Since 1987, Advantage Title has been a leading provider of commercial and residential title insurance services in New York and nationwide. With almost 60,000 transactions closed, the company has handled many of Long Island’s most significant real estate deals. Here on the East End, Joseph Willen, the founder, president and CEO, has sought out not only those with a talent for a complicated business with millions at stake, but also those who have a keen understanding of all the nuanced aspects unique to the area.
A purchase-oriented business, most of the work Advantage does is acquisitions and refinances of commercial properties, but they take on projects of every kind. On the East End, they have been a part of multimillion deals from large estates to farmland, vineyards, golf courses and even underwater properties. The Advantage team are experts in real estate title issues throughout the North and South Forks.
Chris Nuzzi, the executive vice president and regional director, and Johnny Hall, an underwriting counsel who specializes in East End matters, have led the way out east. “Chris’ unique expertise in zoning and municipal law is a separator for us. He’s not a salesman per se, he’s a resource,” Willen explains.
Nuzzi is rooted on the East End. He grew up in East Hampton, lives in Westhampton Beach and has a background in local government as a former Southampton Town councilman, which gives him even greater insight and understanding into municipal laws. He is an expert in the often complex zoning codes affecting property ownership here, as well as the permitting process and land use regulations. He has been in the title insurance business for 15 years and with Advantage for the last eight.
“Understanding how the East End works, how real estate works out here, understanding conservation and zoning issues, and the overall lay of the land have allowed us to build our East End business around him,” Willen says. “He has been an amazing resource for us.”
Six months ago, Advantage moved its Riverhead office to a new building, on the top floor overlooking downtown Riverhead and Riverside on the Southampton Town side of the dividing line, an area on the precipice of development.
Nuzzi has the benefit of working alongside Hall, a Riverhead resident, who was brought in as dedicated counsel for East End transactions. Together, they offer a hyperlocal focus.
Title insurance is one of those must-haves in real estate transactions that few people outside of the business can explain because it is not tangible, but real estate professionals know it is invaluable.
“Title insurance ensures the insured against defects or liens against the property,” explains Hall. “So if somebody’s buying a square, a property, we’re ensuring that they own that square against the claims of anybody else.”
That’s the end product, as he puts it, but getting there, that’s where having the right company in place is so important.
The title report pulls up any possible issues that could potentially arise after the closing. “We resolve those prior to closing so they don’t come back against the insured after the closing,” he adds. “We basically ensure that you own this property free and clear.”
Things like easements to the water, “out of possessions,” such as a fence running inside property lines, scenic easements, etc., will ultimately affect how a homeowner can use the property they are buying, Nuzzi explains.
While attorneys are the ones who resolve the zoning issues, a title insurance company often reveals that the issue exists prior to the closing. While such matters are not unique to the East End, Hall explains they are seen a bit more often here and can require a different approach than if the same issue came up further west on Long Island — mainly because the East End properties tend to be bigger and may not even be one single tax lot.
“Our job is to move people from precontract to closing, which Johnny does very well, and work through a lot of those issues,” says Nuzzi. “We’ve got great relationships with local attorneys, real estate brokers and agents, and we work with them all the time. We work together with them, even before they get into contract to try to resolve some of those issues before they become obstacles to a closing.”
Building a Business on Service
Willen took advantage of circumstance when entering the title insurance business more than three decades ago.
“When I got out of college and I was looking for an entry-level business job, selling title insurance became attractive to me because the first company I worked for offered a ‘company car’ and I had no wheels,” Willen recalls. “And I thought, ‘Hmm, let me check this out.’ I asked my dad, who was a judge, ‘What do you think of this title industry?’ I didn’t have any idea what it was. He said, ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s a career, but maybe the attorneys you work with will convince you to go to law school.’”
So, he gave it a try. His first job was in Riverhead and then he was recruited by a private title agent in Southampton.
Just after turning 25 years old, Willen decided he did not want to have one of those résumés with a long list of employers. “I naively decided to start my own. I took out a loan — I could not get the loan because I didn’t have credit yet. So my dad, who didn’t have the money but was willing to co-sign the loan, backed me and he actually joined me for the first year as our bookkeeper of all things, before going back to practicing law.”
From the start, “We organically built this company based on a model of uncompromising service,” Willen says. “No shortcuts. No gimmicks. Nothing but how can we do it better than our competition and make sure that when our clients have important transactions, that they say, ‘We need Advantage.’”
Willen has strategically built the company up from just two employees originally to currently around 80 employees including five in-house counsel and a team of expert examiners.
Title insurance is a regulated industry. “We all have to charge the same in New York State,” Willen explains. “So what separates us is our responsiveness, our professionalism, understanding when to take the appropriate risks, but also to be responsible because we’re protecting our clients and their clients’ investments.”
Title insurance premiums are based on the liability — the total purchase price and/ or the mortgage amount — and there’s a policy for the homeowner/purchaser and for the lender, but the purchaser pays for both.
One key point that separates Advantage is that the company has its own staff of examiners who work in the Suffolk County Center to research the history of each property. Many title insurance companies hire independent examiners, who work for a number of companies.
The advantage to having their own examiners? “Accessibility. Responsiveness,” he says. “Our clients need us to be able to research things very quickly, get things back in order and be able to mobilize. It’s very hard to do that when the person you’re calling is working for other companies. We wanted to make sure they had one priority and that is Advantage and our clients. It is a considerable expense, but well worth it for us.”
“What’s different about title insurance than any other insurance is our work isn’t about going forward. We go back,” Willen says. “We don’t have big claims because our job is to prevent claims by doing the research beforehand and dealing with any issues that arise before we close.”
By working from the County Center, the Advantage examiners have access to all records and “gives us a great advantage overall because we control our access to research, which on a lot of these matters is really important to real estate agents before they take a listing to a potential buyer to know before making an offer,” Nuzzi says.
“We work closely with our clients here and they often bring us in early on a lot of these transactions,” he adds.
Advantage has insured many prize properties in the area ranging up to $100,000,000.
“There are eight-, nine-figure transactions out here, the residential transactions, that we’ve been a part of and they can be really complex. We work with talented attorneys who are the leads on getting the deal done, but we are kind of the hub in the middle of each transaction, as it relates to researching the property and working together with the other real estate professionals to have a successful transaction,” Nuzzi explains.
Adapting Is an Advantage for Advantage Title
The industry has changed dramatically in three decades. “When I started this company in 1987, we didn’t have a computer. We had IBM Selectric typewriters and when they came out, the one with the ball that spun around, that was a big deal,” Willen laughs.
As technology has advanced rapidly since then, fraud, especially cyber fraud, is a serious issue in the industry. Due to the level of sensitive, important information, the firm invests heavily in cybersecurity with 24/7 monitoring of its servers, and all employees must take online classes to keep up to date so they do not compromise any information.
He also learned how to pivot. “I realized that when we had a good economy or good interest rate environment, the company did well, and when the rates went up the economy suffered, we didn’t do as well. There was a bit of a roller coaster that I was not comfortable with. So around 20 years ago I created a strategy of diversified revenue streams, which has served us well.”
Advantage entered into the foreclosure title search business. “We started doing foreclosure searches for lenders and real estate-owned (REO) law firms. At first, we did it to hedge our bets, but we’ve turned that into where we are the number one foreclosure company in the State of New York.”
Advantage does thousands of foreclosure searches, a diversification that helped sustain the company in 2008, 2009 and 2010 during the recession when real estate tanked.
“While we’d much prefer a good economic environment, where people are closing on their homes and their buildings, it was important to get us through the difficult times,” Willen says.
As for his staff, he adds, “I think they are the finest staff in the title industry. I truly believe that and I believe that because our clients tell us that over and over again — and they keep coming back.
“While Advantage does work across the entire country, our fastest growing region has been on the East End,” Willen says. “We love this area, my family and I have been boating here for 30 plus years. To see our business succeed in this highly competitive region has been gratifying. We look forward to continued growth servicing the top real estate professionals in the area for many years.”
This article was the cover story for the August 2022 issue of Behind The Hedges. Read the digital version of the magazine online. More features from our magazines here.