May 28, 2023


When purchasing or selling a property, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of any liens or encumbrances attached to the property. These can affect the property’s ownership history and chain of title and can cause complications during the transaction process.

In this article, we take a detailed look at the process of identifying any liens or encumbrances present on the property in question, and how it affects the overall ownership history and chain of title of the property. Understanding these concepts is vital for anyone looking to buy or sell property and ensure that no hidden surprises pop up during the transaction.



Liens and encumbrances are terms used in real estate that refer to claims made against a property by a third party. In the context of ownership history and the chain of title, liens and encumbrances are significant because they affect the property’s transferability. A lien is a legal claim against the property that serves as security for a debt or obligation owed by the owner or a prior owner. Examples of liens include mortgages, taxes, and mechanic’s liens. On the other hand, encumbrances are burdens that limit the owner’s ability to use or transfer the property, such as easements, covenants, and zoning restrictions. Because liens and encumbrances can affect a property’s value and marketability and sometimes lead to legal disputes, identifying them in the chain of title is essential for anyone intending to purchase or sell real estate.

Types of Liens and Encumbrances

In the chain of title and ownership history, there are different types of liens and encumbrances that can impact the property. One of the most common types of liens is the mortgage lien, which is a legal claim by a lender against the property as collateral for a loan. There are also property tax liens, which are imposed by the local government to secure payment of delinquent property taxes. In addition to these, mechanic’s liens can arise when a contractor or supplier has not been paid for work or materials provided. Another type of lien is the judgement lien, which is a legal claim by a creditor against the debtor’s property as a result of a court judgement. Encumbrances can also arise from easements, which are rights to use a part of the property by someone who is not the owner.

Other types of encumbrances include restrictive covenants that impose limitations on the use of the property, such as zoning laws or homeowner association rules. Furthermore, there can be liens or encumbrances due to environmental hazards or violations of building codes, which can affect the value and marketability of the property. It is important to identify any liens or encumbrances on the property as they can affect its transferability, sale, or financing.

In addition, failure to address them can result in legal disputes or financial liabilities. Thus, it is crucial to conduct a title search and review the chain of title to detect any liens or encumbrances that may exist and determine their priority and implications for the property’s ownership and use.

Methods of Identifying Liens and Encumbrances

Title Search

A title search is a crucial step for identifying any liens or encumbrances on a property’s ownership history. It involves a thorough examination of public records to determine the legal ownership and any outstanding debts or claims on the property. The search usually goes back several decades to ensure that no overlooked issues exist. A title search will reveal any recorded liens on the property, such as mortgages, tax liens, or mechanic’s liens.

A lien gives the creditor a legal claim to the property until the debt is paid off, which can impact the property’s marketability. Encumbrances, on the other hand, are non-monetary restrictions on the property’s use, such as easements or covenants. These are also discovered during a title search and can impact the property’s value, particularly if they limit its use or development. Overall, a title search is a crucial step for any buyer or seller to ensure they understand the property’s chain of title and any outstanding legal claims.

Physical Inspection

Physical inspection can be a vital component for identifying any liens or encumbrances on the property. A physical inspection is the on-site personal visit of a property. By conducting a physical inspection, it can help identify potential hazards, needed repairs, and current property conditions. A property inspector can also identify any liens or encumbrances on the property that were not disclosed in the title or public records search. For instance, if the property has an existing mortgage or lien, it may be visible on the property itself, such as a notice posted on the front door.

Other signs of liens or encumbrances that can be spotted during a physical inspection include work or construction on the property that could have been done without a proper permit, code violations, and unrecorded easements or rights-of-way. Property inspectors will also check for any visible, unrecorded easements, or encroachments that could affect the property, and will alert the buyer of any potential issues. A physical inspection can complement the efforts of a title search or a public records search by providing an additional layer of insight into the property’s history and current condition.

Common Types of Liens and Encumbrances Affecting the Chain of Title and Ownership History

Mortgage Liens

One of the most common types of liens that can affect the chain of title and ownership history is the mortgage lien. A mortgage lien is a form of security interest that is created in a property when a mortgage loan is taken out. In effect, the mortgage lien serves as collateral for the loan, giving the lender the right to foreclose on the property in the event that the borrower defaults on the loan.

Mortgage liens can have a significant impact on the title chain and ownership history because they are typically recorded in public records and remain there until the loan is fully repaid. As a result, any subsequent purchasers of the property must be aware of the mortgage lien, as it could impact their ability to sell or use the property in certain ways. Additionally, if the mortgage lender forecloses on the property, it may create a cloud on the title that must be resolved before the property can be sold to a new owner.

Tax Liens

One type of lien that can affect the property’s chain of title and ownership history is tax liens. A tax lien is a legal claim against a property for not paying taxes owed to the government. When a property has a tax lien, the government has the right to seize the property and sell it to satisfy the tax debt owed. As with other liens, tax liens must be paid off before the property can be sold or transferred to a new owner.

If a tax lien has not been satisfied, the government can refuse to transfer the property’s title until the lien is paid off. It’s important to note that tax liens take priority over other types of liens, which means that they must be satisfied before any other liens can be paid. Real estate investors and homebuyers should investigate a property’s tax status and ensure that all tax liens have been satisfied before completing a purchase to avoid any legal problems down the road.

Mechanic’s Liens

Mechanic’s Liens are legal claims that can arise against a property when a contractor, subcontractor, or supplier fails to receive payment for services rendered or materials provided during a construction project. Such a lien can affect a property’s chain of title and ownership history, since it attaches to the property and not the individual or business responsible for the unpaid debt.

As a result, even if a property owner has no knowledge of the lien, it can still impede the sale or refinance of the property until the debt is satisfied. Thus, it is important to perform a thorough title search to uncover any outstanding Mechanic’s Liens or other encumbrances before buying or financing a property.

Judgment Liens

Judgment liens are another type of encumbrance on a property. When someone is awarded a judgment against a property owner, a lien may be placed on the property to ensure that the debt is paid. This type of lien can arise from a variety of legal disputes, including unpaid debts, personal injury claims, or unpaid taxes. It’s important to identify any judgment liens on the property before completing a sale or transfer of ownership. Failure to pay off the lien could result in the new owner being responsible for the debt.

To identify a judgment lien, a title search should be conducted by a real estate attorney or title company. This search will reveal any outstanding liens against the property, including judgment liens. Once identified, the lien can be either satisfied or negotiated with the lien holder to release the lien. Satisfying a judgment lien involves paying off the debt in full or possibly negotiating a reduced payment in exchange for a release of the lien. By doing so, the cloud on the title is removed, and the property can be sold or transferred free and clear.


Easements can have a significant impact on the chain of title and ownership history of a property. An easement is a right granted to another party to use a portion of the property for a specific purpose. Easements can impact the value of a property and can make it difficult to sell or change the use of the property. There are different types of easements, such as easements for access, utility easements, and drainage easements. It is crucial to identify any easements that may affect the property’s title and ownership history during the due diligence period.

Failure to identify an easement can result in legal disputes and financial loss. Therefore, it is best to obtain a survey and title report to determine if there are any easements recorded on the property’s title. This will provide a better understanding of the property and assist in making an informed decision.

Restrictive Covenants

A restrictive covenant is a clause in the deed or other legal document that limits the use of the property or property owner’s rights. These agreements may be used to protect the property’s value, character, appearance, or to maintain an established neighborhood or community. Restrictive covenants can be found in a title search and are generally recorded in the county’s land records office.

These covenants may restrict the type of structures that can be built on the property, prohibit certain activities, or limit the use of the land. Because they can significantly impact the property value and function, it is important to carefully review any restrictive covenants and ensure they align with the intended use of the property. It is also essential to verify that the covenant was properly recorded and enforceable.

Resolving Liens and Encumbrances


One effective way to resolve liens and encumbrances on a property is through negotiations. When the lien or encumbrance is identified, the first step is to determine the party responsible for the lien or encumbrance. It is advisable to hire a real estate attorney or a title company to manage the process. Negotiation can involve discussions with the person or entity that placed the lien or encumbrance, as well as any other parties involved.

It is essential to have all agreements and resolutions in writing to ensure that all parties are aware of their obligations and deadlines. The negotiation may result in the lienholder agreeing to release the lien or encumbrance upon receipt of an agreed-upon payment or other negotiation terms. Having a professional mediator to work through the negotiation process may help achieve the best possible outcome.


Payment is one of the most common solutions for resolving liens and encumbrances on a property. In many cases, if the lienholder or encumbrancer is owed money, they may be willing to release their claim upon receipt of payment. It is important to review the terms of any liens or encumbrances to determine the amount owed and the payment terms. In cases where there is a dispute over the amount owed or the payment terms, negotiation may be necessary.

This can involve working directly with the lienholder or encumbrancer to come to an agreement on the amount and terms of payment. In some cases, it may be possible to negotiate a settlement for less than the full amount owed, but this will depend on the individual circumstances of the lien or encumbrance.

Legal Action

Legal action can become necessary when negotiations and payments fail to resolve issues with liens and encumbrances on a property. The first step in taking legal action is to determine if there is a valid claim against the property. This requires careful examination of the chain of ownership and title history, as well as any applicable laws and regulations that may affect the validity of the claims.

Once the validity of the claims has been established, the next step is to initiate legal proceedings. This can involve filing a lawsuit or seeking legal remedies such as quiet title action or foreclosure. It is important to work with an experienced attorney who understands the nuances of property law and can help guide the legal process. Legal action can be costly and time-consuming, but it may be necessary to protect one’s interests in the property.

Chain of Title and Ownership History FAQs

What are liens and encumbrances on a property?

Liens and encumbrances refer to any legal claims against the property. A lien can be placed against a property to secure a debt or payment, while an encumbrance refers to any obstruction or restriction concerning the property’s use or transfer of ownership.

What is a chain of title?

A chain of title is a record of a property’s ownership history. It provides a timeline of past owners and any transfers of ownership that occurred. The chain of title can also show any liens or encumbrances that have been placed on the property.

How can liens and encumbrances affect the ownership of a property?

Liens and encumbrances can affect the ownership of a property by limiting the transfer of ownership or affecting the property’s value. If a lien is not paid off during the sale of a property, the new owner becomes responsible for paying off the debt.

How can I search for liens and encumbrances on a property?

A title search can reveal any liens or encumbrances on a property. This search can be done by using public records, such as county records or state registries. It’s essential to hire an experienced attorney to conduct a thorough title search.

What is a title insurance policy, and why is it necessary?

A title insurance policy protects the owner from any unknown liens or encumbrances. It provides coverage for any legal disputes that may arise over the property’s ownership or title. A title insurance policy is necessary to ensure that the property has a clear and marketable title.

What happens if liens or encumbrances are found on a property?

If liens or encumbrances are found on a property, the owner must clear them before selling. This may involve paying off any outstanding debts, resolving any legal disputes, or obtaining a release of the lien or encumbrance from the creditor. If the liens or encumbrances cannot be resolved, it may be necessary to seek legal advice.

About the Author

As a native Washingtonian, Carlos Reyes’ journey in the real estate industry began more than 15 years ago when he started an online real estate company. Since then, he’s helped more than 700 individuals and families as a real estate broker achieve their real estate goals across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.

Carlos now helps real estate agents grow their business by teaching business fundamentals, execution, and leadership.

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