Northeast home and invested in developed platforms to drive innovation and automate production processes while relying on experts to guide and execute some of the most complex searches on the planet. ATR’s SmartSearchTM is an excellent example of advancing automation in Title Production by delivering digital search results and integrated ancillary searches that feed directly into our client’s workflow with minimal downstream manual intervention. ATR’s SmartSearchTM sets our client’s up for quick examination and commitment preparation.
In early 2023 we’ll have some exciting announcements to make, all designed to make the lives of our clients even easier in their quest for an efficient and easy close. But throughout, we’ll always place the human in the center.
We are excited and committed to the future of the title research industry.
At ATR, we’ve always seen things differently, and I’m glad to have been part of the journey. It sure beats making sandwiches.