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Real Estate title insurance: competitive ?

Title insurance rates vary considerably by state. In New York, insurers belong to a rating bureau that submits a rate schedule for state approval. Depending on the value of the property, costs can easily run into the thousands. On a $500,000 home with a $400,000 mortgage, for example, the premium in the New York City area would be $2,666, according to Rafael Castellanos, the managing partner of Expert Title Insurance Agency in Manhattan. "It's a bargain in the end given the protection title insurance provides," he said.

Yet for years, a debate has raged as to whether premiums are too high, competition too constrained, and the insurers too closely intertwined with the mortgage and real estate professionals who send business their way. Some states have looked into the arrangements between title insurers and referral sources, including New York. In 2006, two title insurers that account for half the New York market -- the Fidelity National Title Group and First American -- agreed to 15 percent rate reductions to settle state allegations of illegal referral payments and rebates.

One insurer is offering a more transparent option. Entitle Direct in Stamford, Conn., offers premium rates up to 35 percent below the going rates in the 40 states in which it operates. (These rates are not available in New Jersey.) According to the company's founder, Timothy M. Dwyer, Entitle is able to offer reduced rates by marketing directly to consumers and eliminating the use of title agents, who typically receive a hefty split of the insurance premium for their services. "The national average commission is 80 percent of the premium," he said. "We do not have that expense. We contract out to a third-party partner that provides us with the title search product."

Founded in 2009, the company has grown slowly. Entitle's sales account for only 0.1 percent of the total national premium, said Birny Birnbaum, the executive director of the Center for Economic Justice, a consumer advocacy group. He attributed the slow growth to "the limited price competition in title insurance markets and the strength of the institutional arrangements between title insurers and those able to steer title business -- lenders, developers, Realtors, builders."

In Connecticut, where only lawyers can act as title insurance agents, "very few attorneys will close with Entitle, or sell very hard against it, because they're not making the premium," said Scott Penner, a lawyer in Milford. "Or they will increase their attorney fee, and that offsets the savings."


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