It’s time for a tangled title ‘fixer upper’

By Suzii Paynter March

The term “tangled title” refers to a property, usually a family-owned home, for which ownership is unclear. The property can be subject to multiple overlapping legal claims, forming a metaphorical knot for which the predicament is named.

In many cases, the would-be owners do not realize there is an issue. “My mother passed away, and I had the house, but I never put the house in my name,” said Monique Spicer, 48, a mother of four. “I was her only heir. I was thinking it automatically went to me.”

Without clear ownership, residents are unable to tap into the home’s value — in many cases, a family’s primary source of accumulated wealth. They can’t sell the property or take out a home equity loan. In most cases, they can’t get homeowner’s insurance or readily qualify for city programs aimed at helping low-income households.

Pew Charitable Trusts set out to examine the problem of tangled titles in Philadelphia and their recent report is a blueprint for other cities, like Waco.

Residents of a home with a tangled title may go for years without knowing they have a legal problem. They often learn of it when they encounter financial trouble and find themselves shut out of resources that could help them. As Philadelphia Commissioner of Records James Leonard put it: “The tangled title will sit there, and it never goes away. You will find out it’s a problem when you can least afford to do so.”

Resolving the issue can be daunting, particularly for households with limited means, and there are different paths toward resolution depending on how the title came to be tangled. It’s easy for a property’s title to become tangled, especially after a record owner dies. Do nothing, and a tangled title is inevitable. Preventing or clearing a tangled title, on the other hand, is not so easy, even in the simplest of cases. Heirs must actively engage in the probate process and marshal the resources to go through it.

What is the extent of tangled titles in Waco?

To estimate the number of properties with tangled titles, Prosper Waco sought to establish how many residences’ titles are tangled because they are recorded in the names of people who have died. The researchers did this by submitting residential properties’ record owner names and addresses to a data service that checked them against a proprietary database built around the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. The service identified individuals who have died in the past 15 years years, long enough for their estates to have been handled in the normal course of probate.

Waco/McLennan County has more than 400 families who need help with tangled titles. Tangled title homes are scattered throughout the city and county.

What is the value of tangled titles in Waco?

The average assessed value for houses in McLennan County with tangled titles is $196,305. The median assessed value for houses with tangled titles is $171,940. With this scope and valuation, the potential that could be gained from an adjustment of these titles is almost $71million in transferable wealth to current Wacoans as they join the ranks of homeowners.

Untangling titles takes time and effort. It is sometimes a simple but tedious process, and sometimes it is a complex set of steps, but the rewards are GREAT! This is truly “hand up” work that builds lifetime financial security for deserving Waco families.

How can hundreds of Wacoans become homeowners? Prosper Waco is hosting “An Evening at Magnolia” June 2 at Magnolia Table. Come enjoy a fun evening, a magnificent Magnolia Table dinner, and learn more and support this life-changing work. (Contact our office for more information — admin@prosperwaco.org.)

Prosper Waco is building a team to provide coordinated case management by a nonprofit navigator and secure the necessary legal services to help resolve the stranglehold of titles in Waco. Prosper Waco seeks to help would-be property owners resolve their cases in a number of ways.

  • To research and identify all encumbrances to gaining clear titles;

  • To assist with legal, consultative, and eligibility support; and

  • To resolve tangled title issues to facilitate the following:

o selling a property,

o taking out a home equity loan,

o getting homeowner’s insurance,

o qualifying for city programs aimed at helping low-income households,

o creating legally passable generational wealth with further assistance in guiding residents to create wills & trusts after the title cleaning,

o reducing the overarching Black/White wealth gap within the city,

o lowering the risk home deterioration,

o helping stabilize neighborhoods while improving quality,

o reducing homelessness,

o improving health by improving quality of housing thus reducing housing-related illnesses,

o reducing risk of foreclosure due to non-payment of property tax bills, and

o improving educational outcomes through stable housing.

Resolving those tangles — and preventing more from occurring — will help preserve family wealth, the city’s housing stock, and neighborhood quality.

Suzii Paynter March is chief executive officer of Prosper Waco.