Editor’s Note: We’ve edited a portion of this blog post to better convey the message.
Unless you're a lawyer, financial professional or land surveyor, your familiarity with your county clerk’s or county recorder’s office is likely to be limited. If you own property, and have had a land survey, you probably trust that the boundaries of your landholdings aren't up for debate. Your title might be another matter: Unless you obtained the title to your property through a general warranty deed and obtained title insurance, there is a chance your land tile has hidden liens.
How Bad Can It Get? A Look at Greece's Nightmarish Public Record System
In order to understand the hidden value of American property records, it's instructive to look at a wholly dysfunctional record system. By our standards, Greece's national land registry is laughably anachronistic: According to a recent New York Times report, it's largely handwritten and contains no numerical system by which parcels can be ordered and bounded. As such, it's not uncommon for several individuals to lay claim to overlapping or even nonexistent parcels.
Although the government has taken to looking at utility bill payments and other proofs of occupancy, Greek law makes it very difficult to wrest "control" of land from absent, delinquent or fraudulent claimants. Despite a targeted investment of over $100 million from the E.U., less than 10 percent of the country's land area has been properly mapped and recorded. In rural areas, many parcels are still codified using impermanent landmarks like trees, paths and fences.
A Reasonable U.S. Precedent
In the United States, the picture is far better. Most of the problems that Greek landowners and developers continue to face were sorted out by a series of legal decisions during the 19th and 20th centuries. 1947's Tarrant County vs. Rattkin Title Company is a case in point. In what would prove to be a landmark decision, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals for Fort Worth upheld the public's right to open, easy and reasonably priced access to real property records. Henceforth, all Texas counties were required to provide reasonable accommodations and full access to citizens who wished to obtain reasonable access to public records. It's now commonplace for U.S. counties to maintain accurate, regularly updated land databases for public use.
Economic Implications of an Efficient Property Records
As the court noted in its Rattkin decision, unfettered access to public records offers tremendous economic benefits. Counties that lack open, accurate land records inflict self-harm by "retard[ing] the efficiency and speed in preparing abstracts...[and]...retard[ing] business transactions in real estate." In turn, a stunted real estate economy robs counties of lucrative transaction-tax receipts in the short term and reduces tax receipts from business activity in the long run as well. The court found that the net economic benefits of setting up accurate, accessible land records far outweighs the perceived cost savings of not doing so.
Technology has come a long way since the Rattkin decision, and land records are riding the wave. Using third parties or their own IT departments, many counties have their records online for use by consumers and real estate professionals. This reduces the temporal and financial investments necessary to perform such searches and further streamlines the title transfer process.
Final Thoughts: What Is Democracy?
It's now taken for granted that liberal access to public records has obvious economic benefits. More generally, accurate and easily accessible public records act as one of democracy's most important "safety valves" and have prevented untold numbers of inter-party conflicts. Before modern public records were widespread, private parties thought nothing of appropriating land by force. By providing landowners and allied legal professionals with the tools to find and correct inconsistencies before they create costly or even dangerous disputes, they underpin the democratic freedoms and day-to-day security that we treasure.
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