Steward Title: The fine print is their world

To most people, a title insurance policy may well be “the fine print” distilled to its most impenetrable essence – page after page of mind-numbing legalese chock full of metes, bounds, plats and whereases.

For those in the business, though, a land title is history in action – a record of everything that has happened in one particular spot.

“Every sort of interaction people can have with each other, you will see in the title records,” said John Martin, owner of Stewart Title Company of Bainbridge Island, which has just opened an office in the waterfront complex on south Madison Avenue that holds Bainbridge Thai restaurant, among other businesses.

“You see births, deaths – sometimes even murders – marriage and divorce, lawsuits that mean judgments, you name it,” Martin said.

Stewart Title of Kitsap County is affiliated with Stewart Title Guaranty, a national title insurance firm headquartered in Houston, Texas.

Originally from Michigan, Martin was an attorney with Stewart Guaranty’s Houston office until 1998, when he moved to the Seattle office and settled on Bainbridge.

“There were four of us in the Seattle administrative office, which covered a four-state region, and two of us lived on Bainbridge, and we persuaded the company to move its office over here,” he said.

Martin’s next step was to establish an affiliate for Kitsap County, where Stewart did not have an outpost. The affiliate has its main office in Silverdale.

Title insurance, Martin said, is one of those indispensable components of commerce, because it protects both the buyer and the lender against competing claims of ownership to a piece of property.

“The buyer wants to be protected if someone else claims an interest that would interfere with their use of the property, and the lender wants to make sure that if he has to foreclose on the property, no one else will have a better claim on the proceeds,” Martin said.

What makes title insurance possible is the existence of county title records, on file with the county recorder’s office.

Any document properly recorded in that office constitutes what is known as “constructive notice” to the public at large of the matters set forth in the document, meaning everyone is treated as though they know about the information whether or not they do in fact.

What that means, for example, is that if the city has a utility easement through a portion of your property, or if someone has won a legal judgment against your seller and intends to auction off the property to satisfy that judgment, there will be a record on file, and a subsequent buyer will be affected.

The job of the title company is to ferret out those problems, if any; disclose them to a property purchaser; resolve curable problems prior to title transfer; then insure the buyer against problems that can’t be fixed.

“We look to make sure that old judgments are paid off, for example,” Martin said.

“Then we insure against future problems. If your neighbor has an easement – a right to drive across your property – that we didn’t find, we will either buy out the easement or pay the amount the easement takes from the value of your propery.

“In the rare situation where we can’t fix the problem – for example, if your seller really didn’t own the property – then we will pay the value of the title policy, which is generally the amount of the purchase.”

Title policies are generally purchased by the seller, who pays a one-time premium.

Martin said the Bainbridge location can be a convenience for local clients, particularly those who use the firm’s services as an escrow agent, where real estate transactions are closed.

Despite opening during a time of rising interest rates, which normally slows the title business, Martin said the office is on track, and intends to be around awhile.

“We live here, and we see our clients when we’re at the grocery store,” he said. “Because we’re committed to the community, we’re also committed to making this business a success.”

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