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Currently, acquisition of fee simple title to land in the CNMI is restricted to persons who are of Northern Marianas Islands Descent. What this means is that if an individual or business entity is not of NMI descent, as defined in the NMI Constitution, they cannot hold the fee simple title to land. There is, however, a system in place to lease land for a term of years. A person or business entity not of NMI descent may purchase a 55 year lease interest in privately owned real property, or a 40 year lease interest in government-owned land. (The longest lease on Public Lands is 25 years with a 15 year extension available upon legislative approval). Commercial and residential buildings are part of the land they are built on, and it is not possible to own the title to these buildings separately.

The only exception to the land ownership rules above involves condominium units above the first floor on privately held land. There have been several fee-simple condominiums developed in the CNMI, but none have had their legal sufficiency tested in the courts. Be aware that a fee-simple condominium cannot be created out of an existing leasehold estate without the landowner’s participation. If you have been offered a fee-simple condominium unit for sale, it is essential to examine the underlying documents to be sure that the fee-simple condominium was structured properly, and to be sure that you are really buying a valid fee-simple condominium interest and not a leasehold condominium interest.

In addition, it is essential that any person intending to lease land do a "title search." There is a Recorder's Office at the Courthouse in Susupe, Saipan, where all recorded land documents must be filed, and where members of the public can go to search records. In addition, there are private title companies, who will do a title search for a fee. If, for example, there has been a previous conveyance of a piece of property to someone other than the person who is attempting to sell or lease that property to you, then you are buying the equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge—or nothing. It is essential that you examine the title to any property you plan to lease or buy before you pay for it. This is true for NMDs who seek to purchase the fee simple title as well. In addition, if you are a NMD, you may need to deal with probate issues if you are interested in acquiring the fee title to family land.

A lawyer can investigate all of these issues for you to make sure that you are buying what you think you are buying. Protecting your interests must be done before the purchase. This does add some time to the process of buying and selling, but the extra weeks or months spent at the beginning will give you the assurance that your money is well spent for the long term. The acquisition or sale of real property involves myriad issues, including drafting purchase and sale agreements, determining the title holder of the property; as well as the negotiation and documentation of development and construction related agreements, loans and other financing transactions, and the litigation of real estate issues, sometimes within the context of a probate proceeding. These issues routinely come up in the largest commercial settings, as well as the smallest residential settings. No transaction is too big or too small to examine the issues which will ensure a positive investment.

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