Change Continues to Visit Roster of Title Companies

(Click here for a list of the state's largest title companies. A spreadsheet version is also available.)

The sifting of title companies continued in 2009, and it should come as no surprise that the northwest Arkansas market remained the venue for much of the change.

The most dramatic move occurred at American Title & Escrow Inc. of Rogers. The Arkansas Insurance Department issued an emergency license suspension order against the company in October.

The company failed to make nearly $2 million worth of lien payoffs with money it received at closings, according to the order. The missing money is expected to generate penalties and sanctions for owners Billy Craig Underwood and his wife, Rinda.

In addition to heat from the Insurance Department, U.S. attorneys are going after the Underwoods. That action effectively froze control of the Underwoods' 11,988-SF office building at 3606 Southern Hills Blvd. in Rogers, opened in 2006 and once appraised at more than $1.8 million.

Ownership of Triad Title Co. came full circle after Little Rock's Metropolitan National Bank sold the firm back to Richard Levin, who founded the company seven years ago.

Metropolitan acquired Triad in January 2007 and operated it as a subsidiary of the bank until selling the company back to Levin on Sept. 1.

"The repurchase was a mutual decision," Levin said. "Metropolitan National Bank wanted to get back to their core business."

Gone is Triad's west Little Rock office, with operations now focused in Fayetteville and Bentonville. Changes on the state's roster of title companies didn't stop there.

Pinnacle Title LLC of Rogers became part of PCI Advance Title LLC of Rogers. Heritage Land Title of Fayetteville vaporized, but its ownership re-emerged with Commerce Land Title.

The central and northwest Arkansas offices of Clear Title of Arkansas were divvied between two firms. Three Rivers Title Services of Little Rock acquired Clear Title's Little Rock operation, and Clear Title's North Little office is no more.

In northwest Arkansas, Fort Smith's Edwards Title Co. of Sebastian County now operates Clear Title's Bentonville location.

Waco Title Co. of Lowell, a subsidiary of Arvest Bank Group Inc., extended its reach to Pulaski County in 2009 with the opening of a Little Rock office. In October, the company also acquired Lincoln Land Title in southwest Missouri, with offices in Springfield, Ozark, Branson and Republic.

Blake Hanby, Waco's president and CEO, won't be surprised to see more changes before the market settles down.

"Not today, but there may be more tomorrow," he quips.

How's business in northwest Arkansas these days?

"We're seeing there are still deals being made, whether those are commercial or residential," said Triad's Levin. "The activity isn't as heavy as it was in 2005, although we wish it was."

Lenders are typically a part of the real estate transaction equation from a financing standpoint, but these days, banks and thrifts are helping generate transactions and title business from the position of owner.

More lenders have entered the ownership picture as borrowers have forfeited property ahead of or in connection with foreclosure actions.

First National Title Co., with offices in Little Rock, Maumelle, Benton, Bentonville and Fayetteville, is among the firms competing in both the central and northwest markets.

"We're just closing deals," said Jim Pender, president of First National. "It's steady, not great, but definitely better than last year."

He said that northwest Arkansas real estate remains active, unlike other once-hot markets where the sales bubbles did more than burst. Pender added that overbuilding is perhaps the biggest culprit in the market's real estate slowdown.

"Northwest Arkansas has always been an inventory issue," he said. "They've constantly had people moving in there. Our business has been steady there."

More than 130 companies around the state received surveys in the second year of compiling the largest title companies list. There is no fee or financial obligation for companies providing information for consideration, as is the case with every list published by Arkansas Business.