Has this ever happened to you? A week or two after you or your lawyer record a deed in Los Angeles County, you get a letter from the “Los Angeles Recorder” or the “Local Records Office” or the “Local Records Services”? You open the envelope and discover that for a fee ranging from $80 to $199, the letter writer will send you a copy of “the only document that identifies” you as the property owner. It’s a common occurrence and here’s what you should know.
The Recording System and How it Works
When California was admitted to the Union in 1850, one of the first acts of the Legislature was to adopt a recording system by which evidence of title or interests in the title could be maintained in a safe, public place.
The California system is modeled after the system established by the original American Colonies. Recording of sales, transfers, and encumbrances as a public record imparts “constructive notice” on potential buyers and lenders. This system of recording is known as the “Race Recording.”
The purpose of a recording system is to put the world on notice regarding the ownership and condition of the title. This system was designed to protect innocent lenders and purchasers against secret sales, transfers, or conveyances and from undisclosed liens. A deed evidences legal title to property. California law presumes that the title owner is also the beneficial owner of real property.
Under California’s recording system, one records a deed, such as grant deed or quitclaim deed, with the office of the county recorder of the county where the property is located. The owner pays a modest recording fee and submits a preliminary change of ownership form, which informs the county assessor whether a change in ownership has taken place. The Los Angeles County office, as many readers will recognize, is located in Norwalk.
Depending on the time of year, the person identified on the face of the deed receives in the U.S. mail the original recorded instrument from the Los Angeles County Recorder usually within four to six weeks after submission.
The person recording the instrument may submit photocopies to the Recorder at the same time that the original, signed and acknowledged deed is submitted. The Recorder will stamp the copy as received at no extra charge.
If the property owner later desires an extra copy from the Recorder, he or she may simply request one in person or by mail. For a mere $7, the Recorder will provide such a copy.
Some of the look-alike letters are frightfully official looking. They often use the word “records” in their return address. The face of envelope may contain an irrelevant “warning” about tampering with the U.S. Mail. (Yes, even tampering with junk mail is theoretically a federal offense.) Admonitions to “OPEN IMMEDIATELY” and assertions of “IMPORTANT INFORMATION” cover the exterior of the envelope.
Inside, the reader encounters a busy letter with meaningless bar codes and numbers, boxes with print in all caps and information gleaned from public records. The pitch is you need a copy of the current grant to deed as evidence of ownership. The punch line is that for a document fee of up to $200, you can get a copy of the deed. (Not even a certified copy, mind you, just a copy.)
The problems with these solicitations are: (1) You don’t need a copy. You already have or shortly will have the original deed. (2) Even if you need a copy, you don’t need to spend $200 for one. You can order one yourself directly from the Recorder’s Office for about $7.
When you get a look-alike letter, make sure it’s a look-alike and not the real thing. If it’s a phony, you can ignore it. Remember, the key way to tell the difference is whether the letter is trying to sell you something. The real County Recorder isn’t in the business of soliciting deed copy sales.
Edgar Saenz is a Los Angeles estate planning attorney. A graduate of Stanford Law School, he is a member of the Trust and Estates sections of the State Bar of California and the Los Angeles County and Santa Monica bar associations. He is rated AV (Preeminent, Highest Possible Rating) by Martindale Hubbell. Telephone: (310) 417-9900; [email protected]