by John Voso, Jr.
In October 2002 ALTA® launched its public awareness campaign sparked by industry changes such as Radian's lien protection product, a RESPA reform proposal from HUD, and a general lack of information about the title industry and its role in the home buying process. For those of us who heard the presentation, it was a wake up call that we cannot let our national association carry this ball alone: Grassroots efforts are key to the success of the campaign.
In conjunction with the Ohio Land Title Association's past president Mike Nolan, we had already taken steps to revive public relations at the local level. In September 2002 we reinstated the OLTA PR Committee, and they were already identifying ways to get our messages to the consumer. That October presentation by Ervin Bell, ALTA®'s PR firm, reaffirmed we were on the right track. What we needed was a way to reach many different audiences: real estate agents, attorneys, lenders, homebuyers, and sellers on a very personal level. We determined that the best way to get the word out was a slide show—a very simple way to explain what we do, answer questions, and help people understand this complicated process. We took the information back to the PR Committee chair, Steve Garrett, who set to work with OLTA member Alison Gareffa of Kasparnet, LLC on a PowerPoint presentation. More on that later in this article.
Ohio's Particular Challenge
In Ohio's 88 counties, there are 88 customary ways to search and close. Customs differ as to which party is required to pay fees for the search, exam, and title insurance for both the owner and lender. There are only four cities in all of Ohio that have true title plants that are maintained on a continual basis. Most counties have some sort of technical database, but there are still locations where books and reports need to be examined to conduct a solid marketable title search. Some counties may not have complete point and click search capabilities for decades. It is very tough to compare Ohio to a state like California where technology has been an ongoing part of the process for years. Many small Ohio counties have populations of fewer than 100,000 residents. This may explain why certain counties may not allocate funds for building databases for taxes, liens, court notices, etc., to retrieve via desktop. Certain areas use table closing methods with all parties attending. Other areas close in escrow, where buyer and seller sign, but not at the same time, and the closing may be days after the documents are executed and funds are deposited.
In over 50% of the counties it is customary for the buyer/borrower to pay for title search, exams, and title insurance premiums on purchase transactions. In these areas it is not customary to sell owner's title insurance. Attorney opinions and loan policies prevail in these markets. Title agents have offered an owner's policy at closing with little success. All the agent defalcations and builder scandals still have not changed the customs in many of these markets. Even all of the education of lenders, loan officers, real estate agents, and brokers over the years have still left the consumer unable to decide whether the product fits their needs. Closing fees and pricing weigh heavily on the decision to buy or not to buy the coverage is secondary to the cost. Many real estate agents and mortgage originators do not have an owner's policy on their own homes!
A few years back two local title agents, the OLTA executive director, and the general counsel for ALTA® discussed the attorney opinion situation in southern and rural Ohio. We approached Freddie Mac to change the custom; however the custom stood and has changed only slightly with affiliated business in the market. Freddie Mac is still purchasing loans from these areas with only an attorney's opinion of title.
Educating the Public
When OLTA reinstituted its Public Relations Committee in 2002, it addressed the need for different ways to educate the public. One of the products, as I mentioned earlier, is a PowerPoint presentation, which focuses on the history of the industry, the title search, claims, pricing, and the financial strength of the policy. The presentation was designed for our members to present to buyers, sellers, and local community groups. It was developed using text from the major underwriter brochures, the Ohio Department of Insurance, OLTA and ALTA® data. It was an intentional collaboration of these sources to display the unity that we all feel as an industry. The goal is to educate the consumer about title insurance; where they choose to take their business is up to them.
The presentation is posted on the OLTA Web site and, members can download it as a PDF file. They can use it as a PowerPoint presentation or copy the presentation as a handout. The committee also developed notes for each slide that the presenter can use as a template for his or her presentation. The presentation touches upon potential claims in an easy to understand format. Photographs and newspaper headlines make it easy to follow. The 25 slide presentation can be delivered in as little as 30 minutes and can be tailored based on the audience, amount of time given, and the regional demands (i.e. attorney's opinion, etc.). The presenter has the option of adding comments from his or her own experiences as well.
We have also developed an in depth presentation that can be used for real estate attorneys, developers, and individuals who have some understanding of the title insurance process and product. The second presentation is geared more for the industry professional, and our hope is that it may be approved for Continuing Education hours as well.
We are also educating the consumer by using advertisements and opinion editorial articles. The goal is to turn the tide from being a reactionary group to being a proactive group. ALTA®'s media campaign has given all of us a wake up call that we need to come out of the background and step onto the stage: Tell the consumer who we are, what we do, and show them how we can help them achieve their goals.
The title industry is an important part of the process of homebuying or refinancing. In fact, one could say that we are the most emotionally charged part of the process: We the title agents are there for the consumer when they sign their paperwork and close the deal. How we represent ourselves and how well we do our jobs have a huge impact on the process. Part of our job description is to get up from behind our desks, leave our offices, and reach out to the community to educate them about title insurance—to arm them with information that they can use in making a decision about buying a home, choosing a title company, deciding whether or not to buy an owner's policy.
A Challenge for You
We encourage other ALTA® members to visit our Web site www.olta.org, download the presentation, and see how your state association can do something similar. Each state has different laws and regulations concerning title insurance. And consumers' needs also vary geographically. If you do not have a PR committee at the state level, form one! We are an all volunteer committee, and we have a vested interest in the end result.
By definition, grass roots has to start at the local level. By creating a presentation that can be used and/or modified for a wide variety of audiences; by purchasing radio and even television ads (do some research; are not out of the ballpark in many markets); by writing opinion editorials and letters to the editor, we can have an impact. In doing so, we will get our message out there, and the grass will grow!
John Voso, Jr., is president of the Ohio Land Title Association and vice president and East central division sales manager with Old Republic National Title Insurance Company in Ohio. He can be reached at: 216 524 5700, ext. 205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.