Mar 15, 2019

Remember privacy? It’s what most Americans enjoyed a few decades ago. Today, it’s elusive and rare. It’s simple for any of us to find just about anyone with a few clicks on a keyboard.
In an effort to reduce the solicitations for carpet cleaning, bogus tax filing services, mortgage insurance scams and such, I tried to make the information on my recent home purchase a little more private. The result was somewhat effective. 

How do these companies and salespeople find out you’ve purchased a property? It’s highly unlikely that they got it from the title company or real estate broker. We don’t share information with third parties unless we must. Government entities are about the only ones we disclose details. 

However, property owner information is public and online in Texas. Our county tax appraisal sites allow people to search the owner of a property by property address or owner name. It’s pretty hard to make your ownership information private on those county web sites. But, I’ll explain how below.

County web sites aren’t typically the source for the first wave of solicitations. The updating of owner information on public county web sites can take months. 

Most of the junk mail will first come from folks who find you when you turn on your utilities. That’s the first line of defense for your privacy.

1.    Place privacy on all of your utility accounts. That includes water, gas, and electricity. Chapter 182 of the Texas Utilities Code (subchapter B) requires public utility companies to make your personal information confidential if you request it. It may involve filling out a form, but it will keep the public (and scammers) from obtaining your address, phone number and social security number.
Call or look up your city’s utility provider and ask how to do this. In Dallas, the form to make your water account confidential is:

Atmos Energy provides gas service to Dallas and a quick phone call to them gives you the opportunity to place a passcode on your account to prevent your information from being shared with third parties.  For confidentiality on your electric account, contact your electricity service provider.
 2.    Request confidentiality on your mortgage account. Most mortgage companies (or mortgage servicing companies) will share or sell your information with “affiliated or non-affiliated third parties” for purposes of offering you additional products. You can ‘opt out’ of allowing them to share your personal information. Just contact them. 

3.    Become one of the select few to make your information private on your county appraisal and tax sites. There are basically three ways to do that. 
  • Work as a judge or peace officer. These folks may omit their residence address in lieu of the courthouse address where they serve.
  • Show proof that you are a certified participant in the Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) for victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking.
  • Create a trust or entity and place the property under that name instead of your own.
[where: 75230]

Mar 10, 2019

When you buy a home, don’t you get a guarantee of clear title? Well … no.
Isn’t that why you buy a property through a title company and get title insurance? To get clear title? Not exactly.
That’s not the phrase we like to use in the title business. Those two words “clear” and “title” together. They can cause anyone within the walls of a title agency to cringe, squirm and scowl. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.
So how do you get clear title to a property? You don’t.

Let me clarify. Title agencies do extensive searches on a property before they close the transaction. If the property meets all the criteria, they close the deal and issue title insurance. But they don’t promise you clear title.

Just like fire insurance doesn’t guarantee you’ll never have a fire, and flood insurance doesn’t guarantee against a flood, title insurance doesn’t guarantee you’ll never have a claim against the property. Like other insurances, it promises to cover your losses up to the value of your insurance if a problem occurs that you are insured for.

Holding title to your property and getting title insurance does not guarantees that the title is completely and clearly free of any and all defects or encumbrances. It doesn’t mean that someone, someday won’t pop up claiming that they have ownership or a lien on the property.

Getting a title insurance policy means we didn’t find defects and encumbrances on the title that would make it uninsurable. Obviously, title agencies want to do a complete search for all potential issues because they’d rather not pay claims that could arise if they didn’t. And issues do arise.

Claims paid out by title agencies can be very expensive. And they happen every day. Even the most diligent property searches don’t always reveal every person or entity that has a claim – or thinks they have a claim – to a property.

I have yet to see a piece of land that has been owned by the same person since the beginning of time and couldn’t have a possible undisclosed lien, unknown heir, hidden defect, etc. I can’t promise with absolute certainty that any title is clear and flawless. And neither should anyone else.

Often buyers will be told a property is “clear to close.” There’s that word ‘clear’ again. It just means there are no obstacles left to close the transaction. The title agency is happy enough with the title search to issue title insurance on the property and finalize the sale.

Hopefully, this makes the question of title to your property a little clearer.

The opinions expressed are of the individual author for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contact an attorney to obtain advice for any particular issue or problem.
[where: 75230]

Feb 1, 2019

Getting a Texas Homestead Exemption

A reader writes: “I bought a home in 2018 and my taxes are escrowed by my mortgage company. How do I get a homestead exemption to get a discount on my taxes? Do I need to repeat the process every year? How much does it save me?” 
You most definitely want to know how to file for a homestead exemption for your 2019 property taxes. To get a homestead exemption, you must own and live in the property as your principal residence as of Jan. 1 of that tax year. So, if you purchased in 2018, you may apply for that exemption after Jan. 1, 2019. 
A homestead exemption removes part of your home’s value from taxation, so it lowers your taxes. I don’t know the details about your home to tell you how much a homestead exemption can save on your property taxes, but it is generally about 20 percent. Given the property tax rates in Texas, it is worth the few minutes it takes. 
To qualify, your home must also be owned by you as an individual (or individuals). A corporation or other business entity doesn’t qualify for this exemption. Do not pay someone else to do this for you. It is free and you can do it online in a few minutes. 
Here is a step-by-step guide for how to apply for a homestead exemption in the DFW area: 
  • First you need to change the address on your driver’s license to your new home address. You may do that online as well for a fee. You’re going to need to submit a copy of your driver’s license or Texas ID card that shows the same address as the homestead property. Take a photo of it or scan it to upload with your online homestead application. 
  • Go to the appraisal district web site for your county appraisal district. Property tax sites for the DFW area include: Dallas County Appraisal District, Tarrant Appraisal District, Collin County Appraisal District, Denton County Appraisal District and Rockwall County Appraisal District. 
  • Find your property on the appraisal district site and open that page to show your account. There should be a choice for forms or exemptions. Just find the link and click on it. 
  • Follow the directions for filing your exemption and fill out the online form. You’ll need to upload that copy of your driver’s license. Without it, the application will be denied. But it is quick and easy. 
You will only need to do this one time for the property you are currently occupying. Once you receive the exemption, you don’t need to apply again unless for some odd reason the tax assessor asks you to repeat the application. 
The deadline to apply is April 30. But don’t procrastinate — do it now. 
The homestead exemption is only good for a property that you own and occupy as your principal residence. If you own more than one property, the tax folks will only allow you the one exemption. 
Look for your property tax notice in May. Your property taxes are determined by (1) how much the appraisal district says it is worth, and (2) the tax rate that your local government entities set. Those entities include the county, city and school district. 
If the assessed value is more than what you paid, you may want to protest the value. Instructions for protesting are included with your tax notice. 
The opinions expressed are of the individual author for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contact an attorney to obtain advice for any particular issue or problem. [where: 75230]