Gilmore: swing back to purchases over refis would boost profits

Orange County’s largest title insurers rode a wave of refinance work to boost their business last year, while industry executives are hoping that more profitable work related to home purchases begins to take hold in 2013.

The county’s 14 largest title companies—which write policies protecting buyers of homes and other real estate from claims contesting ownership—were involved in $44.2 billion worth of work in 2012, according to this week’s Business Journal list.

That figure is up nearly 44% from year-ago levels and represents the highest level of activity reported by companies on our annual list since 2006.

The number of transactions—including new home orders, refinances and commercial property work—also saw a sharp increase from the prior year’s levels.

There were nearly 127,600 transactions completed by companies on this year’s list, up about 45% from a year earlier.

The list is ranked by the dollar value of OC transactions for 2012, and consolidates the results of multiple businesses that operate under the same parent company.

Every company on this year’s list saw year-over-year increases in business, both in terms of dollar value of their transactions and the total number of transactions.

2012 “was a successful year for our company on a number of fronts,” said George Scanlon, chief executive of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Fidelity National Financial Inc.

Fidelity retained the No. 1 spot on this year’s list, with just under $16 billion in transactions reported from its combined OC operations last year.


Fidelity, like most of the companies on the list, has spent the past few years looking to make its title operations more efficient amid the rocky economic environment. Last year saw many of those changes begin to pay off in earnest, Scanlon told analysts in a recent earnings call.

“We are particularly proud of the 16% pretax margin our title business generated (in the fourth) quarter,” Scanlon said.

The strong year resulted in more local workers. Companies on this week’s list are estimated to employ about 2,830 people here, a 7% increase from year-ago levels.

The amount of home refinancing activity has the largest bearing on the year-to-year direction of our list. Last year’s results show that the industry has recovered from the nadir of the last housing downturn, but remains well off peak levels.

The most active year for refinancing in the past decade was 2003, when the 15 largest title insurers here handled $95 billion in transactions.