No deed, no deal: Pa. real estate industry stymied by move online

A residential property for sale on Tulip Street in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A residential property for sale on Tulip Street in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The City of Philadelphia has stopped accepting in-person deed transfers for an indefinite period of time due to the spread of COVID-19.

All real estate transactions must now be handled through e-mail and telephone-based systems, according to city officials.

“The Records Department has designated a core recording team, which has been up and running remotely since yesterday processing electronic recordings, which constitute approximately 85% of all recordings in Philadelphia,” said city spokesperson Mike Dunn. “There was no break in this service.”

Deed recording is one of the oldest county government functions, meaning the stoppage is likely the first time the city has indefinitely suspended the in-person deed transfers in its 337-year history. Dunn said officials were unsure if the city had ever suspended live deed recordings in the past.

But Philadelphia is better equipped to go online than many other equivalent county offices across the state, where digital systems aren’t established and in-person filing is often the only option.

“Pa. ordered courthouses to shut down across the state. But some counties don’t have online access to records,” said Todd Rowe, an officer at the Pennsylvania Land Title Association, a trade group. “You don’t have online records. You don’t have physical access to records. It becomes very difficult.”

That’s the case in Delaware County, where the county government office shut to both the staff and public this week.

“Unlike Philadelphia and the other surrounding Counties, Delaware County does not have a web-based system for e-filing,” said Robert Auclair, Delco’s recorder of deeds, in an email.

Officials in Delco had to come up with an alternative system: Two employees will now come in once a week to check on mail and phone calls, after a deep cleaning of the office space.

But title searches — the confirmation of property’s legal ownership and outstanding debts — still can’t be done until the office reopens to the public. Auclair said some companies may have access to third party land records for the county.

“That is not something with which I have any experience or familiarity however,” he said.

Rowe said that there were likely dozens of other counties across the state in similar situations — locally, Chester County was also forced to scramble an e-filing system — calling the interruptions “unprecedented.”

But even in Philadelphia, the shift to remote filing has not been totally free of disruption. Even with the city’s pre-existing digital filing options, four major title companies were regularly filing deed transfers in-person prior to the city’s social distancing efforts.

Rowe said his group had worked with officials at the Department of Records to ensure the transition went as smoothly as possible.

“It’s extremely important to have a recording system in place. Without it, you can’t transfer real estate. You can’t get title insurance unless your interest is recorded,” Rowe said. “But the city got extra laptops and secured remote access for staff. So far the process has been pretty seamless.”

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