In Philadelphia, tangled titles are derailing home-buying dreams

Tracey Gordon, register of wills for Philadelphia County, said there are 10K tangled titles in the city, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts

By: - February 16, 2022 11:04 am

Philadelphia Register of Wills Tracey Gordon. There are 10,000 tangled titles in Philadelphia County, Gordon said, citing research by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Brian Saunders

PHILADELPHIA — Becca and Joseph O’Connor were days away from closing the sale of their home when a title check led to a discovery that they did not own their entire property.

While doing the title check, the O’Connors learned that their Wallingford, Pa., home purchased in 2018 had two separate parcels, and they only legally owned one of them.

The ownership of the second flat of land covering at least the home’s front yard was not conveyed over properly after the death of the original homeowners.

This mishap halted the sale of the O’Connors’ home and the purchase of a new and more spacious home for their growing family.

“It’s been absolutely miserable,” Joseph O’Connor said. “We want this to be over and done with. We’d like our property, the property we’ve been paying for for years now, to legally be in our name so we can sell it and move on with our lives.”

This situation is an example of a tangled title. Tangled titles are situations where someone lives in a home, or has a right to own it, but their name is not on the deed or title. Often, this type of situation happens when a family member whose name is on the deed, dies without a will or without transferring or placing the deed in the relative’s name who is living there.

This can sometimes result in a relative losing the home. And sometimes tangled titles can lead to criminals stealing titles and selling the home.

Tracey Gordon, register of wills for Philadelphia County, said that there are 10,000 tangled titles in Philadelphia based on Pew Charitable Trust research.

Gordon’s office is focusing on the importance of a will and why it is necessary for the proper transfer of assets upon someone’s death.

“So you have to plan for your death, especially if people depend on you,” Gordon said. “Especially if you own things that you wanted to pass down. So there’s no such thing as a verbal will. There is no such thing as automatic transfer.”

Lance Rogers, an attorney who deals with real estate litigation, said “I’ve seen a lot of people who think that just because they know the owner of a property or the person that they think is the owner of the property, that you know, their transaction is safe and that they don’t need to worry about prior owners.”

There are tangled titles where people prey on deceased property owners to sign over the property’s title illegally.

“The person who transferred title did not have authority to do that, and therefore, you know what you thought was your house isn’t really your house,” Rogers said.

And then there are instances like the O’Connors.

“Other examples of tangled titles include just negligence, just mistakes or a lack of follow-through on the part of the title company or a seller or a buyer,” Rogers said.

The O’Connor family had packed up their house and were all set to move when they were notified that when the original homeowners transferred the home’s title from the deceased husband to the wife, both parcels did not get turned over. After the wife sold the home to a third party, only the part of the land the house itself sits on was legally included in the sale.

Because they need complete ownership to sell the home, the O’Connors have to do “quiet title action.” That involves tracking down the legal owners and getting them to sign off on paperwork that legally transfers the deed.

That is not simple in this case because the beneficiaries of the property are three sisters, and they all have to agree.

“The lawyers had to track down the heirs of the original owners from 70 years ago, where the problem occurred with the transfer of the title,” Joseph O’Connor said. “So we found them after a while, and now they have to rewrite our entire deed and get complete strangers to sign off on something. They had no idea any of this was even going on.”

Rogers said this situation is a great opportunity to make people aware that lawyers need to purchase land and property.

“The best thing that new owners can do when buying property is to talk to an attorney,” Rogers said.

He added that having a person who can safeguard your purchase is vital so that you don’t have any unforeseen misfortunes down the line.

Joseph O’Connor said that this situation had thrown a wrench in his family’s lives. They’ve been sleeping on air mattresses and living out of boxes because they were all set to move.

“This is a 30-year commitment in your life,” he said. “So involve yourself as much as you possibly can and become familiar with everything that is involved with the home buying process. It’s an absolute necessity. You need to get involved. Secondly, how to hire a professional that you feel comfortable with, but don’t hire family because that could lead to a misstep. And third, honestly, I didn’t know hiring a lawyer for a home-buying process was a big thing, but I’m just finding out it’s actually quite a big thing. And if I had known that, if I was informed on that, you know, this entire thing could have been avoided just going into this with a lawyer.”

The O’Connors said they want people to pay attention to red flags in deals. These occur when something doesn’t seem right or is out of the ordinary. Also, use a good title company that will conduct the appropriate searches and ensure that you’re getting what you bargained for.

Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

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