When buying land in Nova Scotia, a title search is essential.
Paperwork, right? When what you want is a beautiful slice of Nova Scotia land, who wants to dig through dusty old deeds and legal documents? But as I’ll explain below, a title search is a MUST-DO activity for any prospective land buyer. Let’s dive into why it’s important, and how to get it done.
What is a Title Search or Land Registry Search?
A title search involves looking up a real estate property to determine important information such as ownership, claims on the property, any rights of way or encumbrances, etc.
Why is a title search important?
A title search is essential because it verifies the identity of the seller, and makes the buyer aware of any claims or restrictions associated with the property. If you’ve ever purchased a home, you’ve done a title search – it would have been completed by your lawyers as part of the sale closing process.
When it comes to buying land, particularly with a private sale, you need to ensure a title search is completed. It can be done as part of the closing process, but I strongly recommend conducting a title search much earlier, basically before any money changes hands.
To point out just a few of the issues that can be spotted through a title search:
- Owner fraud: A title search tells you exactly who owns the property you’re considering buying. Don’t take ownership on good faith simply because someone is claiming they own a property for sale – a title search gives you certainty from a trusted source.
- Claims on the property: Just a few weeks ago I was contacted by someone who had made a large deposit on a land parcel through a private sale. There was no purchase and sale agreement in place, and the buyer hadn’t conducted a title search. When I looked up the property in question, it had an “interest” on it. There was an existing mortgage from one of the big 5 Canadian banks. The seller had a home nearby, and all three parcels of land they owned were included as collateral in the mortgage on their home. So what? Well, if the buyer had carried on with payments, while the seller neglected mortgage payments and fell into default, the bank could then legally take possession of all of the land parcels.
- Rights of way and easements: Many rural land plots in Nova Scotia are accessible only through rights of way established in dated documents that can be tough to decipher. The ultimate question with a land parcel is, can I legally get in and out of it with a vehicle? A title search will reveal the terms of any rights of way that apply to the property.
When should I do a title search or land registry search?
If you are serious about purchasing a property, it’s best to do the title search as early in the process as possible. Title search fees and services will be included in the closing costs that you would pay to a real estate lawyer, but that step typically takes place at the end of the sale process. Doing a title search early helps you spot any issues that might affect your decision to buy in the first place.
Do I need a lawyer to conduct a title search or land registry search?
No. You can do it yourself if you can Access Nova Scotia’s Property Online (POL) database. It’s an online search tool for finding land ownership and related information associated with a Nova Scotia property. Online access costs over $100 per month, so it’s not for everyone, but you can also buy access for a half day of searches for $6.59 (fees are listed here) by visiting a Nova Scotia land registry office.
You may need a lawyer if the title search turns up items that are confusing or unclear. Rights of way can get particularly confusing when the only definition comes from a handwritten deed from decades ago. Fortunately though, most title searches I’ve engaged in generally show what you want to see – a clean and unrestricted title to the land. When that’s the case, the conditions for buying/selling are clear-cut, and your only restriction on the use of the land will be the local zoning bylaws.
What info do you need to conduct a title search?
You’ll typically need one of the following identifiers:
- Property Identifier (PID#): this is a unique number for each parcel of land in Nova Scotia
- Assessment Account (AAN): This is the account number associated with a parcel of land’s assessment value and property tax.
- Owner Name
- Civic Address: This is tricky with undeveloped land as there won’t be a typical civic address
What information is included in a property title search?
If your search in Property Online (the Nova Scotia land registry database) turns up a result, you’ll see an initial overview page for the property…
Here you’ll find standard information on the property:
- Type: e.g. Standard Parcel
- Status: e.g. Active
- LR Status: NOT LAND REGISTRATION or LAND REGISTRATION. This field indicates if a property has been migrated in the Nova Scotia Land Registry system. For more detail, read our post on how to migrate land in Nova Scotia.
- Civic Address
- Area: (size, e.g 100 acres)
- AAN: You can use the AAN to look up current and historical property taxes on the PVSC website.
- Value: $(residential, resource). This represents the currently assessed value of the property. For more, read our post on property assessments in Nova Scotia.
From here you have a few options to see more details within Property Online. The “Details” link takes you to more specific information on the property. You can also click to view a map of the property. While the mapping tool is not as useful as the tools from Viewpoint and RemaxNova, it is THE official record of the dimensions and layout of the property, so it’s worth a look.
Diving into the Property Online Details
There are a lot of fields on the Property Online details page – too many to list. Instead, I’ll emphasize the ones with the greatest potential impact for a buyer or a seller of Nova Scotia land.
Owner Name: This should match the person you’re intending to buy land from. If there’s a discrepancy, you want to make sure they are entitled to sell and transfer the property.
Deed: There’s a section for instruments (documents) that will often have the most critical information. In it, you should find any deeds associated with the property. The most recent, and therefore most relevant, will be at the top of the list. You can click on the deed to read the details.
Viewing the most recent deed is essential. It will specify the boundaries and dimensions of the property as well as any conditions or easements associated with it. Now here’s the fun part – there’s no single template for deed documents. While they generally follow the same flow and format, there are differences. Older deed documents will be typed or even hand-written, sometimes in a writing style that is hard to decipher.
Registered Interests: If there is a registered interest on the property, it means that a third party (most often a creditor, like a bank) has a claim to ownership based on an agreement. Most often when a registered interest appears, it’s a mortgage lender. You can directly access the mortgage documents, which will let you see when the loan was established, the principal and the rate of interest, and any other conditions on the loan. What you can’t see unfortunately, is how much has been paid off and how much is outstanding.
In order to sell a plot of land or a subdivided portion that has a mortgage-related interest on it, the seller needs to obtain permission (or a partial release) from the lender. This reduces the collateral for the lender.
Right of way: There are two places you’ll find right of way or easement information associated with a property. In some cases they are unique instruments (documents) that show on the details page. In other cases they are included in the property description within the deed itself. Rights of way are pretty critical for some properties. You don’t want to unknowingly purchase a landlocked property. Many right of way descriptions are vague. Nothing can stir up neighbourly disputes like unclear right of way details. If you’re unsure what rights that right of way includes, it’s best to consult with a Nova Scotia real estate lawyer. One quick example: I have a lakefront property with a deeded right of way through a neighbour’s property. Over the years, trees and brush have grown up over the right of way area. Can I just show up one day with a bulldozer and start tearing through my neighbour’s land? Better ask a lawyer first.
Easements: Logging companies and utility operators have easements associated with many properties. This gives them the right to access the property based on the terms specified in the document.
Our list is not exhaustive. Sometimes you’ll find something more rare like a covenant, which lays out in specific terms how the land can be used by any future owner. The main point is to avoid surprises. Lastly, if you’re looking for detailed advice on buying land, check out our buyer’s guide called “how to buy land in Nova Scotia.”