A real estate attorney, a title examiner or agent, or do it yourself
Typically, a real estate attorney and/or a title examiner -- also called a title agent -- will take care of making sure the seller has clear title, especially if there’s a mortgage loan or even, sometimes, a refinance involved.
These specialists have access to title companies with their huge databases of uniformly compiled and updated property title information, but laymen can certainly do a property title search on their own.
You can start with a trek -- in person or virtually -- to the courthouse or other offices to examine property records, using such known facts as the name of the owner, street address, and lot number, which often is included in a platted deed. (Lots have been numbered for a long time in this country, not just in modern subdivisions.)
Each state and county has their own way of doing things so you’ll have to find the right place to go, either in person or online. They could be the assessor, the auditor, the county clerk, real property taxation office -- there are a lot of variations on that theme.
Here’s a link to help get started.
Chain, chain, chain … chain of titles
After you arrive at the right site for your situation, use the address first to see what you find, then other search terms, too, if necessary, like an owner’s name.
Once you locate the property in the records, closely examine the most recent deed to ensure it matches the name of the seller of the property. The deed also should list previous deeds and liens, which together comprise what’s known as the "chain of title."
Watch for any red flags, such as an owner missing in the chain of title or a mechanic’s lien or some other potential encumbrance. If they don’t appear resolved, or you’re not sure, that might be a good time to consult a real estate attorney or title examiner or some other expert.
An abstract solution to a real property issue
You can also hire a professional to dig up the chain of title for you. Experienced individual investors will often order an "abstract of title" from a local title examiner or title insurance company. Simply Google something like “title search Richland County South Carolina abstractor” to start your search.
An abstract of title is a kind of title report that summarizes the various activities affecting ownership of a piece of real estate.
The author of this blog -- Grand Rapids, Mich., real estate investor Seth Williams -- says he usually sees such a title report priced at about $75 to $150. He also says that given that cost, the only time he does his own title search is when it involves a very inexpensive piece of land.
"As soon as I start dealing with properties that are worth more than $5,000, a full-blown title insurance policy is worth more than the cost," Williams says. "There’s something to be said for making sure this job is done right and that someone else is on the hook for any mistakes."