One of the most important financial decisions people make is buying a house. So, before Dennis Hill’s clients sign on the dotted line, he makes sure they know what they’re getting, warts and all.
Hill, 57, is a real estate attorney with the Williston firm of Coombs, Davis and Hill. In the world of real estate, he’s also a dying breed of sorts: an attorney who does his own title searches. That means, when Hill’s client is preparing to buy property, he visits the town clerk’s office and pores over the land records himself.
Basically, he’s looking for any encumbrances — covenants, restrictions, easements or liens — that might affect the transfer of the land. Sometimes those encumbrances are as old as the hills.
For example, some Vermont towns and villages have “ancient roads” that run across private property. Though they may be overgrown or invisible to the naked eye, these ancient roads can show up on old property maps. And without a proper title search, Hill explains, a town may one day claim ownership of that road, even if it hasn’t been used for centuries.
Hill isn’t a Vermont native, but he moved here in 1967 when his father, an IBMer, relocated to the area. He attended Champlain Valley Union High School “back when it was called Cow Valley, because we put cow patties under the opponents’ bench,” he says. “My wife never believed me until we went to my high school reunion.” (Hill’s wife, Susan McNamara-Hill, deals with local records, too: She’s the village clerk, treasurer and tax collector for Essex Junction.)
Hill has been involved in Vermont real estate since the late 1970s, when he was hired out of law school by Frederick Reed, the former Vermont attorney general who later worked for Governor Howard Dean.
Hill has the soft-spoken and unpretentious demeanor of a small-town Vermont lawyer. He has a salt-and-pepper beard and round glasses; on the day we meet, he wears a brown sweater, tan corduroys and leather hiking boots. He has a folksy sense of humor and an easygoing nature that suits a job that’s all about talking to people.
These days, about 50 percent of Hill’s work is in real estate; another 35 percent involves decedents’ estates. How are those two areas related? Simple, he explains. The most common and valuable asset people leave to their heirs is the house they lived in.
SEVEN DAYS: Are title searches done differently in Vermont than in other states?
DENNIS HILL: Vermont is unique in that we keep our land records by each town. In most states it’s by county, or it’s completely computerized. A lot of attorneys [in other states] aren’t as involved in them. Title insurance companies do all that work now ... But we have substantial numbers of rules, regulations, permits. Issues that are not title problems in other states can become title problems in Vermont. So you have to be very careful.
SD: Do Vermont’s land records differ much from town to town?
DH: Each town keeps their records differently. The wonderful thing I love is, you can go up to the islands, to Isle La Motte, in the morning and do a [title] search, and then drive back that night to Lincoln and do a search up in the mountains, because their [clerk’s office] is open at night to accommodate people. Where else in the country can you do that? When I started in the ’70s, there were land records kept in town clerks’ homes. That was fascinating.
SD: Really? Where?
DH: Waterville’s [records] were in someone’s house; St. George’s were in a mobile home. Panton’s were in a garage. Back then, you had to make sure you were on the clerk’s good side. But you learned so much from them, because each town was its own subculture. The town clerks, by and large, were people who loved the land, loved the town and knew all about their community and took an active interest in it. More so than barber shops, they were the center of the town’s politics and economics.
SD: Tell me about the records themselves.
DH: It’s hard to explain this to somebody, but I love the old books kept in each town. You think land is boring, but it comes alive when you get all the history and all of a sudden you see who’s owned it. You can tell from the land records whether the family had hard times or whether they had problems with their neighbors. If you’re looking at some of the old records, many of the deeds were handwritten. Before photocopy machines, the town clerks used to handwrite the descriptions. Some of the penmanship is good; others are not so good.
SD: How far back in time do you research?
DH: The general rule is that you go back 40 years, or to anything that you notice within that chain [of ownership] that puts you on notice of another issue.
SD: What kind of things do you come across?
DH: Some of the [property] descriptions are “From along the stone wall to the old oak tree, turning to the right and going this far.” That’s very common. The most common restriction was against mobile homes. A lot of people put those in there ... And I love the old farm deeds that ... very carefully list every piece of equipment that they were selling, like the cows and their numbers. Sometimes they even have the names of the cows listed.
SD: What else do you find?
DH: Unfortunately, I’ve seen restrictions based on race or religion. Those do exist in deeds in Vermont.
SD: Do you document those restrictions, even though they’re illegal?
DH: They’re very infrequent, but you do. For full disclosure, attorneys should tell [their clients]. And people want to know about their property. That’s one of the reasons I like to do title searches myself, because I like to talk to people about the property and the use of their land.
SD: Has your work changed much since the 1970s?
DH: The town clerks are much busier and have much more work to do. You can’t sit and talk to them like you used to, to get a feel for what’s going on. Back when [records] were kept in their houses, you’d sit and have cookies and milk and just talk. It was a wonderful thing.
SD: What do you enjoy most about your work?
DH: My favorite closing will be where, at the closing table, there’s a great-grandmother, a daughter, a granddaughter and the granddaughter’s child buying a duplex, so the great-grandmother can live with her granddaughter side by side. Or the one where you have the couple in their eighties who’ve lived in the house for 50 years who are selling to a young couple who are just starting out. Or if you can help a farmer stay in business. That’s the tough one nowadays.