The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued an opinion in Edwards v. The First American Corporation et al., No. 13-555542 (Aug. 24, 2015) that may shake up how the title insurance industry works. As the court notes,
The national title insurance industry is highly concentrated, with most states dominated by two or three large title insurance companies. See U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Title Insurance: Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of the Title Industry and Better Protect Consumers 3 (Apr. 2007). A “factor that raises questions about the existence of price competition is that title agents market to those from whom they get consumer referrals, and not to consumers themselves, creating potential conflicts of interest where the referrals could be made in the best interest of the referrer and not the consumer.” Id. Kickbacks paid by the title insurance companies to those making referrals lead to higher costs of real estate settlement services, which are passed on to consumers without any corresponding benefits. (9)
The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) is intended to eliminate illegal kickbacks in the real estate industry. In this case, the 9th Circuit has reversed the District Court’s denial of class certification in a case in which home buyers alleged that First American engaged in a scheme of paying title agencies for referring title insurance business to First American in violation of RESPA. The reversal does not get to the merits of the underlying claims, but it does open up a can of worms for title companies.
The title industry is not only highly concentrated but it is also highly profitable. In some jurisdictions like NY its prices are set by regulation at rates that greatly exceed the actuarial risks they face. Regulators like the NYS Department of Financial Services have begun to pay more attention to the title insurance industry. This is a welcome development, given that title insurance is one of the most expensive closing costs a homeowner faces when buying a home or refinancing a mortgage.