Bridging the gaps in the home buying process

Title agents historically have felt like they played second fiddle to other players in the buying and selling of real estate. Largely hidden from view and misperceived by some to be on the lower end of the hierarchy of service providers, the position seemingly lacked the luster of the real estate agent or the panache of the loan officer.

During the housing crisis of 2008, the title industry suddenly emerged from obscurity into full view. Regulators were suddenly curious about what exactly the industry contributed to a real estate transaction.

That question would be answered succinctly when the Dodd Frank Act retooled the entire consumer regulatory structure, redrafting lending and closing documents, stiffening enforcement of laws long on the books and creating new ones, and sending participants in the real estate process into a panic trying to figure out to make it all work.

As it turned out, it was the title and settlement services industry that took on the role of mediator and educator in that situation because, quite frankly, these professionals were the only ones who actually had the insight into what would be needed to consummate a real estate transaction under the new regime.

As title agents well know, a real estate transaction is a bit of a commedia dell’arte, with all of the participating actors often improvising and making it up as they go along, since each real estate transaction presents its own set of unique challenges and hurdles that must be overcome. 

And it is the title agent who has always stood at the epicenter of the chaos tasked with making it all work. In spite of all that being true, title agents haven’t always fully embraced that role.

The most successful agents have long recognized the potential all of that represents and have chosen to elevate their role as overseer of the entire transaction. This is how they make that happen.

Shifting importance

As real estate and loan shopping shift to online modalities, somewhat diminishing the role of the lender and the real estate agent, title agents may find their role in consummating the deal rising like cream to the top of the experience for the consumer.

Agents who have chosen to step into this role focus on five critical areas: culture, project management, communications, technology, and education.

Creating a culture of belonging

A real estate transaction is a perfect model for the ideas that underlay quantum physics. That is, a transaction is not a single “thing,” although it is counted as such on the spreadsheet at the end of the month, but a complicated web of relationships. 

From the moment an owner decides to put a house on the market, they draw into that event a series of people and services, beginning with the professionals they may hire to make repairs before even putting the house on the market. Real estate agents, staging professionals, appraisers, inspectors, surveyors, lenders, lawyers, title agents, escrow officers, closers, notaries, recorders, homeowners’ association reps, insurance agents, tax and flood service providers, moving companies, and landscapers may all be drawn into this web of activity. 

To step up to the role of project manager, a title agent should embrace, connect with, and appreciate the role each provider plays and how it fits into the whole scheme of the transaction.

A title agent can begin by delivering the vision. 

Each professional on the web needs to know that the title agent understands the complexity of the elements of the transaction and how they all fit together. The players must have a clear sense that the title agent values the contributions of each service provider that is leading to the end goal, which all have a share in. 

Acknowledging from the beginning that “we are all in this together” and that it takes the knowledge, effort, and passion of all the players strengthens the web that is supporting the transaction. 

Taking charge

After honoring and acknowledging the work of all the providers, title agents should then communicate what they believe is their superpower. In the Meyers Briggs personality assessment, the ENTJ type, sometimes called “the leader,” is distinguished by its ability to see not only the long-range vision, but all the steps it takes to bring that vision to fulfillment. 

This is the superpower of a great title agent. It’s not just about gathering all of the disparate people, documents, policies and monies into one coherent and final structure called the closing, but having a clear line of sight on how that all happens.

If an agent wants to position themselves as the leader in this process, a good place to begin is to ask their clients what success looks like to them.  Is it closing on time? Is it getting through the process with fewer “touches” or interruptions? Is it having a happy client who will be a great reference? Each of the players has an ultimate wish in the process. Taking the time to establish these requirements for the real estate agent, lender, buyer and seller will help the agent craft a more cohesive plan for achieving those goals.

Running the table in a real estate transaction is not for the faint of heart, nor for the passive. 

Sometimes it is like herding cats or corralling a group of preschoolers.  Something inevitably runs amuck, whether that is something unforeseen in the chain of title, funds that don’t show up on time, something the seller forgot to mention, or the buyer failed to arrange.

However, taking on the stated role of project manager, title agents are in essence inviting their clients to funnel everything through them because they have the ultimate vision of how it will come together. When clients learn to trust their title agent in this more elevated position, they will come to rely on that person in a more cohesive way, which in turn opens new lines of communication further feeding the agent’s ability to control the flow more effectively.

In other words, once that leadership channel is open, clients and service providers will be more likely to proactively respond in kind.

Communications hub

Communications is the linchpin of real estate transactions. From the moment a transaction request comes in the door connections need to be established with every player. 

More importantly, it is fundamentally important to communicate with everyone in the chain, providing them with contact information and connections to the software they will be using to provide information, transfer funds or track the progress of the transaction is fundamental. 

It’s not wise to dole out this information piecemeal. Providing the most comprehensive information and plan of action right from the beginning tells everyone who is in charge and on top of the process.

And enough cannot be said about keeping everyone in the loop during the ensuing weeks as the transaction moves towards closing. Automating those communications achieves three goals:

  • Reassures and informs clients about where the transaction stands and lets them know what is still outstanding
  • Keeps the title agent top of mind as the entity or person managing the process
  • Saves staff the agony and time investment of trying to juggle communications for dozens of active transactions simultaneously

The good news is that technology advances, especially in the AI field, are making efficient and effective communications less work. Where, before, persistence was a key ingredient in not only reaching, but effectively conveying a message to REALTORS, loan officers or borrowers, technology is taking much of the “leg work” out of the process.

Technological connectivity

The new generation of buyers is going all in on technology. If title agents want to be competitive, they have to be one step ahead in preparing for a whole new level of service delivery. Here is one way to approach it:

  • Conduct a technology audit every year to determine where improvements are needed
  • Meet with staff to identify pain points and invite suggestions of how to improve those processes through the use of technology
  • Attend trade shows and sit in on demos or meet with developers to assess what is coming
  • Have an assigned tech guru or early adopter on staff who is constantly looking at new offerings and reporting back to management.

Emphasis on education

As more aspects of real estate sales and financing move online, consumers are in danger of being left to their own devices to read important educational materials about buying, selling and financing a home. Admittedly, there is more information out there, but it is not the same as sitting with a loan officer who is explaining the nuances of a loan, or walking through a home while an experienced real estate agent points out potential flaws.

Title agents need to be prepared for where this all goes in the future. The title industry took on a huge role post Dodd-Frank to educate real estate agents and lenders about the changes to the regulatory structure of the real estate transaction, but it may be incumbent upon them to step into a larger educational role if they get a client who has come through electronic channels where their knowledge level is a complete unknown.

The only way to know what the buyer or seller understands about the transaction is to ask and to be prepared to fill in the blanks.

This must happen before the closing, because no one wants a deer in the headlights at closing.

Setting up a communications channel that offers a wealth of information from which a buyer or seller can choose and more importantly, giving them a technology channel where they can ask questions directly can go a long way to ensuring the buyer comes to the closing table with a sense of confidence in the process.

Last word: The choice between reactivity and proactivity

Raising a title agent’s role to the level of director comes down to a choice between reacting to what the customer asks for transaction by transaction and proactively designing an approach that identifies the needs and desires of the participants and creates a structure in which those needs and desires are anticipated and satisfied.

Successful title agents in the future must be prepared for the changing dynamics of the real estate transaction and be prepared to step into the breach with the tools and resources that will best meet the growing demand for transparency and influence in the process.

The place to begin is at the beginning, to understand that a real estate transaction is not a “thing” but a web of relationships. 

A great title agent can nurture those relationships into a strong and energetic reality that feeds everyone’s success and draws back those players again and again who recognize the strength of this coherent approach.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.

To contact the editor responsible for this piece: [email protected]

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