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Title insurers wrote nearly $20 billion in premiums in 2020

Inventory levels will determine 2021 numbers, officials say

Title insurers wrote $19.2 billion in premiums last year, but a recent report from the American Land Title Association predicts a slowdown in 2021 due to – you guessed it! – low inventory.

ALTA officials “do not expect the same level of refinance activity” this year, even though the residential purchase market appears to be holding steady as the calendar approaches May, according to Diane Tomb, ALTA chief executive.

“The true test of whether 2020 volume represents a unique event will be whether the historically low inventory of homes for sale continues into the summer,” Tomb said.

Just how fruitful was 2020 for title insurers? The $19.2 billion written in 2020 was a nearly 22% increase from the $15.8 billion in 2019.

Fidelity National Financial ended 2020 as the largest company by share of premiums written, with 33.9% of the market. That was a slight increase year-over-year from 33.2%.

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But the other members of the “Big Four” didn’t increase marketshare. First American actually saw a drop in its market share in 2020, down to 23.3% from 25.8% year-over-year. Old Republic and Stewart also saw drops from 2019 to 2020 – from 15.4% to 15%, and from 10.6% to 9.6%, respectively.

Net earnings for Fidelity came in at $1.43 billion in 2020, while First American reported $694.6 million and Stewart reported $154.9 million. Old Republic reported net earnings of $670.8 million.

Old Republic reported a 20% increase in title insurance income for the full year in 2020, rounding out at $3.29 billion, compared to $2.74 billion in 2019. First American listed $7.1 billion in total 2020 revenue in its annual earnings report, including a total of $1.1 billion in cash flow operations, a return on equity of 14.9%, and a 15.7% segment pretax margin of title insurance and services.

In February, Stewart announced a 10% increase in the company’s annual cash dividend to $1.32 per share.

Independent companies made headway in the market to the tune of 19.2% – up from 14.99% in 2019. Half of that growth came from Westcor, which has no direct operations and increased market share to 5.78% from 3.7%.

WFG National Title saw a 45 basis point gain from 2019 to 2.96%. Title Resources Guaranty enjoyed a 12 basis point jump, to 2.49%. North American Title Insurance had a 1.82% market share last year, compared with 1.77% in 2019.

Experts were hoping inventory would have time to “recover” in 2021, as health officials continued to administer the COVID-19 vaccines – leading to a reopening of lumber mills and the lowering of building material cost. But through April, builders are still struggling to keep up with demand, leading homebuyers to quickly snatch up any existing builds.

Mortgage rates rose above 3%, and some homebuyers backed off, preferring to purchase condos or rent properties rather than engage in bidding wars. But as a whole, the market remains frenzied, with homes in some markets receiving dozens of offers upon listing.

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