Friday, January 29, 2010

Annual Report of Middlesex North Registry of Deeds

The 2009 Annual Report of the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds is complete and online. This document provides statistics for revenue collected by the registry, the number of documents recorded, trends in home sales, refinancings and foreclosures for the district and for each of the ten communities in the district, along with a variety of other information of interest to anyone in the real estate field.

The report is available in PDF form here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More refinancing predicted in State of Union Address

I watched the President’s State of the Union Address to Congress last night. Sandwiched between the passages on education reform and health care reform – two controversial and attention grabbing topics – was this passage that might be of interest to real estate professionals:

Now, the price of college tuition is just one of the burdens facing the middle class. That's why last year I asked Vice President Biden to chair a task force on middle-class families. That's why we're nearly doubling the child care tax credit, and making it easier to save for retirement by giving access to every worker a retirement account and expanding the tax credit for those who start a nest egg. That's why we're working to lift the value of a family's single largest investment –- their home. The steps we took last year to shore up the housing market have allowed millions of Americans to take out new loans and save an average of $1,500 on mortgage payments.

This year, we will step up refinancing so that homeowners can move into more affordable mortgages. (Applause.) And it is precisely to relieve the burden on middle-class families that we still need health insurance reform. (Applause.) Yes, we do. (Applause.)

I’m not sure what the President intends to do to “step up refinancing” but it was a proposal that certainly sounded good to me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple Tablet ...A Sneak Preview?

In the next five hours Apple is expected to unveil its new tablet computer. Wired, a very respected source of technology information, posted the photos and text below on its website early this morning.

Is it real? You decided...

These photos purportedly show the Apple Tablet, locked down in a security frame. They were sent by an undisclosed source to Engadget, and, to my eye at least, appear to be the real thing.

The screen looks to be around 9 or 10 inches and looks pretty much like what we expected: a big iPhone. The home button at the bottom says to us that this is all about books and magazines, and less about movies (although when you’re watching a movie in landscape format, you don’t do much button pressing). Another cutout at the top of the security frame suggests either another home button (unlikely) or a camera.

We can see from the screen that there is Wi-Fi on board, and the “No Service” message points to a data connection, although it doesn’t reveal the carrier. Another source tells Engadget that the back of the device will be aluminum, like the MacBook Pro, and that ” pricing will run $800 on contract with Verizon and $1000 without when it arrives in March”. This tallies with what we have already heard.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Walking away from a mortgage

Over the weekend a University of Chicago economist named Richard Thaler wrote a column in the business section of the New York Times in which he argued that more homeowners who are under water with their mortgages (i.e., they owe more on the mortgage than the house is worth) should just walk away and allow the lender to foreclose rather than continuing to make payments on the debt. In the big picture, such “strategic defaults” would get the attention of lenders and force them to be serious about negotiating loan modifications. For individual homeowners, monthly rental payments for comparable properties would be far more affordable than the monthly mortgage payments they continue to make. Over a ten-year period, reducing housing costs in this manner could save individuals tens of thousands of dollars, more than offsetting the disruption of moving, the social stigma of defaulting, and the exposure to a deficiency lawsuit.

Thaler doubts that many Americans will choose this course of action. They have been conditioned to see such purposeful defaults as immoral, even though businesses routinely follow such paths with little if any criticism. But social norms change, so if walking away from an onerous mortgage becomes more common, it will quickly become an acceptable course of conduct to most Americans.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Save the Date

Save the date…January 27, 2010.
Well, Apple Computer has scheduled a biggggg event to make a biggggg announcement this Wednesday, January 27...and Apple Exec’s are promising it won't disappoint.
In typical Apple fashion the event is surrounded by secrecy.
Last week Apple sent invitations to journalist to “come see our latest creation”.
"Our latest creation"? Now that offers many possibilities. Could it be a new iPhone? a new iPod? a Steve Jobs health report? Maybe, but Apple is not telling, not until Wednesday, anyway.
Most experts think Apple will use the event to announce a new Tablet Computer.
I agree...
For months I have been reading articles speculating that Apple is going to enter the tablet computer market, so it makes sense that "our latest creation" refers to a tablet.
Rumor has it, the new tablet will be only 10” in size. Many are describing it as a sort of big iPod Touch. The larger screen will allow the device to run more diverse Apps than the iTouch. If true this would make it immensely popular.
So save the date...January 27
Like with all Apple announcements we'll wait with bated breath.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Real Estate Trends from 2009

The following is an article I wrote for the January 2010 issue of the Merrimack Valley Housing Report. The January report also contains an article by Dave Turcotte with his real estate predictions for 2010 was well as statistics for the Merrimack Valley cities of Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell and Methuen. The webpage of the Housing Report is located here.

When it comes to tracking real estate activity, the registry of deeds provides a unique vantage point. Our data is not comprehensive – we lack information regarding the use of properties – but by counting and comparing the number and type of documents recorded, we are able to observe and comment on trends.

The 65,383 documents recorded in 2009 was the second lowest annual total in the previous fourteen years. The good news is that the number of documents recorded in 2009 was 18% higher than the 56,011 recorded in 2008 which could suggest that things are improving if only slightly. The amount of revenue the registry collected in recording fees tends to corroborate this observation. In 2008, recording fees accounted for $4.5 million in revenue, but in 2009, they accounted for $5.3 million, an increase of 18%. Another positive sign may be found in the number of mortgages recorded. The 14,519 recorded in 2009 represented a 31% increase over the 11,108 recorded in 2008.

Unfortunately, some negative indicators force us to restrain our optimism. The core of the mortgage market’s strength, for example, occurred in April through August with the volume receded significantly in the fall and early winter. While the number of foreclosure deeds recorded in 2009 was down 33% from 2008, the foreclosure deeds recorded in the second half of 2009 exceeded those recorded in the first half by 24%. The increase in orders of notice – the document that commences foreclosure proceedings - was even more dramatic, rising from 216 recorded in the first half of 2009 to 536 in the second half, a jump of 148%. Another negative indicator is a decline in collections of the deeds excise tax, a tax assessed at a rate of $2.28 per $500 of sales price. The $5.1 million in deeds excise collected in 2009 was a drop of 19% from the $6.3 million of 2008. Because there was essentially no change in the number of deeds recorded (5,409 in 2008 versus 5,434 in 2009), this indicates that sales prices have dropped markedly. While such a decline might be a necessary part of a post-bubble correction, it also means that many homeowners who bought or refinanced during the boom will continue to owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth, a circumstance bound to keep the volume of foreclosures high during 2010.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reminder: Satellite Office to close tomorrow

The Middlesex South satellite recording office will close at the end of the day tomorrow. This office was established in the summer of 2003 to assist with the tremendous volume of recordings being done at that time. This past June, because of the availability of electronic recording and because of resource reductions related to the economic crisis, Middlesex North ceased operating the satellite office. At that time, personnel from the Secretary of State's office began staffing the satellite office, but that was only to bridge the time needed to get electronic recording fully operational in Cambridge. Since that has now happened, the satellite office will be closing completely and that will happen at 3 pm tomorrow. From then on, any Middlesex South recordings will have to be done in Cambridge or by electronic recording. In a related development, the satellite office for Middlesex North that has been operated at the registry of deeds in Cambridge will close tomorrow as well.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I Need An App For That

I own an iPhone…I love it, but recently I’ve become a little disappointed, not in the Apple phone, but in the Apps they sell for it.
We’ve all seen the commercial bragging that the iPhone has 100,00 Apps and the announcer saying…“want to know how much to tip your waitress? There’s an App for that”.

OK, that’s great, but there are several things I would love to have an App for, but there isn’t one.

For instance...

On nights when the dishwasher is clean and full, I would love to be able to time my arrival home so my wife gets there first and empties it before I arrive...but there is No App for that.

When Tom Brady goes back to pass and a huge tight end is closing in on him I would like to be able to warn him...but there's No App for that.

My toaster has several cook settings, but none of them work and I hate dark toast. I need something that says, “hey Tony, your toast is golden”...but there's No App for that.

I love wind up clocks. I own five of them. The problem with wind up clocks is they need to be rewound every seven days...but there's No App for that.

I’m a barbecue food freak. I don’t mean Texas style. I’m more a hot dog, hamburger type guy. Every time I light my grill, I wonder, do I have enough propane...but there's No App for that.

When the New York Yankees come to Boston and sweep the Red Sox I need something to cheer me up...but there's No App for that.

Finally, sometimes coming up with fresh, new blog ideas is very difficult. I would love help...but there's No App for that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Revenue collected in 2009

The registry of deed has long been a source of revenue for the state, with the amount of money collected in fees and excise tax far exceeding the cost of operating the office. The are five different sources of revenue at the registry. There are:
  • Recording fees
  • Copies of documents & plans
  • Excise Tax ($2.28 per $500 of sales price)
  • Community Preservation Act surcharge ($20 per document to fund the state's matching payments to communities that take advantage of the CPA)
  • Registry Technology surcharge (a $5 per document surcharge to be used for technology at registries of deeds).
During 2009, the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds collected a total of $12,086,526 which is an impressive amount although it's dwarfed by the $26,091,151 that was collected back in 2003. Here's a look at revenue collected through most of this decade:
  • 2002 - $12,884,530
  • 2003 - $26,091,151
  • 2004 - $21,675,601
  • 2005 - $21,982,684
  • 2006 - $17,461,208
  • 2007 - $16,328,979
  • 2008 - $12,191,884
  • 2009 - $12,086,526

Friday, January 15, 2010

A review of efforts to present old indexes

How to present older indexes to off-site users has been a decade-long challenge for us that’s yet to be resolved. Middlesex North had installed its first Wang computer in 1987, so that’s where the searchable computerized index began. It was obviously desirable to add older data to the system. Eventually, registry employees began a project called “the ten year index” in which they photocopied the pages of the 1976-1986 grantor and grantee indexes, and keyed the contents of those pages into the Wang database. When I arrived in 1995, only a small dent had been made in the project, so we reinforced the staff working on the project, raising that number to ten employees, but even with the extra help it still took 14 months to enter 10 years of data. Because of the large commitment of resources that had been required to finish that job, we began looking for more efficient ways to achieve a similar result.

An alternative approach unexpectedly emerged from disaster recovery planning we undertook in preparation of Y2K. We had just purchased a microfilm scanner that would capture the image from a frame of microfilm and convert it to a digital image on the computer. After we had purchased the machine, which we intended to use to scan our older record books, we grew concerned about our ability to recreate the paper grantor and grantee indexes if they were destroyed in a disaster. Fortunately, all of our indexes were backed up on microfilm just the same as our record books. Using our new microfilm scanner, we were able to capture digital images of every page of every index. Although the project took several months to complete, we still ended up with a full digital copy of all grantor and grantee indexes.

The next challenge was deciding how to present these scanned index images to our users in a practical way. Eventually we settled on bundling images together alphabetically in separate PDF files. This worked very well; it was just like having the actual index book in front of you. The problem was that the individual files were so big (many close to 1 GB) that we could not make them available on our website although they worked fine here in the registry where we could make them available on our network. To make the files available off-site, we offered them to users on CDs, but the full set required 16 CDs, which was an unwieldy number.

Advances in technology soon came to our assistance. Small, pocket-portable flash drives/thumb drives soon affordably grew to 16 GB capacity which is plenty to hold all of these indexes. For a year, now, we have allowed customers to bring as a 16 GB drive and we’ll copy the data to it at no charge. That service is still available to customers.

Our latest method of distributing these PDF files is still in the theoretical stage, but it’s a good time to describe it. Have you ever purchased software for download? You click through a few buttons and suddenly a new window opens and some icon-alert shows files being downloaded to your computer. We’re going to try to duplicate this method by putting our PDF index files on a server that will download the files on command. If we’re successful in setting this up, anyone with an internet connection will be able to download a full copy of the registry’s 1630 to 1975 grantor/grantee index to a home computer. In the meantime, we’ve resumed “back indexing” by using our employees to key data from older documents into the computer. We usually have 3 people per day working on the project and as of now, we’re back to 1971.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Legal Holidays for 2010

With the Martin Luther King Day holiday almost upon us (the registry is closed this coming Monday, January 18th), I thought it might be helpful to list the other days we will be closed during the coming year:
  • January 1 (Friday) - New Year's Day
  • January 18 (Monday) - Martin Luther King Day
  • February 15 (Monday) - Presidents' Day
  • April 19 (Monday) - Patriots' Day
  • May 31 (Monday) - Memorial Day
  • July 5 (Monday) - Independence Day
  • September 6 (Monday) - Labor Day
  • October 11 (Monday) - Columbus Day
  • November 11 (Thursday) - Veterans Day
  • November 25 (Thursday) - Thanksgiving Day
This year, Christmas falls on a Saturday, but the registry will be open both on Friday (December 24) and on Monday (December 27). It's only when a holiday falls on a Sunday that the office would be closed (which is the case in July with Independence Day this year).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Elevator Update

Yesterday, I attended a meeting concerning the construction on the new elevator at the Middlesex Superior Courthouse in Lowell. I attended mainly as an observer. The primary participants were the construction company Aberthaw, the architect LIEB and representatives from the state's Department of Capital Management (DCAM). The elevator will be located on the exterior of the building facing Elm Street. I have seen an artist rendering, but not the actual plans of the structure. The project start date depends mainly on the delivery of some specialized supplies. James Alley, President of Aberthaw said he expects to begin construction sometime in the middle of March. The contract specifies that the contractor complete the job by November 20, 2010. During the work all functions in the Superior Courthouse and Registry of Deeds will continue uninterrupted. To ensure this, the contractor has agreed to work between the hours of 6PM and 4AM.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The latest on National Lumber

You will recall that the Massachusetts Appeals Court several years ago issued a decision regarding priority of recording commonly called the National Lumber case. Simply put, the ruling held that a document is deemed to be recorded when it is received by the registry of deeds as opposed to when the registry actually records it. For example, a lien delivered to the registry by UPS at 9 am but not recorded until 10 am would have priority over a deed recorded at 9:15 am even though information about the lien would never get into the registry’s index until well after the deed was recorded.

In response to National Lumber, the Massachusetts Registers of Deeds Association filed a bill in the state legislature to clarify the point at which a document is deemed to be recorded. The registers’ bill (Senate 1861) states “No deed or instrument shall be considered to have been received by the Register or left for record until said deed or instrument has been approved for recording by the register and an instrument number or document number or book and page has been assigned to said deed or instrument.”

The Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts (REBA) filed its own version of this bill (House 3773) which states as follows:

Section 14. Each register shall keep a record, in book or electronic form, into
which the register shall enter recording information for all instruments
accepted for record, in the order in which they are received. Prior to accepting
an instrument for record, the register shall approve the instrument by
determining that it meets minimum statutory recording requirements. Rejected
instruments shall be promptly returned. Upon acceptance of an instrument, the
following information shall be entered into the record: the day, hour and minute
when the register assigns an instrument number, and/or book and page number as
the case may be; the instrument number and/or book and page number so assigned;
the names of the grantors and grantees in the instrument; the city or town in
which the land lies; the name of the person to whom the original instrument will
be returned after being recorded, and the fees received therefor.

No instrument shall be considered to have been recorded, until the
register approves the instrument for recording and assigns to the instrument an
instrument number, and/or book and
page number as the case may be. In order
to provide for the orderly recording of instruments that are delivered or
otherwise transmitted to a registry district, including by mail or electronic
means, the secretary of the commonwealth may, by rule, regulation or guideline,
establish a uniform practice for determining the order of receipt by the

The record maintained by the register shall be open to
public inspection during registry business hours. Any change or correction to
said record shall be documented in such a manner that the fact that there has
been a correction, and the nature and date of the correction, shall become part
of the record.

Today in Worcester representatives of REBA met with many of the registers of deeds in an effort to reconcile the two versions of the bill. After much informative debate, the parties agreed to each create a small sub-committee to continue the discussions.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bitter Monday

It is a bitter Monday considering the extreme cold and the embarrassing beating the Ravens gave our beloved New England Patriots. This morning FOX Sports on MSN ran an article titled "Playoff Loss May Signal End of Patriots Run". It hurts to read it, but it rings of truth.

Here are some reader's comments posted at the end of the article.

WARNING: Contents may be hazardous to your mental health!

Comment 1:Moss looks done, he doesn't want to play anymore. Wouldn't have even known he was in the game. But then again, the ball has to be thrown SOMEWHERE near him. LOL!

Comment 2: I think this season was a reality check for Bill Belichick he seems to be of the view that its all about his "schemes" and all he needs is a few pawns plus Brady to Bill you also need bishops.

Comment 3: This year's edition of the Pats was missing something all year and anyone who has followed this team long enough could see it as well...

Comment 4:I do not wanna hear "IF WELKER PLAYED" then it would be different....that is complete bull. The Ravens had their number 2 and 3 best CB's on the IR...just admit the ravens are better...

Comment 5: The difference between this year and the previous years is that Belichick's cheating couldn't help them anymore! The Patriots soared in the era of the helmet headphone and Belichick's deliberate cheating. Once that ended, so did the Patriots...

Comment 6: The proof that Brady is a system QB is becoming very apparent. He is a product of the "team" if the team collapses, so does he. Matt Cassel is proof of this. He stepped into the system last year after not starting a football game since high school and was able to put up very good numbers( 4000 yards passing), and almost got the Pats in the playoffs.

And this final comment that will hopefully make you feel better...
Tom Brady coming off a full year of not playing, wins the AFC East, has his second best year statistically and wins the comeback player of the year award. This is all without Bruschi, Vrabel, Seymour, Harrison and the last game without Welker. They have a nice young team with some very talented players. They have great picks in the upcoming draft. I see a team in rebuilding, with a great foundation. Most teams drop to the bottom of the Division while rebuilding. I look at this as a great season and I only see the Patriots getting better from this point forward.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Computer system "search logic"

A recent email from someone with a busy real estate practice asked about the “search logic” of the computer system in use here at the registry of deeds. Our system searches for whatever you enter in a field plus anything additional in that field. For example, if you enter in the last name field XYZ CORP, you would find any entries indexed as XYZ CORP or XYZ CORPORATION. You would not find XYZ, however, because by including CORP in your query, you have excluded any entries that do not contain CORP. My advice is to always put the minimum information in your initial search. If the response to your query returns hundreds of documents, then you can refine your query and narrow the response set. But by making your query too specific, you risk excluding something that is relevant to your search.

Understanding this is particularly important when it comes to addresses. When I do an address search, I never use ST or AVE or STREET or AVENUE in the search - just the name of the street. And the street number is tricky, as well, because many properties, particularly multifamily homes, have several street numbers. Thus, a three-family home might be known as 15 SOUTH ST or 15-17 SOUTH ST or 15-19 SOUTH ST. Searching for “15” would not return either “15-17” or “15-19”. In such cases, you should just search by the street name and then scroll through the results looking for ones that might be your property.

The most troubling stories involve people doing pre-recording rundowns by property owner name, but restricting the search by a specific town. Let’s say you’re doing a rundown for a house in Lowell owned by James Jones. If you enter JONES and JAMES and LOWELL in the applicable fields, you will receive any records that contain those three words. The problem is that most liens - Federal and State tax liens and all attachments - encumber all of the debtor’s property, not just a specific parcel. Consequently, in the Town field of our index, the registry enters NONE. In the above example, by limiting the search to records that contain LOWELL in the town field, the searcher has excluded any liens or other documents indexed with NONE in the town field.

In closing, the logic of our computer search is quite simple: it looks for exactly what you enter in your query plus everything that begins with what you enter in your query. If you make your query too narrow, you risk excluding something that might be important to you.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Million Dollar Deeds

Last year I wrote that during 2008, 71 deeds and 4 foreclosure deeds with consideration of $1 million or more had been recorded at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds. Perhaps reflective of the lagging economy, that number is down 45% this years with 44 deeds and 1 foreclosure deed with $1+ consideration. Here’s the breakdown by town, showing first the number of million dollar deeds recorded in 2008 followed by the number recorded in 2009:

TOWN – 2008 – 2009
Billerica – 10 – 4
Carlisle – 17 – 17
Chelmsford – 5 – 5
Dracut – 2 – 0
Dunstable – 0 – 0
Lowell – 13 – 7
Tewksbury – 9 – 8
Tyngsborough – 1 – 0
Westford – 12 – 3
Wilmington – 4 – 2

The five biggest sales money-wise were

  1. $23 million for the Lowe’s property in Lowell (it was transferred from one entity to another)
  2. $16 million for 2000 Emerald Court in Tewksbury (Tewksbury Assisted Living to NTAL Property LLC)
  3. $15 million for the Doubletree Hotel in Lowell to UML as the Inn & Conference Center
  4. $10 million in Tewksbury for 100-200 Ames Pond Drive (to Ames Pond Drive LLC)
  5. $9 million in Wilmington for 234 Ballardvale St (between entities with names like RREEF America REIT)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Elevator and Accessible Ramp

There is a meeting on Tuesday at the Lowell Superior Courthouse regarding the installation of an elevator. The new elevator will be constructed on the outside of the Elm Street side of the building. The pictures below illustrate the path the Accessible Ramp will take from the side of the building to the entrance into the Registry of Deeds.

Entrance where new elevator will be located

A hole will be cut in this wall

This door will be removed for access to a hallway

The Accessible Ramp will continue down this hallway

Next...Ramp continues through this doorway

Ramp enters the Registry of Deeds here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Instrument Numbers

When we presented his packet of already recorded and scanned documents back to the first customer of the day yesterday, he asked if there was a problem with our numbering system because his documents had been assigned instrument numbers 1, 2 and 3. While the customer’s confusion was understandable, there was no mistake. For the last fifty years, at least, instrument numbers have “rolled over” with the first of the year. I assume that the numbers roll over because with tens of thousands of documents each year, sequential numbers would soon get unwieldy, taking seven or more spaces for a single instrument number. The current system is not without its faults. To retrieve a document by instrument number also requires the year the document was recorded. Having to enter two pieces of information make it just as easy to retrieve a document by its book and page number.

The reason we have instrument numbers in the first place is because all of the recording systems prior to our present one (which was installed in 2002) did not assign a book and page number to a newly recorded document until well after the customer’s role in the transaction was complete. In pre-computer times there was much shuffling of documents to reach the maximum number of pages that were placed in each book, so the book and page number was assigned long after the actual recording took place. Our current computer system assigns the book and page number and the instrument number simultaneously, so we could conceivably dispense with the instrument number. However, we keep it for several reasons. Many systems that have long been in place and continue to have utility require the instrument number. By keeping it, we ensure a type of backwards compatibility. Also, people often make mistakes when copying a book and page number so the instrument number gives us a second means of identifying a document which is useful when a mistake occurs with the book and page system.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Browser Wars

There is a war going on out there…and we are the spoils. The battle rages with weapons designed to build, not destroy…build a loyal following that is. The war is for supremacy in the Internet browser world. First some history…way back in the days of yore there was an earlier browser war. Microsoft Internet Explore and Netscape battled it out in the first browser war. Explore crushed Netscape, but the victory resulted in a federal lawsuit filed against Microsoft that seriously tarnished its image. For years after the collapse of Netscape Internet Explorer reigned unchallenged, only Apple’s Safari held any sizable share of the Internet users. Then in 2004 Morzilla’s released its Open Source browser called FireFox. FireFox quickly gained a small but dedicated following (including me). That small following has now increased to “mid-size” at the expense of Internet Explore. And now a new combatant has joined the war…it is named Chrome. In 2008 Internet search giant Google released Chrome hoping its vast financial resources would make it an instant challenger to Explorer and especially Firefox. It didn’t…but Chrome is on its way up also.

As we begin 2010 here are the numbers (user percentages) in the browser battles:

Internet Explorer - 62.6%
FireFox - 24.6%
Chrome - 4.6%
Safari - 4.4%
Other - 3.6%