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Tidy up your title plant

National Mortgage Professional
Mar 24, 2014

Tidy up your title plantMitchell SparksTitle insurance, data, title plant, First American Title Company, Christopher Bowman, PropertyInfo, application service provider, ASP

Just like cluttered closets, dust behind the filing cabinets and that rack with years of magazines, every now and then, a title plant needs some spring cleaning. Data needs to be filtered to make sure everything is in its proper place. When the time comes, its good to know the data will be found.

We all know that a title plant is a record of the land (and to some extent, the people) in a county, but the history of the title plant itself can be as diverse as the land history it holds. How many plants, maintained for 20 or more years, tract books included, have had the same person manning the indexing duties? Not many. With new indexers come new ideas, and with new ideas come inconsistencies with the old ideas, thus leading to inconsistencies in the data. Even a tract book can be filled with inconsistencies. Imagine the new indexer, full of ideas, bringing colored pens to those tract pages. All of a sudden, mortgages are in red and deeds are in blue. It may help the researcher, but only from that day forward. It would be a daunting task to go over all of those previous pages with colored ink. But changes can be accomplished faster in today's electronic title plants.

Many factors contribute to a title plant getting out of sorts. Different people managing or keying the data can lead to user-specific decisions being made and create inconsistencies. A lack of standard operating procedures for the indexing person could be the cause. Importing third-party data puts the title company at the mercy of someone else's keying standards. Also, converting a legacy system into new software can sometimes mean putting a square block into a round hole. This doesn't mean a title company shouldn't have the legacy data converted into a more up-to-date software, but it should be prepared to verify that the old data fits into the new softwares fields properly.

Christopher Bowman, the production software administrator for First American Title Company in Blackfoot, Idaho, said there were several reasons that led his company to make repairs to his county data.

"We have some data imported from other systems which included punctuation in names that needed to be removed," explained Bowman. "We have changed our mind or had inconsistencies on subdivision names that had to be updated in order to keep our searching processes uniform. We have keyed an entire batch as the wrong date. Finally, we have had data that had to be duplicated in legacy systems that could be collapsed in newer systems, which makes the search results much easier to read."

Creating a distinct list of the important index fields is a great way to start assessing the data. The title company should see how many variations they have for book and instrument types, additions, and cities. Many times, a script or report can be generated to check for missing documents within an instrument number or book and page range. It should be determined if the name fields consistently follow the rules or specifications of the software. If the last name is first and the first name is last, is that consistent within the database? Also, in some cases, obvious misspellings can be caught when a list is created and alphabetized. If the plant has the document images attached, it should be possible to see if any images are missing.

Les Covington, senior vice president of PropertyInfo Corporation's Ultima division in Hardy, Ark., has worked on many conversions for his clients, and he knows the difficulties that can arise.

"First, fix the problem on a go-forward basis and develop a game plan for correcting the back data," said Covington. "The largest problem with doing this is finding someone to dedicate the time to the process that knows the plant."

If the software has a land-validation feature (as in the ability to compare a keyed legal description against a base file), this feature should be utilized. A validation file alone can be a big factor in maintaining consistent legal description indexing, but make sure it also meets the current keying standards. Also, comparing the validation file to the keyed entries a second time would be a good idea. Even though the keyed documents were originally checked against the validation file, rechecking might expose problems. Perhaps, there is, or was, a user with edit rights that wasnt being monitored by validation.

Does the title company have time in their schedule to perform a proper database clean up? With today's smaller staffs, it would be easy to say they don't. But how much time will be saved in the long run, especially when the real estate market improves? A perfected title plant will search much more quickly and accurately.

"Depending on the extent of the work needing to be done, break the processes down into small, achievable parts that can be done in a short duration, so as to not overwhelm the staff involved," added Covington. "Also, it helps to show the staff the benefits of the work being done."

Changes should not be made in a vacuum. All ideas for improvements should be brought to the very people they will benefit the mostthe researcher. Keep in mind that some people get set in their ways and may not see the benefit of 'cleaning' the data, but their input is still very valuable.

"Most of the modifications were requested by the staff so they would not have to make changes to individual indexes. It saved them a great deal of time, so they were very excited about the changes that were made," replied Bowman.

Lupita Castillo, management information systems manager for Edwards Abstract and Title Company in Edinburg, Texas, agreed with Bowman, saying that the Edwards "employees were looking forward to the outcome of the changes and gaining a time-cut on searches."

The first thought may be who will do this work. Will the title company do all of the work manually, or can changes be made at the database level? Naturally, this will depend on the software the title company is using, but in many cases, mass changes can be made within the database. Plant software that uses SQL, Access, Oracle and the like has the ability to create lists of information, find holes in recording numbers and make the changes necessary to improve the plant. Small changes and delicate changes should be made manually where a user can visually see what is being changed.

Manual edits can be made by users within the software. Typically, the administrators of the plant are not qualified, or trained, to run scripts against the database. In these cases, its best to look to the software companys support department for guidance. It is certainly possible to find a third party that can assist with the changes, but the software company will know the structure of the database and be better suited to help with these changes.

"You must have a thorough understanding of the data structure to make sure you are updating all the necessary information needed to interact with the program. If you don't know, or if you have any hesitancy, work with someone or outsource to someone that knows what they are doing," Bowman recommended. "Before you make changes to the data, no matter how small you may think the change is, be absolutely sure you have a good back-up. It has been a lifesaver for me more than once."

It should be noted that in most cases, this type of work is not covered under a support agreement and a fee could be charged. Castillo reported that her staff did 80 percent of the work either directly through the software or by providing help to backend support.

"Teamwork and back-end support is the key to a successful plant," said Castillo.

Not all software databases have the ability to make back-end changes, but most systems will have an edit feature built into the software, which is usually one record at a time. If this is all the user has to make edits, the task can still be completed. As with keying the daily records, having someone verify the edits is a good idea. Sometimes, the software provider will build a mass edit tool into their software for just this situation. Ask the software support department if you are not sure. Otherwise, it might be time to look for new software that gives the title company more ownership over its database.

If the title company keeps their data in a remote location, like an application service provider (ASP), or has partnered with other title companies to create a joint plant, getting to the data through the back-end may be restricted. Most ASP companies can provide help in accessing the database, and joint plants usually have someone managing the plant that can help, as well. The title company has some ownership in a joint plant and should be able to inquire about its condition.

The title company may decide that the current condition of the plant is acceptable, even with an issue or two. They may feel that performing a few extra searches to compensate would be better than performing a spring cleaning. They may feel their plant is usable in its current condition.

Castillo says, "The software, without these changes, would not be used to its full potential."

The goal is to make sure the title company has all of the data they think they should have, and make sure it can be found when they need it.

Cleaning up the title plant is not the only thing that should be reviewed on a scheduled basis. Are the database and images backed up on a nightly basis and taken off-site for safekeeping? Has the backup been tested to see if it will restore properly? Are all of the maintenance procedures suggested by the software company being followed?

Creating detailed procedures for the keying and processing of the data can help limit these problems in the future. Putting more eyes on the data during the keying process will discover more issues before it is lost in the database. A good process to initiate is adding a two-step process of having one person key the plant while a second person verifies it. The title company might consider hiring a service bureau to key their plant. These companies, or at least the good ones, are designed to create reliable indexing procedures. Its important to choose a company that asks a lot of questions up front about the needs of your data, and verifying their work is still a necessary task.

The responsibility of a properly indexed plant always lies with the title company. Each title company should plan scheduled maintenance on a yearly basis, if not more often. Just like that dreadful spring cleaning, you may not look forward to it, but you'll definitely feel better when you're done.

Mitchell Sparks is product and support manager of Ultima Corporation. He may be reached at (870) 856-1234 or e-mail [email protected].

Mar 24, 2014