Friday, January 30, 2004

Registry employees held their Super Bowl party today. There was plenty of foods, cakes decorated as football fields, and a wide variety of Patriot's clothing and decorations. Be sure to check out the photos on our website. Almost all of the experts say New England should win; that the Patriots are a better team; that Carolina is lucky to be there. I do agree with all that, but I also have this strange sense that two years ago, a lot of people in St. Louis were saying the exact same things, only then, it was the Rams that were the superior team (and the Patriots were indeed lucky to make it to the Super Bowl in 2001-02). Back in October 2001, I traveled to several different cities to view various registry of deeds computer systems to help select a replacement for our decrepit Wang. Plans called for a Monday visit to the Mecklenburg, North Carolina Registry of Deeds, so Sunday became a travel day with flights from Boston to Atlanta and Atlanta to Charlotte. I arrived at the hotel in downtown Charlotte to discover Eriksson Stadium just a block away with a game between the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets already under way. I wandered over, someone gave me a ticket, and I caught the entire second half from the upper deck of one end zone. The Panthers stunk. The final score was something like 34 - 3; another loss on their way to a 1 and 15 season. That was only two years ago, so today, I have a hard time seeing how a team that was so bad can win the Super Bowl in just 24 months.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Representative Kevin Murphy (D-Lowell) is filing legislation that, if enacted, will supersede the recently released Executive Order regarding Notary Publics. This Order, thought by many to impose undue burdens on Notaries, does not go into effect until April 19. Rep Murphy's bill (there are a number of co-sponsors) would direct Secretary of State William Galvin to promulgate regulations regarding the conduct of Notaries. The bill would also limit the use of certain translations of the term "Notary Public" that, in other languages, might imply that the Notary is an attorney or a specialist in immigration law. While there is certainly a need for the Commonwealth to provide guidelines for Notaries, the governor's effort over does it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Several years ago, the Secretary of State's Office organized the Address Confidentiality Program which was designed to protect individuals who were the objects of stalkers. A person enrolled in the program would be assigned a post office box at the Secretary of State's office and all references to the person's address - on a driver's license, phone and utility bills, school registration, etc - would list that post office box. The group that designed the program considered whether Registry of Deeds records should be included but decided that they should not. Our system of land ownership depends on the accuracy of the records at the registry. If some are "blacked out" or kept separately, an element of doubt would be injected into an otherwise reliable system. The only way to own real estate without having your name appear in the very public records at the registry would be to create a trust, name someone else as the trustee (with you as the beneficiary - the names of the beneficiaries are not recorded), and then have the real estate you are buying conveyed into the trust. It's complicated, but it would keep your name out of our records.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

A big question people had about electronic recording was the speed with which documents submitted electronically would "go on record." This is how it's supposed to work: When an electronic document arrives, a registry employee will open the image of the document alongside the data related to that document. We will compare them and ensure that all the regular requirements of recording are met. This should only take a few minutes. Then, the registry clerk will "save" the document, just as she would with a paper document with a customer standing across the counter. The document will immediately be assigned instrument, book and page numbers and will officially be "on record." In the coming weeks, we will test the system to determine just how quickly this all will happen. We understand your concerns about the time and order of recording and will keep you informed of developments as the system evolves.

Monday, January 26, 2004

About 30 registry users met at the Doubletree Hotel in Lowell this afternoon with representatives of ACS (Affiliated Computer Systems), the company that will be assisting us in bringing Electronic Recording to Massachusetts. While there is much planning and discussion to be done, everyone seems very enthused. We will use the blog to keep everyone informed of our progress. If you have any questions or would like specific information about electronic recording, just send me an email by clicking here.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Tomorrow (Monday) will be the first meeting of the Electronic Recording Work Group. We've organized a small group of registry users who are willing to help us plan and implement the first fully functional electronic recording process at a registry of deeds in Massachusetts. Although we will not begin electronic recording until March 1, much thought and effort must be devoted to the details of the process we will be using to ensure that we are successful. If you have any thoughts on this topic, please use our newly installed "comment" feature to share your thoughts. Check back with this blog for frequent updates on this process.

Friday, January 23, 2004

This week's Lawyers Weekly carried an article about the governor's recently issued guidelines for notaries ("Stirct New Rule for Notaries Worries Bar"). The two biggest concerns of lawyers seemed to be that confidential client information would be disclosed in the notary journal that is subject to inspection by almost anyone. The other concern was the overall burden of recording all of the information required in the journal. Most notaries I have spoken with are pleased to have some type of formal guidance regarding how they should perform their duties although just prescribing the duties and not requiring such burdensome record keeping would probably have been enough. The governor's legal counsel indicates in the article that this is all designed to combat forgeries and fraud. But if a notary is willing to acknowledge a forged signature, what would stop that same notary for filling his journal with bogus information? It seems that this "solution" to a serious but relatively limited (in frequency) problem will create headaches for everyone. On a positive note, the chief legal counsel made it pretty clear that failure to comply with the precise notary requirements of this order should not effect whether or not the document is recorded. That's the right answer, as far as we're concerned.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

This morning's Boston Globe carried an amazing story about a computer hacking scandal in Washington, D.C. Is seems that Republican staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee gained access to the files of the Democratic members of the committee. The Democrats thought all their stuff (which included politically sensitive and confidential plans and strategy) was secure and that only users with the correct password could access the files. Well an IT person (working for the Democrats - or who used to work for them) forgot to flip the switch on the security settings, giving everyone access. The Republicans apparently felt no ethical obligation to either disclose the security flaw or at least avoid reading the Democrats confidential material. They not only read the stuff, but they leaked substantial amounts of it to friendly members of the press. When Democratic memos began appearing verbatim in certian newspaper columns, the Democrats got suspicious and investigated the leak. At the Registry of Deeds, we are always concerned about the security of our computers. When you read a story such as this, with supposedly honorable government officials exploiting gaps in computer security, it reminds you why you should worry about hackers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Many news outlets today wrote about a survey on attitudes towards technology that was released by MIT. Thirty percent of adults identify the cell phone as the invention they most hate but cannot live without. Other essential, yet despised, inventions include alarm clocks, TVs, electric razors, microwave ovens, coffee pots, computers and vacuum cleaners. This was a yearly survey conducted by the Lemelson-MIT Program, an organization that honors those who have helped improve our lives through invention. The institute's 2002 survey, available on its website, compared attitudes towards technology among teens and adults. Teens ranked wireless communications and computers very high and TVs quite low; adults ranked them in reverse order. What's this got to do with the Registry of Deeds? Technology is allowing radical changes to occur. Electronic books, Internet access and, in March, electronic recording will fundamentally alter the way registries have operated for the past 300 years. Those of us who decide how to implement this new technology have to understand it and its implications. That's why we read (and write about) stuff like this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Middlesex South recorded more than 1000 documents with the new ACS computer system today. In the satellite office in Lowell, several hundred of these documents were recorded and scanned without any major difficulties. Customers using the public access terminals noticed the great improvement in the retrieval time of images (almost instantaneous) compared to the agonizingly slow pace of the old Wang system. Speaking of Wang, yesterday's decommissioning of the old Cambridge system represents the end of the Wang era in Massachusetts registries of deeds. When first installed in the early 1980s, Wang computers held much promise. But the Lowell-based company made some bad business decisions and, over time, abandoned its customers while it staggered from one unsuccessful business plan to the next. Life at the registry will be better with Wang gone.

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Middlesex South conversion to the ACS system was successful this weekend. We tested the system by recording and scanning a dozen documents from Lowell. Everything seemed to work fine. The public access terminals are connected to the new database so all images are instantly available for viewing and printing. All registry users should really like this new system. Congratulations to the New England Patriots for a great victory yesterday.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

This morning I was a guest on "The House Market" a radio program hosted by Dennis and Donna Ready from 9 to 10 a.m. each Sunday on Lowell's WCAP (980 AM). Dennis and Donna talk about specific properties and also items of general interest in the real estate business. On the air, we talked about the registry's website and the changes that electronic recording will bring. We also discussed the new regulations for notaries. Links to the regulations and the new "clarifications" can be found on the first page of the registry's website. We also talked about this blog and blogs in general. One thing I didn't talk about was the ability of readers to post comments to the blog. We had set up a comments feature, but the company we were using (at no charge) has experienced some difficulty (i.e., it disappeared). So we'll try again with another provider as soon as possible - hopefully by tomorrow.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

The History Channel (Channel 58 on Lowell cable TV) is showing a new documentary, Martin Luther King Jr Day: The Making of a Dream" on Monday at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you have to work and miss the documentary, check out the History Channel website (follow the link above). There's a tremendous amount of interesting information available online.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Governor Romney gave his State of the State address last night. Mostly he talked about education issues, but he also mentioned closing the $1 billion deficit by eliminating more waste in government but without raising taxes. However they choose to deal with the deficit, this office really can't afford any more cuts. Our budget has been level funded at $1.3 million for the past four years. Since our costs certainly haven't stayed constant or decreased during that time, "level funding" really constitutes a significant cut. It's not like the registry is a financial drain on the state: last year alone Middlesex North collected nearly $27 million in fees, thanks to the refinancing boom and to the big hike in filing fees back in March. Another reason for watching the governor last night was in case he said anything about the weather. Yesterday afternoon, as news spread that hundreds of schools had cancelled classes for today due to the cold, the registry was abuzz with the rumor that the governor would declare a state of emergency. But, since the registry falls under the Secretary of State, it's up to William Galvin to close registries, so a gubernatorially declared state of emergency really wouldn't effect us. We are open today, despite the minus-14 degree temperature and significant wind chill.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

The governor's office has issued some clarifications of Executive Order 455 (regarding Notaries Public). The effective date of the order has been pushed back to April 19, 2004. This "clarification" reiterates the requirement that all notaries must have a seal or stamp that contains the notary's name, the words "notary public" and either "Massachusetts" or "Commonwealth of Massachusetts." It must also have the expiration date of the notary's commission and a facsimile of the great seal of Massachusetts. If your current seal has everything but your name and expiration date, you may still use it but only if you get a separate stamp that has those two things on it in which case you'd have to use both your original seal and this new stamp. The requirement that a journal be maintained continues. The journal must be a bound book with sequentially numbered pages although if the entries are sequentially numbered, that will meet this requirement. Finally, while the original order said to be a notary, you must reside in the Commonwealth, the order will be modified to continue to allow people who live outside the state but who conduct business within Massachusetts to serve as notaries.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The Middlesex South Registry in Cambridge will spend this coming weekend converting to the ACS computer system. Customers should see a huge improvement in the operation of the Public Access computers. The days of waiting endlessly for an image to appear on screen will be over. With the ACS system, document images appear almost instantaneously on a split screen, with the indexing data on the left and the image on the right. More good news - Cambridge should also have its images and data on the Internet within the next month. Although the ACS system has worked wonderfully here in Lowell since its installation back in June 2002, the first week or two of the process are very turbulent and stressful for both employees and customers, so it really helps if everyone remembers to relax and stay calm. During our first few days with the new system, we were confronted with a steady procession of highly agitated title examiners convinced that index entries had evaporated during the conversion. In almost all cases, when registry employees performed the same search using the new system's instructions (and not the habitual "this is the way we did in on the Wang" process), the "missing" data reappeared. In the few cases that problems did occur, they were quickly fixed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

It didn't take long for the Uniform Electronic Transfer Act to make its way into a judge's decision. The January 12 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly leads with "E-Mail Did Not Bind Seller To Home Price." The issue in the case was whether email messages between agents for the buyer and seller formed a binding contract on the parties. Land Court Judge Gordon Piper ruled there was no contract on the grounds that there was no offer and acceptance - that the basic elements of a contract never existed. Judge Piper went on to address a claim that email would meet the requirements of the Statute of Frauds (i.e., to be enforceable, certain contracts must be in writing, signed by the party to be bound). The judge concluded that the email in this case did not meet such a requirement, noting that these events preceded the enactment of UETA but volunteering his opinion that even UETA might not change the result. Several lawyers with expertise in electronic transactions law who were interviewed for the story disagreed with the judge's doubts about the ability of email to satisfy the Statute of Frauds. It's always risky to comment on a case from afar (as I'm doing here), but it seems that this case should have ended when the judge found there was no contract in the first place. His speculation about the effect of UETA certainly was not an essential part of his findings. Those who practice real estate law tend to be very conservative when it comes to embracing new things, but just as type-written documents replaced those written with a quill pen, so will electronic documents soon supplant those that exist on paper.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Last week's report that the US economy only created 1000 jobs in December (149,000 less than expected) was bad news. I'm no economist, but something about this economic "recovery" just hasn't seemed right. Yesterday's New York Times business section had an article ("The No-Bang, All-Whimper Recovery" by Gretchen Morgenson) that helped put things into context. Many of today's homeowners, who reached adulthood during the hyper-inflationary 1970s, learned that you should spend not just out of your paycheck, but out of your assets as well, including your house. That mentality, as much as low interest rates, drove the recently ended refinancing boom that pumped billions of dollars into the economy. But that's over and now the government is printing money (big deficits are back) to finance the war in Iraq and tax cuts that will let most of us keep a few more dollars come April 15. Hmmm, big deficits, tax cuts, a multi billion dollar bill for Iraq - it sounds like inflation is right around the corner. Hopefully, we'll record more mortgages than foreclosure deeds in 2004 . . .

Sunday, January 11, 2004

There was a definite warming trend today: the temperature at 7 a.m. soared to minus-7 degrees. The Patriots had a great victory last night. Having been through this two years ago, football fever will certainly dominate discussion at the registry of deeds during the coming week. When one of the local professional sports teams starts closing in on a championship, a very pleasant aura descends on the region, giving almost everyone a common topic of conversation which is lacking during the rest of the year (unless there's a big storm or a terrible tragedy). But all New Englanders will feel severely disrespected this week, as the national media fawns over Peyton Manning and the explosive offense of the Indianapolis Colts, especially after their big victory against the Kansas City Chiefs today.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

It was only minus-10 degrees at 7 this morning, but the cold is not the cause of this weekend's problems with our website. Here's an explanation: the web pages you see when you first go to reside on a server that is physically located at the registry of deeds in Lowell. When you "search records" on the website, however, you are shifted to another server that is located at the Secretary of State's office in Boston. This dispersion is a good thing. If there was a fire in Lowell, for example, the data portion of the website (in Boston) would remain in operation. (The data on that Boston computer is also the primary backup for the main computer in Lowell that stores all the active data and images used within the registry). Back to this weekend: the electrical system in the Boston building is being upgraded this weekend, so all its electrical power has been shut down. Hence, no web data. Sorry for the inconvenience. It should be back up sometime on Sunday.

Friday, January 09, 2004

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Lowell this afternoon on the future of the judiciary. Representatives Kevin Murphy and Colleen Garry were members of the panel. Judge Walker of the Lowell District Court testified about the administrative crisis at the LDC caused by years of cuts in funding and personnel. Since there's been no corresponding decrease in crime, the district court is in a desperate situation. I testified briefly, asking the committee to remember the Registry of Deeds and how convenient it was for lawyers and the public to have the registry located within a courthouse. I also stressed that with our technological advances (Internet access to documents and electronic recording) the space needed by the registry in the near future was only about 75% of the space we currently occupy.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

We now have a "Comments" feature on our blog. Like the blog itself, we're taking a low budget approach by using free services that make their money through advertising. For example, we use for the text of the blog (if you want to start your own blog, check out blogspot). To view the comments of others or to leave one of your own, just click on the word "comments" located below the applicable blog entry and a popup box will appear. Any prior comments will be at the top of the box; at the bottom of the box will be a form that asks for a name (preferably your own). Your name is required but none of the other fields including your email address are required. Then type your comment. Remember, whatever you write will be visible to anyone reading the blog (if you want to make a private comment, use my email link above). We've tested this feature and it seems to work pretty well although I'm still trying to get rid of the "smiley faces" (remember, it's a free service). If you're reading our blog, please let us know by leaving a comment.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Yesterday's posting regarding the new guidelines for Notaries led to several questions. How will the registry treat documents with acknowledgement clauses that do not comply with the language set out in the guidelines? Will they still be accepted when recording? The short answer is that the guidelines will not change whether a document will be recorded. The guidelines are directed at the notary. If the notary fails to follow them completely but still indicates an intent to acknowledge someone's signature, we will still record the document. Our philosophy is to take pretty much anything that could be construed to be an acknowledgement, and leave the determination of whether it is an effective acknowledgement up to the title examiners that will look at the document in the future.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Standards of Conduct for Notaries Public in Massachusetts recently went into effect. Click HERE to view the Standards. Because this document specifies what a Notary Public can and cannot do, it should provide useful guidance. One requirement is that every Notary maintain a journal in book form in which the Notary records (1) the date and time of each notarial act; (2) the type of notarial act; (3) the type, title or a description of the document; (4) the signature, printed name and address of each person signing; (5) description of the evidence of identity of each person signing; (6) the fee charged if any; and (7) the address where the notarization was performed. While I can't speak for every Notary Public, those I do know believe these additional requirements will make the act of notarizing a document much more burdensome, thereby making it more difficult for the average citizen to find a Notary Public willing to offer his services. Here at the Registry, where we offer Notarial services at no charge at our Customer Service Office, we will continue to do just that and will strive to comply fully with these new requirements.

Monday, January 05, 2004

This morning, Lowell radio station WCAP (980 AM) interviewed author Nicholas Basbanes about his recent book, "A Splendor of Letters" which is about efforts to preserve books. Mr. Basbanes, who's a native of Lowell (i.e., Basbanes Laundry, Atty George Basbanes) has written a number of books about books. At the Registry of Deeds, how we handle our Record Books is a big issue. More than two years ago, we stopped producing them altogether, relying on electronic images and microfilm backup. Now we're contemplating putting the thousands of exisitng books whose images are available on our computers and on the Internet into storage both to help preserve the books (dropping a 20 pound book on top of a copier isn't good for the book or the copier) and to cut back on our space needs. But these are not steps to take lightly, so I'm planning to buy Mr Basbanes' book. To visit his website, click HERE.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

With registry records already on the Internet and electronic document recording only two months away, big changes are coming to the registry. But if you look at the effect that technology has had on other businesses, you might conclude that the registry won't change all that much. Today's newspaper had a story about the resurgence of Barnes and Noble. A year ago, many analysts were already eulogizing the big bookseller, viewing it as a victim of online sales by and the enormous growth of book sales at discounters such as Walmart and Costco. The analysts were wrong. Barnes and Noble's stock has risen more than 80% over the past year. What happened? Online sales have stabilized at only about 10% of all book sales, and Costco and Walmart only sell a few dozen titles, almost all from the best seller lists. It turns out that nothing will replace browsing around the stacks at the bookstore.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Many homeowners come to the registry in search of their plot plans. They leave disappointed. The plot plan, which shows the footprint of the house and the boundaries of that one lot, is usually required by a lender whenever a mortgage is obtained to show that the building is on the lot and that it complies with the local zoning rules. Although homeowners should get a copy of the plot plan, they either don't or they do but misplace it. Later, when the homeowner applies for a building permit to put up a deck, a garage or a fence, some type of plan is required and the homeowner journeys to the registry for a copy of the plan that he's already paid for. But plot plans don't get recorded, only subdivision plans do. For 2004, the registry will start recommending to lawyers that they attach a copy of the plot plan to deeds and mortgages as an exhibit. That way, there will be no additional charge to the homeowner (who's paying to record the deed or mortgage anyway) and the plot plan will always be available in the registry's records.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Mortgages and mortgage discharges, the two document types most closely connected to home refinancing, account for 60% of all documents recorded at the registry. When refinancing declines, our document totals decline, too. Even though more documents were recorded in 2003 than in any prior year, the collapse of the refinancing market can be traced by the decline in the number of documents recorded per day during the last six months of the year:
July - 700 per day
Aug - 640 per day
Sep - 586 per day
Oct - 534 per day
Nov - 480 per day
Dec - 370 per day

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Here are the top ten events at the registry during 2003:
(1) We recorded 146,956 documents, 27% over '02, 51% over '01, and 105% over 2000.
(2) Middlesex South satellite office opened allowing documents for Cambridge to be recorded in Lowell
(3) Recording fees increased in March - a deed went from $45 to $125
(4) The registry website is now instantly updated - as soon as a document is recorded it appears online
(5) Eight new employees were hired to fill vacancies caused by budget cuts
(6) Uniform Electronic Transaction Act (UETA) became law, allowing electronic recording
(7) From March to June, Lowell recorded mail for Cambridge to help eliminate their backlog
(8) Corporate Certificates can now be obtained at the Lowell registry
(9) Tax stamps are now produced by the computer system, not be a stand alone cash register
(10) The refinancing market collapsed, greatly reducing our daily volume by the end of the year