Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Water, Work and Computers

The first three pictures below show the security wall being constructed in the basement of the Registry of Deeds. The new room will be used to store equipment and as a computer lab. We used a semi-solid wall structure to allow light and air to infiltrate into the room. (Click pictures to enlarge)

The pictures below show water seepage (again) in two areas of the basement, including the new computer security room. To prevent damage we store all equipment in this room a minimum of eight inches off the floor. As the water flowed on the floor, construction workers continued to build the wall as custodial employees vacuumed the water.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New mapping project

Along with almost 10 million pages of document images, through the years, this office has recorded close to 30,000 subdivision plans. All of these have been scanned and are available for viewing at the registry and online, but the index that we maintain for finding relevant plans leaves much to be desired. When we record a new plan, we do enter the property owner's name if it is stated (it doesn't have to be) and any street names shown on the plan. Adding the streets is helpful, but if it's a long one, like "Chelmsford Street", there might be close to 100 plans that would be presented in answer to any search for that street.

The surest way to find a plan is by having its "plan book and page" numbers. (Whenever a plan is recorded, it is assigned such ID numbers). Since the property description of most deeds contain the plan book and page number of the plan that shows the lot covered by the deed, that's the way most folks find plan references. But many times there is not an exact reference even though a plan may be mentioned.

In trying to find ways to make it easier to find plans relevant to your parcel, I thought that if we could use an application like Google maps and then position each of our plans as a transparent overlay on top of the portion of the Google map depicted on the plan, it would be very easy for people to find their parcel on the Google map and immediately see which if any subdivision plans existed for that locus. Simple pop-up text boxes could easily display information about the plan and perhaps even the scanned image of the plan itself.

We're just in the exploratory phase now and some technological roadblocks may arise, but I wanted to get the concept out there and see what you thought about it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March statistics to-date show RE slow down

I usually wait until the end of the month to compare recording statistics with those from a year ago, but with turbulent times in the economy and in real estate in particular, I thought today would present a good opportunity for a preview of coming attractions. Unfortunately, it doesn't look good.

When we compare recordings from March 1 to March 28 for 2009 and 2010, we find that in 2009, the total number of documents recorded was 5175 while in 2010 it dropped to 3841. The number of deeds and mortgages dropped, as well, from 373 to 312 for deeds and from 1212 to 707 for mortgages. The only thing that's up are documents related to foreclosures. The number of orders of notice rose from 40 in 2009 to 95 in 2010 and the number of foreclosure deeds jumped from 31 in 2009 to 50 in 2010.

Check back on Thursday for the full month's stats. Hopefully, there'll be a surge in deeds and mortgages over the next three days to even out these numbers a bit.

Friday, March 26, 2010

New Foreclosure Reduction Plan

The New York Times is reporting that the Obama administration is announcing a new program to reduce the number of foreclosures across America. The plan has a number of components, but the most important of them will help reduce the amount of principal owed on homes that are "underwater" to an amount more in line with the fair market value of the property. As much as this may seem unfair to homeowners who have been able to remain current on their own mortgages, cleaning up the inventory of underwater homes is essential to reviving the housing market. The theory is that the lender will lose less money by reducing the mortgage principal than by foreclosing and reselling on the open market.

This scenario was perfectly illustrated by a deed that was recorded earlier today for a Lowell condominium unit. The homeowners purchased the unit in October 2007 for $200,000, financing the purchase with a $190,000 mortgage. The lender foreclosed in December 2008, bidding $170,000 at the auction. This past year, the city of Lowell assessed the unit at $158,000. Today, the unit sold for $78,000.

Until the amounts on these types of properties get knocked down, either through principal reductions or more rapid foreclosures, real estate will remain stagnant.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Visit to Chelmsford Town Hall

I stopped by Chelmsford Town Hall this morning to get an update on some of the great things the town's engineering department is doing with GIS (which stands for Geographic Information System). With GIS, a town can integrate records from almost every department to provide "one-stop shopping" for land related information.

More than ten years ago we first got interested in GIS but the technology and the electronic infrastructure was insufficient to do anything meaningful. But now, the cost has gone down and the capacity has gone up so we'll be revisiting GIS as a part of the registry. The first project I envision is converting copies of all of our subdivision plans into transparent digital overlays and then attaching them to a map of the area (of the Google maps variety). Once finished, if you were looking for a subdivision plan about a particular point on the ground, you could simply find that point on the computerized map and the subdivision plan overlays would show you which subdivision plans covered that particular lot. This is still just in the idea stage, but it certainly seems feasible.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

y i not a

According to Wired Magazine for the past few months Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been answering customer emails, himself. Of course, he is not answering all customer emails, just some, well maybe several, or a few anyway. Wired says he has answered at least one.
i have to give Steve Jobs credit...This is a great PR move, and the billionaire is using his iPad to answer the mail.

What an opportunity i thought...Here is a chance to communicate directly with the man who created a technological revolution.

Today i am drafting my own email to Jobs in hope that i too might get a response...

Here is the first draft...

Hi Steve,
i have a question i need to ask...Steve, where did u get this lower case "i" thing u r using before the name of your products. Granted, its cool, but what does it mean.

Obviously, the "i" has some significance for u... iPod, iPhone, iTunes and now iPad. All named with an "i".

And your small "i" success has spawned many imitators... iHome, iTheather, iGoogle, iMobile and it goes on.

Steve, bear with me, but I never understood y u didn't use a lower case "a" instead "i"?... then people would listen to their music on "aPod" (get it "a" Pod). And people would talk on "aPhone"...
Come on Steve, admit it, it makes more sense, doesn't it? "a" is an article and belongs before a noun, "i" is a pronoun.
i know u are a busy man, but can u explain y u used "i" and not "a".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Homesteads and Mortgages

For years, homeowners have asked whether they need to file a new homestead after refinancing and recording a new mortgage. Our answer has typically been “we don’t know” since we believed the law to be silent on this issue. Absent any clear statutory guideline, our logic has worked as follows: Since a subsequent deed dissolves an existing homestead and since a mortgage is a type of deed, a new mortgage should dissolve an existing homestead. But many lawyers respond to that formulation by saying that no, a mortgage is not a deed; it’s a security interest and unless the homeowner signed something that expressly released the homestead, the new mortgage should have no impact.

Recently, however, someone directed me to Massachusetts General Laws chapter 188, section 6 (“Property subject to prior mortgage”) which states as follows:

Section 6. Property which is subject to a mortgage executed before an estate of homestead was acquired therein, or executed afterward and containing a release thereof, shall be subject to an estate of homestead, except as against the mortgagee and those claiming under him, in the same manner as if there were no such mortgage. If the owner of the equity in such property redeems the mortgage, he shall not be allowed to claim under it against the owner of the estate of homestead, his or her surviving spouse, heirs or assigns; but if said owner of the estate of homestead, his or her surviving spouse, heirs or assigns offers to redeem the residue above the homestead estate and the mortgage from a sale or set-off on execution and the judgment creditor has redeemed the mortgage, the amount paid for such redemption of the mortgage, with interest and expenses, shall be included in the amount to be paid for the redemption of said residue.

There doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity in that first sentence – “Property which is subject to a mortgage executed before an estate of homestead was acquired therein, or executed afterward and containing a release thereof, shall be subject to an estate of homestead, except as against the mortgagee and those claiming under him, in the same manner as if there were no such mortgage.” Does anyone read it differently?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Wilmington Board of Selectmen

The Wilmington Board of Selectmen generously invited Register Richard Howe and I to make a presentation to the board tonight.The meeting begins at 7:PM in the Wilmington Town Hall. Register Howe will talk about projects currently going on at the registry and goals and plans for the future. Once Dick finishes I will explain the process the registry uses to create Assessors Reports with CD's of the images.

The handout on real estate activity in Wilmington that will be distributed at the meeting is available here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Recording Handbook: Please suggest topics

How do you calculate tax stamps due on a deed in lieu of foreclosure? What is needed to record a document written in a foreign language? What other issues of these types arise at the recording counter? The Massachusetts Deeds Indexing Standards have existed for ten years and are intended to create a uniform set of rules for recording documents throughout the state. While some questions have been raised about the consistency of compliance by scattered registries, the standards themselves do take us a long way towards standardization. But what of the things that have not yet made it into the standards, like the two examples I cite above? What's the preferred way of handling them. Over time, I've developed a list of such items and how we respond to them, striving for uniformity within this one office, at least. It occurs to me that in the absence of anything more formal such as an expanded version of the Deeds Indexing Standards, a locally produced document that identifies these situations and describes our response to them and our reasoning for that response might be helpful. I'll report on the progress of this project here as it develops. In the meantime, if you have any suggestion for items that should be included, please send them to me by email.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Green Energy session in Lowell tonight

Tonight at 6 pm at Lowell City Hall (375 Merrimack Street) in the Mayor's Reception Room there will be a free and open-to-the-public information session on the Massachusetts "Stretch Code" which is an appendix to the state building code that allows cities and towns the option of implementing enhanced energy efficiency standards. Tonight's event is co-hosted by Lowell's Green Building Commission and by ICF International, a green energy consulting company that's working in partnership with the city. While a good portion of tonight's discussion will be for the benefit of those in the building and design fields (architects, building inspectors, etc), concerned citizens will also find much of interest including information about financial incentives of up to $42,000 offered by National Grid for "deep energy retrofit" projects.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Today is the third consecutive day the basement of the registry of deeds has been flooded. The courthouse custodial staff has spent hours vacuuming the water. This morning the clean up continues, and probably will go on for most of the day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

International Amateur Scanning League

An article about scanning that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times caught my eye. Reading it, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t about scanning paper; it was about scanning DVDs. This effort is being organized by the International Amateur Scanning League which has as its goal making thousands of hours of non-copyright video produced by agencies of the federal government freely available online through sites such as YouTube and the Internet Archive. In an interesting and very positive twist, the government is fully supporting this private volunteer effort which is doing its scanning at the main National Archives facility just outside Washington DC in nearby Maryland. Leaders of IASL refer to this as “an experiment in crowd-sourced digitization.”

With broadband internet giving most of the country a high speed connection to the web and with the cost of digital storage down to almost nothing, now is the time to convert massive amounts of analog and paper records to digital form. This story gives an innovative example of how a large volume of material can be scanned using volunteer labor – crowd-sourcing, as it’s called. It’s a technique that more governmental entities should consider trying.

Monday, March 15, 2010

et tu Brute?

In the Roman calendar "the ides" was used to describe the 15th day of March, May, July and October. But every month in Rome had an Ides. In January, February, April, June, August, September November and December the Ides fell on the 13th day of the month, not the 15th. The most famous ides is the "Ides of March, the day when assassins killer Julius Caesar in the capital. "Beware the Ides of March" a Soothsayer told Julius Caesar in 44BC. But Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, was not going to be told what to do by some fortune teller... and he paid dearly.

Below Marlon Brando, in the role of Mark Antony, delivers the funeral oration for his fallen friend in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Actually, Brando is good here, but Charlton Heston dwarfs him in the same role years later. I love this play.

This is one of the most famous speeches in all literature...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Washington Post sees new round of foreclosures

A story in today's Washington Post echoes my recent findings for the Middlesex North District: Foreclosures are rising rapidly and risk further destabilization of the real estate market. The Post story talks about a growing "shadow market" which represents the lag between a homeowner's mortgage default and the lender's decision to proceed to foreclosure. Because a glut of foreclosures, lenders are hesitant to actually foreclose lest they further suppress the market. And some lenders have so many defaults that they lack the resources to do these foreclosures expeditiously. This story predicts that it will take up to 30 months to work our way through the inventory of defaulting homeowners and get the properties back into possession of financially stable owners.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lowell Judicial Center delayed

Today’s Lowell Sun reports that the commencement of construction of the new Lowell Judicial Center will be delayed due to the poor economy. The new courthouse, which will house the Superior, District, Juvenile, Probate and Housing Courts, is to be the centerpiece of the city’s Hamilton Canal redevelopment district which is located less than a mile from the current Superior Courthouse. The new building was supposed to open in 2013, but this delay means that construction will not begin until the summer of 2013. With a construction period of 30 months, that would push the grand opening of the facility into 2015.

Even though the registry of deeds will not be moving to this new courthouse, its construction does directly effect us since our current “landlord” is the Trial Court. Once they move out of this building, we would be unable to continue operating here alone, so we’d either have to move out or have a new tenant/owner move in. In either case, that decision was just kicked a few years further down the road.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Enter Google

Last Spring my wife and I bought two really nice know the kind with gears galore. We made our purchase in the colder side on Spring, but vowed once the warm weather came we would be out pedaling our way to better health and fitness.

Now, a little preface...I love biking in Florida. Why? because its hills. In the Sunshine state you can go for miles and miles and never strain. Not so here in Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, our cycling plan never fully developed...Oh yes, we tried, but Massachusetts is no Florida, as far as biking goes. The few biking treks (get it) we made quickly ended in exhaustion. Why? The hills...too many hills.

Enter Google...I know what you are thinking, "What does Google have to do with biking"? This morning the Internet giant released "bicycle directions for Google Maps".

Now I'm excited. Why? You ask again...because Google Maps plans the bike routes avoiding steep hills.

You can bet as soon as the warm weather comes my wife and I will be back at it...this time with a Google Map in hand.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

National Lumber in 2010

On numerous occasions I’ve written about National Lumber v Lombardi, 64 Mass App 490 (2005) a case in which the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that a document was deemed to be on record when it was “delivered” to the registry of deeds, not when it was indexed and scanned by the registry. The members of the Massachusetts Registers of Deeds Association have been concerned that this holding could alter the longstanding practice that a document is “recorded” when it is entered into the registry’s computer system and not before.

Two bills pending before the legislature, House 1527 and Senate 1861, seek to remedy this problem. Both carry essentially the same language which is as follows:

“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”

Indications are that a compromise bill is now under consideration. It’s language would amend chapter 36 by replacing the existing section 14 with the following language:

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 recorded. Upon recording 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; and the city or towns in which the land lies.

No instrument received by the register shall be considered recorded, until the register assigns to the instrument an instrument number, and/or book and page number as the case may be.

Any change or correction made to the record shall be accessible to the public through the computer system in that particular registry district. Such change or correction made to the record shall be maintained by the register and shall be available for public inspection at said registry district during registry business hours. Any change or correction to the record shall document the nature and date of the change or correction.

Monday, March 08, 2010

New "short sale" program to begin April 5

The New York Times reports today that the Obama administration will launch a new program that promotes the use of short sales to jump start the nation's real estate market. Because of the precipitous decline in value since the peak year of 2005, many homeowners now owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, putting them "under water." The various mortgage modification programs attempted thus far have had little impact, so it's wise to try something new. Short sales - a situation where a lender agrees to take less than is owed on a mortgage to allow a homeowner to sell and avoid foreclosure - worked well back in the real estate collapse of the early 1990s, but they just haven't been employed much this time which is unfortunate. Under this program, if a homeowner brings a lender an offer to purchase that is lower than the balance of the mortgage, the lender must obtain an independent valuation of the property. If the property is worth the offered amount or less, the lender must agree to the sale and forego the balance of the debt. This program might be exactly what is needed to jump start housing.

Friday, March 05, 2010

E-Recording Update: The Worcester Model

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of the Massachusetts Registers of Deeds Association at the Worcester Registry of Deeds. One item discussed was the efforts by that registry in partnership with the Secretary of State’s Office and computer company ACS to develop a “governmental electronic recording portal.”

Currently, the four registries that are already doing electronic recording (Middlesex North, Hampden, Plymouth and Middlesex South) all use a model whereby the customer must sign-up with and submit electronic documents through a third party vendor. That vendor then passes the electronic documents through to the registry where they are recorded. The vendor is responsible for customer service and ensuring payment of all fees and excise taxes incurred by the customer.

Under the Worcester model, customers would be able to sign-up directly with the registry, by-passing the middleman. Or customers could continue to use the third party vendors (the “middlemen”) who would then submit directly to the registry just as any other customer would.

I’ll reserve judgment on this new system until I see it in operation which is not expected to occur until at least July 1, 2010.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Globe story on January foreclosures

Tuesday’s Globe carried a story with the encouraging headline “Mass foreclosures drop in January.” I had to read the article several times to be sure the reporter was talking about THIS January, because nothing that I’ve seen supports such a statement. The source of the story – Warren Group CEO Tim Warren – surely knows his stuff and he’s quoted as saying that January 2010 saw the lowest level of foreclosure petitions since December 2008. Now to be fair, “foreclosure petitions” means new cases filed in the Land Court so that would certainly be an early indicator. We, on the other hand, track Orders of Notice (which come shortly after the petition is filed in the Land Court) and foreclosure deeds which are recorded after the auction sale is held.

And what we’ve seen paints quite a different picture. The number of orders of notice filed in January 2010 (168) and in February 2010 (141) each exceeded the total recorded in any month during 2009. The closest was October 2010 with 117. The number of foreclosure deeds filed in January 2010 (59) exceeded any monthly total from 2009 and the number in February 2010 (45) exceeded every month in 2009 except January and October which both at 49. In just less than four days so far this month, we’ve already had 25 orders of notice and 11 foreclosure deeds.

I do hope the Globe report is accurate because it might be a sign of a rebound in real estate. Perhaps the Greater Lowell area is lagging behind the rest of the state in this regard. But I tend to think not, because everything I see points to a long, slow recovery of real estate prices.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Me, Stevie & Twitter

I am not sure what it is...but I don't like the direction Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is moving his company. In fact, I my opinion Microsoft's opposition to open source software has held back the information world. And there is no question in my mind that Ballmer made that decision.

But, all things change, at least that's what they told me in high school science class. Recently, I read something that has changed my opinion of Ballmer...Steve,or Stevie as I now called him, is a twitter freak...
Way to go, big guy…

Good old Steve and I are both twitter believers...
Hey Stevie, don't listen to them when they talk about this open source stuff, its over-rated.

Here is what I read about new best buddy, Stevie is using a secret account to twitter on Seattle High School basketball games…
right back at yah, bro, fun idea.

Me and my main man Steve, we’re both lovin Twitter, the latest and greatest in communication...
Stevie, you know what...this monopoly thing between you and the Feds, its just a tempest in a tea cup. Hang in there my friend.

The big difference between me and Ballmer is he has the power and money to buy Twitter, I do not. But Steve an I, we're friends and we go back a long way...
So what do you say, buddy, want to put up a cool billion and buy this little micro-blogging toy?... we can have ball with it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

February recording statistics

At the end of each month I've started to compare the number of documents recorded with in the previous month and in the same month last year.

Comparing February 2010 to January 2010, we find that the number of deeds record is somewhat stable, with deeds in Lowell up 4% and those in the towns down 3%. Mortgages were also down overall, with Lowell mortgages dipping by just 3% but with the town mortgages slipping by 20%. The good news is that foreclosure activity is also down. Foreclosure deed recordings fell by 26% in Lowell and by 20% in the towns. Orders of notice dropped similarly; by 24% in Lowell and by 8% in the towns.

Comparing February 2010 to February 2009 presents a slightly different story. Deeds recorded in Lowell dropped 7% while deeds in the towns rose by 16% during that 12 month period. The number of mortgage recorded dropped precipitously during that same period, with mortgages in Lowell falling by 23% and mortgages in the towns by 43%. Foreclosure deeds in Lowell were even, with 25 in each of the two February's. But town foreclosure deeds rose by 54%, from 13 to 20. Orders of notice saw a very sharp increase, as well, with those recorded for Lowell up 280% and those in the towns by 573% (they rose from 11 to 74).

February has always been our slowest month, so in a way, the statistics for this year aren't as bad as they may seem. Still, the steady decline in the number of mortgages and deeds being recorded suggests that a real estate recovery has not yet commenced.

Monday, March 01, 2010

An innovative approach to the foreclosure crisis

In an Op-Ed column in Saturday’s Globe, Tufts professor Rachel Bratt proposed an interesting approach to our seemingly unshakable foreclosure crisis. Bratt begins by restating the obvious: there is “ample blame all around” for the crisis and none of the measure proposed thus far have worked.

What Bratt now suggests is that the 2008 Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which assisted municipalities in purchasing vacant and abandoned homes, be modified to allow non-profits to assume that role. Such involvement would consist of taking title to the property and then renting it back to the current homeowner, the very same person who lost the house to foreclosure. This approach would address the “moral hazard” concern of allowing borrowers to walk away from debts they knowingly took on - in this case, the borrower would actually lose ownership of the home and would not profit from any future appreciation. The benefit of this approach is that it would lend stability to neighborhoods and families and would ensure that local property taxes were paid and that buildings were kept in good repair.

While Bratt’s solution is not a simple one, nothing else has worked and the frequency of foreclosures continues to rise. It’s time for new and innovative approaches.