Replacing abstractors with computers seems to be the latest rage in the title industry. Tap a few keys... hit print... take the search to an in-house "examiner" to review and voila! But, there will always be those few items you have to check at the courthouse. For instance, our home county maintains a special assessment book that contains tax assessments that don't get entered into the computer until they are ready to print the tax bills. There is a foreign execution book that is still handwritten in the recorder's office. And, our probate records are not available online at all. It's just not quite possible to cut the "human abstractors" our of the loop all together... not yet, anyway.
When the "higher-ups" try to eliminate the need for abstractors by implementing thin title plants there are some nasty side effects. There is less volume of work for the abstractors. Even though there will still be a need for real, live abstractors to check those items that are not available electronically, and to do the searches that are too complicated to be done online, "good" abstractors cannot make a living doing the left-over work at today's prices. Common sense dictates that even the simplest jobs will be more expensive because there isn't as much work available to spread the cost over.
We used to average around 20 current owner searches each day, now we are down to only a few. The full searches that take much longer to complete are still coming in, but, without the easier current owner searches, we have to charge more to do the complicated work. When we had a nice mix of work, we were able to do the really simple miscellaneous work as a courtesy and we were able to keep the prices for the full searches very reasonable.
When we were busy doing current owner searches, we were more than happy to do quick miscellaneous searches at no charge. If a client called and wanted a copy, or they needed us to check for a release before a closing, or do last minute check for a new buyer... we just did it while we were there, for free or a very nominal charge. Now we have to charge a higher "miscellaneous fee" because we are getting a disproportionate share of those requests (Tax & Legal requests, mostly). We can't send someone to the courthouse just to check a few things at no charge. A lot of the things we used to do as accommodations for our clients, we simply cannot do anymore.
The routine current owners allowed for abstractors to balance everything out. The really simple stuff could be done for free and the more complicated searches could be kept at modest price. Whether we get 20 searches or 2 searches, there is a minimum amount that we MUST bill every month or we won't be able to stay in business to do ANY work for our clients. Without the relatively constant base of "normal" work, clients should not be surprised to see higher fees for the remnants.
The current slow-down is going to last a while. I believe that many of those who thought they could get into this business and make easy money will move on to other endeavors. Once that happens, those that remain will modify their pricing structure and the consistency we have had with abstracting fees will be gone. There won't be standard prices for current owners and full searches - instead there will be more pricing on a per-job basis, much like the commercial work is handled today.
After all, there is no such thing as an easy current owner anymore. Most of those are done online or overseas. It used to be that we could balance out the tough searches with the easier ones and it was really a win/win situation for the abstractors and their clients. The searchers could depend on steady revenue and the clients could depend on consistent prices for the various search types.
Short of creating a computer with arms and legs, or a "frankenabstractor," the abstractors are going to have adapt to coexist with the technology that is cutting into the volume of work. I'm sure it will all work out in the end, but it won't look like it does now. In some respects it may even evolve into something better. We will just have to wait and see.
Robert A. Franco
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