COURT HOUSE – Citing a critical backlog of title searches preventing new homebuyers from settling, current homeowners from refinancing, and insurance companies from issuing policies, Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti reopened the Hall of Records May 4.
Property records after 1996 are available online for anyone conducting a title search; however, records before that year are recorded in deed books. Those books have been off-limits since March 16, when COVID-19 precautions took effect.
“We closed to the public on March 17 due to COVID-19 emergency declarations in place. All the while, with a small staff, we continue to work on our core functions internally keeping healthy and physically distancing from others,” Fulginiti said.
Functions of the clerk’s office are deemed essential, including recording real estate documents, maintaining online databases, and being accessible for researchers.
Weddings, which Fulginiti said she performed almost daily before the pandemic, have been canceled until further notice. Passport requests have dwindled, and notary business is done by appointment only. There are drop-offs in the hall's vestibule for documents, couriers and bank transactions.
The Hall of Records is now open by appointment to three title researchers per day, from noon to 4 p.m., to access records needed to complete searches for their title company or credit-bureau clients. Searchers are required to wear masks and gloves under New Jersey’s COVID-19 avoidance measures.
Fulginiti said staff will sanitize the office during the open periods.
Researchers, like J.R. Morris, of Villas, search the history of a property, looking for easements, restrictions, and other deed particulars for title companies and homeowner insurance companies.
“You can’t go to settlement on a home or obtain homeowner’s insurance without a title search. Mortgage companies and insurers want to know exactly what they are investing in,” Morris said.
Morris has been searching for titles since graduating high school, in 2007. He started his own home-based business, in January 2020, and now has a backlog of 42 searches due to the closing of the Hall of Records. Monday’s opening was a Godsend.
“We’ve seen a drop in business since the coronavirus, but we can do a lot of work at home. We need access to the records for pre-1996 titles unless a title company has a previous search on hand,” Morris explained.
He laid off two employees since the outbreak in New Jersey began. He hopes to be caught up within a week.
Debbie Barth is a settlement processor at the North Cape May office of Title Company of New Jersey. She said opening the Hall of Records is a big help to their business. Despite seeing a slowdown, Title Company of New Jersey is still conducting settlements curbside.
“Not being able to obtain title searches has delayed some closings, but people are still buying and selling real estate. The opening will be a big help,” Barth said.
Fulginiti, who started her career 35 years ago handwriting index entries and canceling mortgages in the crowded record room, which was located at the current courthouse facility, said her staff has been working hard in this difficult time.
“I am proud of the way my staff has adapted to a rotating schedule and stepped up to keep our recording and election work functioning. I am concerned about the local economy and businesses. We are trying to do our part until the pandemic passes," she said.
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