Ian, as you’ve described in your post, some of these title searches can be more than a bit convoluted to unravel and properly document. If you can find a good abstractor who works that county, generally for a modest fee, they will do the work of wading through the docs. A title company can also run a property profile or preliminary title report, but some title companies will understandably want to charge you for this service ($25 to $100) and they will not always get the work done in 24 hours (i.e. within the typical “need to know” timeline for steps investors). In my experience, nothing replaces the scope info you can personally gather by making the drive to the recorder’s office. You can find not only DOTs and liens but also often lis pendis and other judgements versus the owner that paint a picture of his/her disposition (e.g. litigious? lis pendis versus foreclosing lender? a long history of playing NOD roulette?) and circumstance. Moreover, it’s often helpful to know about other properties the owner may own and/or have NOD/NTS issues with (e.g. does he/she own properties next door to your target property?). This is the type of info that will not be on any title company report you might order.
The recorder’s office research gets quicker/easier with practice. One suggestion is to come in with your laptop. I’ve created my own template for tracking all open DOTs, liens, etc. and inputting important notes. I rarely if ever orders docs from the recorder … All key info can be input into my template (property research worksheet). Sometimes it’s nice, however to have a snapshot of one or two pages of a particular doc. I solve that problem by whipping out my cellphone (w camera) and snapping a screen photo of the doc page. If I want I can connect my phone to my laptop (right then and there) and upload the image directly into my property research worksheet. Saves $3 bucks and for me just as effective. Be sure to scrutinize the APN (research the right property) and DOT positions and any reconveyances. I also keep my eyes peeled for subordination agreements and liens. And of course any back due property taxes. As you also noted, be sure to look at variances of the owner(s)’ name(s). Amazing how common it is to find DOTs and other pertinent info under variations (e.g. John B. Smith, John Smith, etc.) of the owner/co-owner’s name.
As you noted, sometimes this process is quick and easy (10 minutes time to do full research necessary) and other times you’d better get yourself a cup of coffee … you might be there for a few hours. If there’s enough equity, the investment of time can be well worth the effort.
I should add that, beyond the recorder’s office data, it’s always important to do some quick fact-checking on the owner. Just by using Google, I’ve found important info about owners that weighs on my steps buying decision (e.g. owner recently arrested on drug-lab, assault and weapons charges).