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Closing: Ownership comes, after an autograph orgy

You, there, the homebuyer-wannabe with the sweaty palms and the shaking knees. Kevin Hussey has your number.

Hussey, president and CEO of Stewart Fidelity Title in St. Petersburg, knows what buyers are afraid of: "They're terrified something is going to go wrong."

He has words of comfort: "Everything is usually looked over so many times by so many people, if you're dealing with reputable people, these closings are virtually flawless."

Your closing _ when the deal is actually done and the property becomes yours _ may take place at a title company office. Even if it happens somewhere else, such as an attorney's office, the title company plays a major role in making sure that everything comes together at the end, that all the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted and that all the pieces of paper are in order.

Once your mortgage is approved, the real estate agent or lender will contact a title company to arrange for title insurance and to set up the closing.

There are two kinds of title insurance, Hussey explained.

The owner's title insurance policy, provided by the seller, determines who is the legal owner of the property. It protects the buyer in case of future claims. For example, suppose a long-lost relative of the seller appears two years from now with proof the seller made him a part owner of the property years ago. The one-time cost of this insurance is based on the contract sale price, Hussey said.

Lender's title insurance, which the buyer pays for, protects the amount of money the lender is putting up to purchase the property. This policy determines whether any debts are owed against the property and assures that the lender is first in line to collect the balance on the mortgage before any other debts are paid for which the house stands as collateral. The industry term for this is "has a good first lien on the property." This insurance costs about $250, Hussey said.

Employees at the title company will use public records and documents to research the property. Who else has owned it? Was there a clear title every time it was sold? Are there any missing heirs or any unrecorded deeds or wills that might complicate things? Are there any liens against the property? If the sellers took out a home equity loan secured by the house, that loan has to be paid off before the sale can take place.

"The title company really is the place where everything comes together after all the long negotiations and the mortgage processing and the surveys and the termites . . . it all comes together at the closing table," Hussey said.

Shortly before the closing a "closer" at the title company will assemble all the paperwork, including documents from the lender with the final figures on the loan. At that point, the closer will be able to tell you the exact amount of the certified check you must bring to the closing.

The "net sheet" you received before you signed the contract should have enumerated all the closing costs. Some may have been estimates; now you'll find out the precise amounts. At closing, the title company will take care of disbursing the money to the lender, the county clerk's office, various taxing authorities, etc.

At the closing, be sure your writing arm is in good shape. "There's a large volume of documents that has to be signed at closing, so be prepared," Hussey said. These include affidavits confirming the information you supplied to the lender when you applied for the mortgage, a settlement statement, disclosure statements, statements acknowledging you're aware of various hazards that might be present, such as radon or lead paint, and IRS reporting forms.

"There is no question that is not important to the closing agent," Hussey said. He said he sees people at closings who are afraid to ask a question for fear they'll sound ignorant, "but a good closer will pick this up: "Are you sure you understand this?' If there are any doubts in their minds about anything to do with purchasing that house, the mortgage and the payments, that should be addressed at the closing table. They should walk out of there completely informed and confident and happy."

Finally, the seller turns over to the buyer the deed to the property, the title insurance policy, and the keys.

At long last, you're a homeowner.

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