Valerie Epstein opens the door to a steep stairwell into the darkness. Down she goes into one of Chattanooga’s underground chambers.
This basement was once an office front at street level, and here, the original archived titles for most of the city’s public and commercial buildings are stored. These records date back to 1938, when the company was founded.
Epstein is the new owner of Milligan-Reynolds, a guaranty title firm that handles commercial and residential title insurance. As an attorney, she formerly served as in-house council for Unum before starting her own general law practice. Her office is next door to Milligan-Reynolds, which remains in its original location at 724 Cherry Street.
She and three other seasoned attorney’s and 10 support staff work with local realtors in the 76th year of the company. Founded in 1938 by Dana Milligan and Mark Senter, majority shares were later acquired by Mercer Reynolds, Sr. and it was renamed.
“The name has all this wonderful power and magic,” says Epstein. “Our people do amazing work.” And they’ve been doing it for a long time. Many of the firm’s key employees have been with the agency for over 30 years, establishing a reputation for financial strength, competence and trust. COO Doris Peak is a 41-year veteran and during that time she has seen many changes.
“I started as an intern when I attended Kirkman Technical School,“ says Peak. “It was located where the Lookouts Baseball Stadium is now and I walked over here to Cherry Street.” That was 1973. She spent her time typing title commitments on a manual typewriter. These reports showed the research done by other staff members and it included any and all liens on the property, the taxes paid, any restrictions or easements and any debts, divorces or wills related to the property. Soon fax machines and computers were introduced, increasing the speed of the work. Plots that once took hours to research, are now researched online and quickly processed. Peak remembers the first condominium ever sold in Chattanooga. She enjoys working with realtors like Charlotte Mabry and developers like James Pratt.
“James Pratt is such a gentleman,” says Peak. “No matter how difficult closings could be, he was always polite.” Pratt, whose sons now run the day-to-day business of Pratt Homebuilders, reinstituted the Traditional Neighborhood Development in Chattanooga during the nineties. The human scale, custom homes displayed unusual architectural amenities, plus sidewalks, streetlights, alleys and common spaces.
In 1974, a young attorney just out of law school came to work at Milligan-Reynolds. Rick McInturff, now CEO, says he was fascinated by the work.
“Real property law is slow to change, but the use of the property changes,” says McInturff. “Only in the last 25 years have we added residential and commercial condos.” The laws keep evolving.
“Now property owners are able to hold the property and lease the surface,” he adds, referring to mineral rights-type issues.
The register’s records are online as far back as 1969, but anyone needing earlier deeds or wishing to establish a chain of title may be looking for handwritten records. This was done recently in the sale of the old Krystal building on Cherry Street. “We pulled handwritten records from 1872 to establish the right-of-way for an alley.”
The employees of Milligan-Reynolds remain engaged and committed to Chattanooga, interested in its revitalization and continuing evolution. They get out to network frequently, hosting the Tennessee Association of Realtors’ breakfast for the annual meeting at the Chattanooga Trade and Convention Center and participating in volunteer work.
In addition to issues of compliancy, good rates—at or below market value—and deep experience, Milligan-Reynolds has added a few amenities that Epstein hopes will get the attention of local realtors. With only 10 closings per year, a realtor can become a preferred partner.
On August 1, 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) mortgage disclosure rule—enacted to make it easier for consumers to shop for mortgages and to protect them from costly surprises at their closing by integrating consumer disclosures—goes into effect. Milligan-Reynolds is approaching the preparation for the disclosures rule and other regulations as an opportunity to discover new ways to provide better transparency and service to all parties involved in the real estate transaction.
Epstein says although the same solid service the agency has always provided will be unchanged, many things are being done to make it easy to buy and sell property.
“In this process of re-branding the agency,” she says. “We are offering preferred partner perks and mobile closings—we’ll meet you at Starbucks to close, if you like.”
Photography by Big Lenz Studio