Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Computer Start Date Now Back to 1976

Back in early August (check out the August 5 blog entry) our computer company modified the search program we use in the registry and on the Internet. The purpose of the change was to allow the search to ignore spaces and punctuation, a very desirable situation. Unfortunately, we paid a price for this change. Previously, the search completely ignored the “start date” when retrieving documents by book and page number. This was significant in Lowell where our name index reaches back to 1976, but our images go all the way to 1950. We could leave the default start date as 1976 (accurately reflecting our name index) while still retrieving older document images without changing the start date. With the “start date” field turned on, however, the only way you could retrieve a pre-1976 image would be to manually change the start date to 1950. Since many of our Internet users are not real estate professionals, we have found that simple works best, so we decided to roll the default start date back to 1950 which would allow all images to be retrieved without the user having to modify the date at all. While we realized that pushing the start date back to 1950 might mislead a user into thinking that was the coverage of our name index, we decided to try out the 1950 default date for a limited period during which we would gauge user feedback. We have now decided to return the start date to 1976, the name index start date. This means that if you want to retrieve an older document image by book and page number, you should change the start date to 1950. Sorry this entry got so long, but I wanted to share with all of you the thought process we followed in this situation. This is also an instance where user comments and feedback would have greatly assisted me in how to handle this tricky situation. Unfortunately, the only feedback I received was indirect and second-hand, so this well-intentioned but ill-advised experiment persisted for longer than it should have.

Homeowner's Insurance

The front page of today's New York Times has an interesting story about property insurance. In the late 1990's, most American insurance companies quietly switched from coverage that guaranteed the replacement of a destroyed home regardless of cost to a similar sounding type of coverage that would only pay the amount stated on the policy plus an additional 20 to 25%. While estimates vary, they all agree that most American homes are underinsured, usually by a substantial amount. One study contends that 64% of American homes are underinsured by an average of 27%. Perhaps one reason why this has not become more of an issue is that few houses are completely destroyed. (Today's article features a couple whose San Diego-area home was consumed by a wild fire in the fall of 2003). Nevertheless, homeowners have the responsibility to update the amount of their coverage. This is especially important given the substantial increase in real estate values over the past few years. On another topic, thank you to those blog readers who chose to comment on yesterday's posting. Please take a moment to read the posted comments and to add your own.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Bookin' It

Last Friday Register Howe’s blog entry mentioned the project to make indexes available electronically. Many of the index books are in deplorable condition. Some have pages that are falling out, ripped or seriously faded. This has forced us to take those in bad condition off the "public" shelf . These indexes are in the copy department but kept readily available. This helps prevent the loss of pages and further wear. We have tried copying indexes and putting them in office style binders. This only works for a short time (a very short time). The books just get too much use for this solution. Professional rebinding is very expensive. In addition our experience with "sending books out" hasn’t been very good. Most of the books we have professionally rebound do not last long enough to justify the cost. The arrival of electronic indexes will obviously solve this problem and others.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Latest on Old Indexes

A casual conversation with an old friend this morning launched me on a day-long research and development effort with our old indexes. To put it in context, our computer holds a searchable name index that reaches back to 1976. Before that, you're stuck using the grantor/granee index books. But since those books have been victims of 30 or more years of hard usage, they're in tough shape with broken bindings and loose pages. Since there's no easy, quick, or inexpensive way to add names to the computerized index going back in time, we've been searching for a computer-assisted alternative but have not had much practical success. Using the scanned images of the existing paper index books is the most promising approach and that brings me back to today's conversation. The end result was that we tried converting a few of the old index images to Adobe Acrobat documents with considerable success. More experimentation is needed, but I predict we'll have a practical, inexpensive way to search pre-1976 indexes within the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Real Estate Fascination

I sold real estate for ten years before coming to the Registry of Deeds. In both roles I have found that people in general are fascinated by real estate. For some it's just curiosity about what a house sold for (especially the neighbor's). Others want to make a fortune using the get rich quick techniques shown on late night television. At some point in my life I have been guilty of both (no, I never bought the tapes, honest). For this reason I still find a little bit of statistics intriguing. I hope you feel the same. Associated Press is reporting that Condominium prices in Massachusetts hit and all time high in July. According to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors median condo prices soared to $269,000. That figure is an increase of 14.7% from July 2003. Single family home prices are up 11% from last July but down 2.9% from last month. Over all, home prices are dramatically from 2003 but seem to have leveled off in June and July. Whether these trends continue is the subject for a future blog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Indexing - Veterans Affairs

Yesterday an experienced registry user asked for help finding a document from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He knew the document existed (he even had the book and page number) but he wasn't able to find it by doing a name search in our computerized index. Since the adoption of the Massachusetts Deed Indexing Standards back on January 1, 2000 (click here to see the indexing standards), that name should appear in the index as "USA Veterans Affairs." Prior to the adoption of the indexing standards, it's much more difficult to predict how that name would have been indexed. In our index, we have a 1999 entry of "Veterans Affairs Secretary of" and a 1999 entry of "Veterans Administration." Back in 1988, a document was indexed two ways: "Secretary Department of Veterans Affairs" and "United States of America Department of Veterans Affairs." This all might seem a little boring to those of you who don't make a living doing run downs at the registry of deeds, but for those of you that do, this is the kind of thing that might keep you awake at night. For the latter group, I have some suggestions. Become very familiar with the Deed Indexing Standards. If you spend a lot of time at a particular registry, try to determine if that registry follows the indexing standards. If the registry doesn't, bring it to someone's attention. For index entries prior to 2000, try to discover how the registry indexed certain names back then. Unfortunately, no one that I know of kept very good records of how indexing was done historically and it usually differed from registry to registry (sometimes it was even different within the same registry). Make maximum use of the search capabilities of the computer system. Specifically, our computer searches for what you've typed plus anything else that begins with the letters you've typed. So if you just type "USA" you'll get every possible combination of names that begins with the letters "USA." If the search returns too many results, then you can narrow your search. When searching, always remember, start with a broad search - you can always narrow it if necessary.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Today is my first day back from a week long vacation. My wife, who is a tax collector, takes professional improvement courses every August at the University of Mass in Amherst. I usually tag along because I love the area. She goes to school and I well...don't. Although this year I added a little work to my trip. Since Middlesex North will soon be doing E recording I took a class on Electronic Tax Payments. The course objective, which was sponsored by UniBank, was to demonstrate that doing business online is the future. I found it interesting that E recording and Electronic Tax Payments share many similar issues. Consumer confidence and concern for security are just two of these. UniBank sited the popularity of ATM's as proof that the public has taken the "leap of faith" to the online world. I sat with my wife during the class. Of course, she elbowed me every time I whispered to her "we do that at the registry".
Of course, no trip to Amherst is complete without dropping in to the Jones Library. This historic library has two wonderful displays on former Amherst residents, poets Robert Frost and Emily Dickerson. I have been to the library before, but this trip was especially thrilling. On display was the original manuscript of Frost's poem "Stopping By A Wood On A Snowy Evening". Amazingly, the masterpiece is written on a lined piece of paper ripped out of a composition notebook. After staring at it for ten minutes the librarian asked me to move back before I fogged up the glass case. I was hooked. Now I had to find the house Frost lived in when he taught at Amherst College. Success...It is a beautiful Victorian located at 43 Sunset St (the perfect name for a poet's house). I slowly drove by it... I slowly drove by it again...I slowly drove by it for a third time. As I turned my car around for the fourth swing my wife (the tax collector) said "let me out...you are going to get arrested for stalking and I'm not going to jail with you. My reponse is best explained this way..."Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I took the one "MOST" traveled by"...I headed back to the hotel.

Welcome to New Readers

Welcome to the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds Blog. For those unfamiliar with the term, "blog" is short for web log, an online journal about a particular topic - in this case, the registry of deeds. Sometimes we write about specific things that happen here in Lowell but often we discuss items that will have an impact on everyone who is involved in the real estate business such as electronic recording, changes in state-wide registry policies and proposed legislation. But this is the registry of deeds, after all, so some days there are no startling new developments to report. That's when the blog ventures into other areas. If you're a first time reader, please take a few minutes to glance through the archives to get a sense of how this all works. And please, we'd like this to be a dialogue, not a monologue, so take advantage of the comment feature. The Internet works best when it's interactive. We look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, August 20, 2004

New Look for the Blog

We hope you enjoy the blog's new look. The changes aren't major: a new font for the type, a different appearance for the "archive" section, and a place for a title for each posting. The new website is almost complete, as well, but some fine tuning remains to be done. The roll out date will be sometime on Monday afternoon. If you subscribe to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, check out the edition that comes out on Monday. There's supposed to be an article on our blog. The reporter asked if I knew of any other registry that had a blog. I don't. If you do know of one (or of any other blog related to real estate that might interest our readers), please send me its name.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

New Website Design

We're redesigning our website. The visual appearance of the new version will be very different. The link to our database that most users employ to search for and retrieve documents will still have a prominent place, but the link will take you to the www.masslandrecords.com site. Once there, you just have to select Middlesex North from the drop down menu of counties and then you're in business. The reason for this change is that many of our users continue to have problems using the current link that brings you directly to our search page. There's something about the design of that link at the ACS end that just doesn't work for some computers (and since ACS hasn't figured out how to fix it in the past six months, there's little reason to think that they'll fix it in the future). The other big change is that the blog will now appear on the main page of the website. This should expose more readers to it and might make it more likely that more of you will use the blog comment feature. Other than that, we're trying to make the layout of the rest of the site more logical and easier to follow. If all goes well, the new website should be on the air by close of business tomorrow, so please check it out.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A Trip to Amherst, Massachusetts

Today I traveled to UMass Amherst to speak at the annual school of the Massachusetts Collectors and Treasurers Association. My class is called "The Collector and the Register of Deeds." The students in this year's class were particularly attentive given our early morning start time. I gave a PowerPoint presentation that showed how the registry's computers work now and how the electronic recording system will work. In my opinion, local tax collectors are prime candidates for electronic recording. They will be able to use Level 3 electronic recording which is a more sophisticated method than I've described in earlier blog entries (that's Level 2). Level 3 electronic recording means there's no paper document involved. Instead, the electronic recording system can be "mapped" to whatever software the tax collector's office uses to generate documents like tax takings. Using their own software, tax collectors will generate documents electronically and transmit them to the registry via the electronic recording system. At some point, paper copies may be produced, but it's not necessary.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

More on Electronic Recording

Electronic recording has the potential to revolutionize the way local attorneys do conveyancing. In a typical transaction today, the buyers, sellers, and brokers all meet at the lawyer's office, documents are signed, and someone brings the documents to be recorded to the registry of deeds. A final rundown is done and the documents go on record. Only then are the funds released. Then it's a long wait to recieve the original documents from the registry. Electronic recording will make this entire process much more efficient. The parties will still gather at the lawyer's office, but once the documents are signed, the lawyer and her staff can complete the entire transaction in a matter of minutes without ever leaving the office. First, they would use their own desktop scanner to create electronic images of the documents to be recorded. Next, information about those documents would be entered into a secure, web-based user interface. Then, the lawyer would do a quick rundown using the registry's website which is continuously updated with newly recorded documents. If the title remains free and clear, the lawyer simply clicks on the "send" button and the electronic package of document images and data zip across the Internet to a registry recording terminal. The registry clerk will verify the images to make sure they are legible, will verify that the data that has been entered (names and addresses, mostly) is accurate, and will click the "record" button. Those documents are now on record. The attorney will immediately receive via the Internet a receipt showing the time of recording, book and page number and recording fee of each document. The lawyer will also receive an electronic image of the recorded document complete with all recording information on it. Before the seller is done telling the buyer which day the garbage is collected, you're on record with a receipt and a copy of the recorded document. The originals have never left your custody. Maybe it's difficult to envision this without seeing the system in operation. We're working on some modifications to our website that will include a PowerPoint-type presentation on the new system. Stay tuned to the blog for more information on electronic recording.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Electronic Recording is almost here

Electronic recording is following an academic schedule - it took the summer off. We had a lot of activity back in May, thoroughly testing the system and demonstrating it for some potential users, but then things went on hold. Well summer vacation is just about over and electronic recording activity has resumed. We hope to have the system ready for regular, live recordings around the 1st of October. There are really two portions of the electronic recording system: the reception function and the submitter interface. When we purchased the ACS computer system several years ago, we paid for the electronic reception function as part of the overall purchase, so that's what we'll be using. We've tested it and it works very well. It will allow incoming electronic documents to merge seamlessly with paper documents recorded the traditional way. The ACS submitter interface is a different story. This is the Internet-based program that users will employ to send documents to the registry. The ACS model is a generic, nationwide one that will probably work very well for big mortgage companies that send us bunches of mortgages or discharges through the mail. In my opinion, however, the ACS submitter interface will be relatively difficult to use for the average Massachusetts conveyancing attorney. I'll try to state the basis of my opinion in coming blog entries. The good news is that ACS will not have a monopoly on the submitter side. Competing programs produced by other companies will also be able to submit documents electronically (just like your cell phone with Verizon service can communicate easily with my AT&T Wireless phone). With competition, the market will decide which system works best for Massachusetts users, and that's the way it should be. So if you know anyone who owns an Electronic Document Recording Company, have them give me a call. It might be a great business opportunity.

Friday, August 13, 2004

In other parts of the county, property taxes are assessed and collected by county government. Consequently we get a lot of calls each day from people seeking tax information about particular properties. Up until now, we've only been able to explain that the treasurer or tax collector for the town in which the property is located is the person with that information and suggest that the caller find the telephone number by dialing information. That doesn't seem particularly helpful, though, so we are compiling a list of the telephone number of the tax collector's office for every city and town in Massachusetts. We should have it done sometime next week and will post it on our website so that everyone will have access to it. On another topic, we're starting to replace some of the computers around the registry. Most of the ones we're using now were purchased back in 1999 with money that was available for Y2K preparations. While these machines seem to work fine, most people in the computer industry suggest replacing computers every two years - three at the most - due to rapid changes in technology. We've decided to start replacing a few of ours at a time so our entire inventory of machines doesn't become obsolete at the same time. Regarding the older machines, our users have been kind in not complaining about the appearance (and feel?) of the keyboards. The combination of oily residue from the many fingers that touch the keys and the dust and grit that's constantly in the air in this old building make for some grungy keyboards. We're going to make a determined effort to keep the keyboards and monitors cleaner than we have in the past. Maybe this is one reason all the new keyboard are black and not the traditional tan - the dirt doesn't show as much.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

If this year's budget permits will are considering scanning the 1131 remaining Recorded Land books. This would mean that all Record Land documents from 1855 (the year the registry opened) to present would be available to the public in an electronic format. The images will be accessible on the internet as well as the registry. The images will be retrieved by scanning archival microfilm of the books. The microfilm is 100' 35 mm, a medium which is no longer used. Even though we have the abililty to scan 35mm in-house, it is difficult and time consuming. We usually prefer to do work in-house, but in this case there is no question that it is cost effective to use an outside vendor. As with any conversion we expect a percentage of missing and bad images. In fact we are still finding them from the initial ACS conversion. This is not really unusual considering we have approximately 6 million images scanned.
If at any time you find a missing or bad image be sure to let us know. Feel free to call or email.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

A comparison of some document recording statistics from July 2003 with those from July 2004 shows the drastic decrease in the volume of recordings and helps explain why the registry is so deserted these days. The total number of documents recorded in July 2003 was 2983; in July 2004 there were only 1671, a 56% decrease. The number of mortgages recorded dropped proportionately, from 1010 in 2003 to 514 in 2004. But the number of deeds remained the same statistically. In 2003, 134 deeds were recorded while this past month, 140 went on record. What does this all mean? Housing sales remain strong, a condition that should continue so long as interest rates remain low. On the other hand, the days of refinancing a couple of times each year are long gone.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Today, August 9th is the anniversary of some major historical events. In 1854 Thoreau published "Walden" (way before my time, but of major significance); In 1945 the United States dropped an Atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki (I could never understand why people always talk about Hiroshima, be seldom about Nagasaki); In 1974 Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign (like the assassination of John Kennedy, I find that most people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of the resignation. Me? I was in a restaurant. The salad was good, the steak tough and being young and idealistic... the news was great.) When Thoreau published "Walden" there were no computers. When Nagasaki was bombed the personal computer was only a fanasty in someone's mind and when Nixon resigned computers couldn't display a single image. Today we talk about the memory capacity of the registry's computers in terbytes (1000 gigabytes) and display literally millions of images. History always makes us remember how much the world changes. This is even more the case when dealing with a department like the registry of deeds that relys on computers.
I can't even imagine how much our operation will change in the next ten years.

Friday, August 06, 2004

At least half the registry staff was fortunate to have put in for vacation days for this, the nicest day of the summer so far. With things so slow, those employees who did work handled today's business with ease. I filled in at the Customer Service Office which gave me a good sampling of the phone calls and the walk-in customers using the registry for the first time. Three things form the bulk of that business: Mortgage discharges (both missing ones and those in need of recording), declarations of homestead (we provide blank forms, notarize signatures and record the final product) and PLOT PLANS. Each day we must get a dozen inquiries seeking plot plans. It seems that every time someone decides to put up a fence, add a deck, or build an addition, the local building department must say something like "go to the registry of deeds and get a copy of your plot plan." Sadly, we can't help these folks. We just tell them that the plot plan doesn't get recorded and give them a free copy of their deed as sort of a consolation prize. Although there's probably many good reasons not to do this (just ask a surveyor, if you're curious about what they are), I think attorneys should start attaching copies of the plot plan to the deed (in a sale) or the mortgage (in a refinance). There'd be no extra charge and the plan would become part of our records, always available to the home owner for whatever reason. If you have any thoughts on this topic, please try our "comments" link just below.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Along with the new feature that ignores spaces and punctuation, some other changes were made to the website search program. Users can now search by document type, so if you are interested in retrieving all the deeds recorded for Westford for 2003, for example, you can do so over the Internet. Unfortunately, this new feature might just serve to illustrate the old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." In activating the new program, our computer company altered the way dates are recognized by the search program. Typically, they didn't tell us about this; we had to figure it out ourselves. As a result, the date range on our in-registry search is now more confusing and the ability to retrieve plans over the Internet was completely eliminated until we figured out what was going on. None of you users should be unduly concerned about this; it's more of an irritant than a major problem. Still, I find it very frustrating. Maybe I'll document this experience in a case study that I'll distribute the next time someone says "why not add this new thing to the computer system?" The reason why is that everytime you change something, the change causes multiple unintended problems that dwarf whatever good thing you were seeking in the first place. If you ever have to design a registry of deeds computer system, never forget the KISS principal - "Keep It Simple, Stupid."

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Older index books are becoming a real problem for us. Because they're constantly in use, they have been seriously beaten up with pages curled, torn, and unattached from whatever remains of the binding of the book. Our computerized index only goes back to 1976 (document images go back to 1950), so if you want to search someone's name in either the Grantor or Grantee Index prior to 1976, you must come to the registry and handle one of these rapidly disintegrating books. Putting more of the index onto the computer system is a huge task. Back in 1996, we had ten employees devote all of their time for 15 months to such a data entry project. They added just ten years (1976-86). We no longer have the personnel resources to accomplish such a project and having an outside vendor do it is unaffordable. We are experimenting with a program that uses the electronic images of the actual index pages. This system would work much like the books do. Instead of entering a specific name in a computerized database, this system would allow you to jump to the page that began with a particular name and then view that entire page for the information you seek. You would then copy the book and page of the document you wish to view, shift to the standard computer program, and pull up that document by its book and page number. We will keep you informed of our plans and ideas about this problem. As always, we welcome all suggestions and comments.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The amount of the exemption provided by the Declaration of Homestead is being raised to $500,000. Chapter 218 of the Acts of 2004 was signed into law last week, but with the 90 day waiting period, the change does not become law until October 26, 2004. This amendment increases the exemption provided by both General Laws chapter 188, section 1 and chapter 188, section 1A (the so called "homestead for the elderly and disabled"). All existing homesteads will have the benefit of this increase, except when there is an intervening lien recorded. For example, if you record a homestead today with its $300,000 exemption, then have an attachment recorded against you tomorrow, the attachment will stay behind the $300,000 exemption and would not benefit from the increase. How the homestead operates is a complicated concept. I like to compare it to having a dog in your house: if an intruder wants to get in, he will, but more likely, when he hears the dog barking, he'll move to an easier target. Similarly, if a creditor finds a homestead on a property owned by a debtor, there might be a way for the creditor to bypass or pierce the homestead, but chances are the creditor won't spend a lot of time and effort trying to grab that property but will move onto another one that's not similarly protected.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Today ACS activated a new version of their "search program" on both our public and administrative computer terminals. This new program ignores spaces and special characters. Examples: If you search A B C Realty Trust (with spaces) you will now get the same results as searching ABC Realty Trust (no spaces) If you search O'Donald (apostrophe) you now get the same results as ODonald. We tested the new version extensively before installing it for official use. Obviously, the testing went fine. This is a significant improvement to the search program. It will make the system easier to use for both experienced and new users. An ACS representative has been assigned to the registry all day to monitor the new program.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

We had a busy day at the Registry of Deeds on Friday (July 30), recording more than 800 documents. Numbers like that were routine last summer, but this year, we're often lucky to break 300 documents in a day. A couple of things combined to cause this unusual spike in our volume. It was a Friday and the last work day of the month (which is almost always the busiest day of the month). The Democratic Convention probably played a role, too. During the rest of the week, Monday to Thursday, the registry was deserted, suggesting that many avoided scheduling anything during the convention. One thing that did not contribute to the increase was signs of new life in the refinancing market. That's just not happening, although sales continue to be strong. On another note, the records search portion of our website was down for part of this weekend. This happens more often than it should. Our provider, ACS, just can't seem to figure out what causes these periodic outages of the website. While I appreciate your patience, I need your help. As soon as you detect an outage with the website, please send me an email. I'll use your emails as evidence to try to force better service (or maybe a more reliable service provider).