Fannie Mae’s updated Selling Guide now allows attorney opinion letters in lieu of title insurance in some circumstances. This change aligns Fannie Mae with Freddie Mac’s similar announcement. Will the marketplace change dramatically because of these policy announcements. I hope not and I doubt it.
Fannie Mae touts its change as a method to reduce costs for borrowers. I don’t believe South Carolina lawyers will issue title opinions for residential loans that will be less expensive than title insurance. I know I wouldn’t.
The guidance indicates opinion letters will not be accepted where the loan is secured by a condominium, a leasehold estate, or a manufactured home.
According to the guidance, the attorney’s title opinion letter must:
- be addressed to the lender and all successors in interest of the lender
- be commonly accepted in the area where the subject property is located
- provide gap coverage for the duration between the loan closing and recordation of the mortgage
- list all other liens and state they are subordinate
- state the title condition of the property is acceptable and the mortgage constitutes a lien of the required priority on a fee simple estate in the property
Do you see any problems with this list? I’ve never issued an opinion letter that provided gap coverage and I don’t recommend that you accept that risk in your transactions. What happens if you update title and discover a mechanic’s lien recorded in the gap? That lien would become your problem as the attorney who agreed to cover the gap as of the date of the opinion letter or the closing date.
Before the general use of title insurance, attorney’s routinely issued opinion letters to lenders and buyers. But title insurance has historically been determined to be the better choice. Attorneys should not be responsible for title problems that cannot be discovered through a title examination. A forgery in the chain of title, for example, would be covered by title insurance but should not be covered by an attorney’s opinion. The same may be true for missing heirs, matters that may be apparent from a visit to the property and survey matters.
But it concerns me that lenders who accept attorney’s opinions may perceive those items (and others) to be covered. To ensure your opinion letters are not perceived to cover matters outside the title examination, proper “exceptions” should be added to your letters. To protect you, your law firm and your malpractice carrier, your letters should contain many paragraphs of exceptions!
My best advice is to resist this proposed change in the marketplace. I believe title insurance provides the best coverage for owners and lenders, and it indirectly provides protection for closing attorneys. We can be encouraged that Freddie Mac’s similar announcement two years ago has not greatly impacted our industry. Let’s hope Fannie Mae’s announcement will have a similar reaction.