Insured InDeed

Andy Mikell helps lawyers help homeowners

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

vt_att_title_leadSince 1997, Andrew Mikell has been state manager and title counsel at Vermont Attorneys Title Corp. in Williston, the exclusive Vermont agent for CATIC, a title insurance underwriter.

Andrew Mikell laughs when he’s asked to explain what he does. “Well, without putting you totally to sleep,” he begins, and proceeds to give an overview of his work.

This is typical of Mikell’s unpretentious approach, but scratch the surface and a life filled with service in many aspects begins to emerge.

As state manager and title counsel at Vermont Attorneys Title Corp., Mikell runs the Vermont operation for a company called Connecticut Attorneys Title Insurance Corp., or CATIC. Vermont was CATIC’s first venture outside of Connecticut but now does business in all of New England plus New York and New Jersey.

“When someone buys or refinances a house,” he explains, “the buyer hires an attorney to do a title search, and the attorney also provides to the bank, and to the buyer if it’s desired, a title insurance policy. The bank wants it,” he continues, “because they’re going to sell your mortgage, and the financer — for example, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac — wants it because if they foreclose on the property and become the owner, they want to be assured that there are no title problems.”

There are two policies involved here: one for the lender, called a loan policy, and one for the buyer, called an owner policy. The loan policy is required by the bank; the owner policy is optional, but many buyers obtain them.

“I could probably describe myself as a problem-solver,” Mikell says. “When attorneys and their staffs search titles and find problems, they call me and we will discuss whether it’s a problem, and if it is, we solve the problem so the closing can happen smoothly.”

It’s when mistakes happen that things get interesting. “Some of the war stories, frankly, relate to human error, which can be on the part of even an experienced attorney or town clerk,” he says. These mistakes can take many forms.

He mentions the story of the owner of property in Swanton who had bought an owner policy. After living there for two years, he received a foreclosure notice. “He wondered what was up,” says Mikell, “because it wasn’t from his bank and he was current on his mortgage. He hadn’t done anything wrong.”

It turned out that the seller had committed fraud and her mortgage had not been discharged, “because she had used the money on drugs, cars, and a lot of things. The company ended up paying about $110,000 to take care of the seller’s mortgage.”

He refers to two claims where town clerks made mistakes. “Again, they’re very capable people,” he cautions, “but things happen.” In the most recent one, the buyer purchased the owner policy and, again, received a notice of foreclosure. The lien, which was worth $1.5 million, had not been properly indexed in the town land records.

Town clerks are required by statute to keep an index of all their documents. When the information is entered, the clerk must list the last name first. In this case, the first name was listed first in error, so when the lawyer did the search, he didn’t find the lien.

“In that case, the company came in and reimbursed the owner and also provided attorney’s fees and defense costs. They were successfully able to defeat the lien, but spent $64,000 in attorney’s fees to do it,” says Mikell.

In the second case, “some folks in Enosburg bought a property, built a house, and got sued by their neighbor, who said, ‘You just built your driveway on our property.’ So it’s the neighbor-against-neighbor lawsuit,” he says. They had fortunately purchased an owner policy. The company came in, defended the suit, hired a surveyor, and that case went not only through the trial court, but also to the Supreme Court.

“The insureds won twice,” says Mikell, “and that legal fee and surveyor’s fee totaled $83,000.”

Mikell came to Vermont Attorneys Title Corp. in 1997 after a few years in private practice. A native Vermonter — born in Burlington, he lived briefly in South Burlington and Huntington, and grew up from first grade in Williston — he had big shoes to fill in the profession.

His father, the late William E. Mikell, was a respected attorney, legislator, assistant secretary of state, and District Court judge whose long years of service included the Williston Planning Commission, Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Williston-Richmond Rotary Club, and various other organizations.

Mikell graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1979 with a degree in American history. After graduation, he taught for a year in New York state before enrolling in law school.

“I would say that law school was the plan all along,” he says, “but probably like a lot of college grads at the time, I wasn’t 100 percent sure about it. Teaching for a year gave me time to reflect and say that law school was a good choice.

“As I was enrolling in college, my father accepted a judgeship from Gov. Tom Salmon,” says Mikell, and as I graduated from college, he retired from the judgeship. He probably put in about six years or so. When I came out of law school in 1983, he was reestablishing his practice, and I joined him there.”

They practiced together until his dad retired — “I’ll say around ’94,” says Mikell. For the next couple of years, he worked with a couple of other attorneys until he took his current job in 1997.

“I really enjoyed private practice,” he says. “My dad and I had had a general practice in various areas of law, but I was seeing and finding, like many attorneys, that it was increasingly hard to be a generalist in an increasingly specialized world. The job here gave me a chance to focus in one area of the law I really love, and that’s real estate.”

Five other employees work at the office on Walnut Street in Williston: two administrative staffers; two member service representatives, one of whom is an attorney and does some of the underwriting with Mikell; and a full-time title updater.

“A lot of what we do is preventive as well as reparative,” he says. “Attorneys can ask us to go back to the land records after the closings to check that the properties were properly recorded and indexed and, in fact, we find a lot of mistakes before they even get to the claim area. We try to do the checking 30 days after the closing.”

Asked about a typical day, he exclaims, “My job is great! A typical day is, frankly, on the phone, on the email, on the fax with attorneys all over the state. We work with about 190 real estate offices and probably 250 attorneys and their staffs.”

He also conducts a half dozen or so educational seminars around the state to keep them up to speed on recent court cases, changes in federal law, “things that in their day-to-day practice they don’t have time to note.”

The job of any real estate attorney gets harder every year,” says Mikell. “That’s a result of increased regulation, permitting, and other regulatory changes from both the federal and state levels.” For example, he says, last year the federal government overhauled HUD regulations involving the closing settlement statement, and this year, the Vermont Tax Department has gone to online filing for property tax returns. “It’s not super hard, but it’s one more thing where you have to learn the ropes.”

Three other companies in the state do similar work, says Mikell: First American, Stewart Title, and Fidelity/Chicago (possibly also still doing as business as Commonwealth, says Mikell). When I started with the business in 1997, our company had 12 percent of that market; we closed the end of last year with 50 percent.”

In 1981, Mikell married Ashley Smith, “my college sweetheart,” whom he met on the ski team. “Now we have two boys. Taylor, 24, is a science teacher, ski coach, and camp administrator in Stowe. Whitney, 21. just finished his junior year in college and is headed to a summer internship in Stanford, Conn. He’s an economics major.”

Two years ago, he planted a little fruit and berry patch to complement his wife’s flower garden. “We have strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, plum trees, apple trees, and kiwi for right now.”

Mikell still does a lot of skiing. He just retired after 15 years of weekend ski coaching at Sugarbush. “I enjoyed it,” he says, “but now I can go ski with my wife and friends. He does a bit of mountain biking on his own, and the last couple of years, he’s been umpiring in the Williston Little League. “My dad was our Little League coach when my brothers and I were in Little League,” he says, “and my two sons played baseball, so I’m umpiring.”

He’s also in his third year as a mentor at the Williston Central School and an active member and past president of the Williston-Richmond Rotary Club, on the board of the Vermont Mortgage Bankers Association, and he has chaired the Vermont Bar Association title standards committee for four years.

The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. •