- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

In today's hotter-than-hot market, a career in real estate might make sense. Today's real estate jobs offer far more growth potential than simply wearing the company blazer and taking prospective buyers down unfamiliar halls.

You might, for example, work for a title company. These are the people who seal the deal, who make sure that all the T's are crossed and all the I's are dotted as property passes from seller to buyer. Combining the skills of the salesman with the precision of the professional, a job with a title company can offer plenty of day-to-day challenges.

It's also the kind of field where what you can do is more important than your educational background.

"Frankly, we look more at ability than at credentials," says John Nalls, attorney-manager with the Bethesda office of Universal Title and a principal with the associated law firm of Ridgeway, Griffin, Kestner, Cogan, Stanton and Nalls. "It's what you do that counts. And, of course, you have to be willing to work hard."

Don't expect to take a real estate class or two and come out ready to tackle a title.

"There is no school you can go to to learn about the title process," says Deborah Townsend, director of Business Development for Millennium Title LLC, which has offices in Reston and Herndon. "What you need are good mentors."

What exactly is a title company? Title companies make sure that a property in question has no liens or easements upon it, allowing for a closely supervised and ultimately hassle-free real estate transaction. Without the title company, no house would ever make it off the market.

"We're the final link in the chain of the process in commercial or residential real estate," Mr. Nalls says. "We work with Realtors or owners if they are doing it themselves to be sure the transaction goes forward."

That means that people who work for the title companies and who process titles are party-neutral, working neither for the buyer or the seller.

"I like to say that we represent the contract," Mr. Nalls says, "and that often seems to alleviate some of the tension that comes with the process."

After the contract is signed, it is passed to the title company. The company then "opens a file" on the property and initiates a search to ensure that there are no liens or other clouds upon the title.

"You have to make sure that the property involved is a good and marketable property," Mr. Nalls says.

More often than you might think, a previous loan on a property might be paid off but never recorded with the appropriate agency. Title companies make sure the books are set straight. To do so, title company personnel go to the courthouse, where they search land records, judgments and tax records for any decisions that might affect the property. The results are copied and compiled in a "run sheet" given to the participating attorneys.

In the District, title searchers also must contend with special provisions of the District government that may affect a title, such as the city's "clean it or lien it policy," to ensure that property is in a tidy condition when it changes hands.

As part of the procedure, the property in question is also surveyed.

Once the title seems clear, the property is in process. During that time, title company personnel work closely with banks and other lenders, making sure that old loans are paid off and property and other taxes are paid.

"Banks want to be sure that they are first in line to get paid," Mr. Nalls says. "So we also send sellers a checklist for information that would not show up on a standard title search."

Information such as a declaration of bankruptcy in another jurisdiction or a divorce or legal separation that did not result in one party being taken off the title, is crucial for a smooth transaction.

When applicable, the title processor also will get information from the homeowners association or condominium association so the new buyer is in compliance with the association's regulations. The processor also is the one who schedules the closing and makes sure everyone is present who needs to be.

"Processors really have to learn on the job," Mr. Nalls says. "There is no substitute for experience."

After settlement, the disburser makes sure the former lenders are paid off, the taxes are paid up, fees are paid in full and so are interested parties such as real estate agents.

Nearly all lenders require that buyers take out a title insurance policy to indemnify them in the event that a title is found to be clouded after all. A title company writes the policy.

"You can't anticipate every contingency," Mr. Nalls says. "Title insurance protects lenders and owners if title issues come up after the fact. It's a small investment for a large amount of protection."

The entire process is supervised by attorneys such as Mr. Nalls or a licensed settlement officer.

Despite the exactitude required by the various undertakings involved with the title process, there is little formal training for those who work for the title company. Mrs. Townsend, for example, began her career 26 years ago as a receptionist and worked her way up to her current managerial role.

"It is one profession where there is an opportunity for growth," she says.

There is, however, a particular set of characteristics that those who work for title companies seem to possess. Foremost is an attention to detail.

"This is a very detail-oriented profession," Mr. Nalls says. "You have to pay close attention all the time."

Although you don't need to know calculus, you do have to know how to crunch the numbers.

"It does help to know the math," Mr. Nalls says. "We find that former bank employees become very good title employees because they know how to handle money."

Honesty is also a requirement. In the Washington area especially, house sales mean that very large sums of money are changing hands.

"We expect you to be able to balance things to the penny," Mr. Nalls says.

At the same time, you have to be sensitive to the needs and frustrations of people who may be dealing with what probably will be the largest financial transactions of their lives.

Most of all, you need to be a self-starter.

"You can never assume that someone has done what they said they were going to do," Mrs. Townsend says. "You don't wait until the end of the day to see if the money came through. You keep calling all through the day until it does."

Effective communication is key.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm part diplomat, part psychiatrist," Mr. Nalls says. "You'd be surprised what are issues for some people."

That can be particularly trying, especially at the end of the month when most transactions take place.

"Those are the times I think I have this job because I must have been Lizzie Borden in a former life and it's pay-back time," Mrs. Townsend says with a laugh. "But actually, I enjoy it immensely."

One reason the job is so enjoyable, title company workers agree, is the nature of the transaction.

"People are generally excited and happy," Mr. Nalls says. "You are helping them buy a house or make money selling one. It's nice to be a part of that."

For such well-motivated individuals, working for a title company can be a ticket to personal and financial advance.

"I started at 19 with only two years of college," Mrs. Townsend says, "but this is one field where the salary is commensurate with what you do. I saw this as an avenue to make good income where there is room for growth. And a lot people who work in this business are like me. They don't have the formal training, but they have the motivation to work their way up."

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