The latest on real estate recordings and new technology from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Lowell
This morning when I arrived at the registry of deeds and began turning on the Middlesex North Public Access terminals I discovered there was a problem. Quickly, I checked the cashiering terminals for problems also. I had an employee record a piece of mail on both Middlesex North and South Satellite cashiering terminals. There were no problems. I had all the scanners in the registry checked…again no problem. We isolated the problem to just the Middlesex North search terminals. I say “just”, but you can image the problem created by the inability to do a rundown on the last day of the month… That was the problem, now here are the steps we took toward the solution…First some background…Yesterday, we discovered two of our public search terminals were not “locked down”…this means these computers had complete rights to the Internet and some other areas of our computer system. So…late yesterday afternoon we called the Secretary of State’s IT department and asked them to “lock down” these computers. When we first discovered this morning’s problem we assumed something had gone wrong with the “lock-down” procedure…We called SEC IT and had them restore the “policy rights” (which reversed the lock-down process)…this didn’t work, the computers still wouldn’t come up. Around 9:30AM this morning a representative from the SEC IT department arrived at the registry. He rebooted our Domain Controller…success…all the public access computers came up… at least for now the problem is solved…I hate to sound pessimistic, but even though everything is working fine now…our Domain Controller still has issues…we made a repair call to our computer maintenance company and hope to see them later today or tomorrow. Ironically, this Domain Controller is slated to be replaced sometime next week…talk about good timing!
Our transition to scanning and returning original documents to the customer as part of the recording process is advancing rapidly. We are now doing this for almost all recorded documents and the feedback from the great majority of customers (you can’t please everyone) has been overwhelmingly positive. Some are simply astonished that they can walk away from the recording counter with their original document in-hand. This process takes no more time than it would to make a certified copy so customers are not unduly detained. And speaking of certified copies, when you request one, it is no longer made on a copier machine. Now, the original document is scanned and the employee doing the scanning simply orders the computer to print a copy of the newly scanned document. That document prints automatically at our copy counter so the customer just takes his original document in hand, walks around the corner, picks up the certified copy (which was paid for along with the recording fees) and heads out the door with the original and the certified copy. Our goal is to scan 100% of our documents at the moment they are recorded. We will soon be adding a number of additional scanners to better balance the workload. Despite the very low numbers of documents being recorded right now, we do find that during busier periods the one scanner we have in place tends to back up. But that’s an easy fix (we’ll just add more scanners) and once we make the transition to 100% scanning, scanning when recording will no longer be a customer option but will be our standard operating procedure.
Last week we disposed of a large quantity of obsolete computer equipment from the courthouse basement. The registry had been accumulating this equipment of years…some of it even went back to the registry’s first computer system… no, not Wang..it was a Xerox system…yes, Xerox. We carefully and thoughtfully proceeded before disposing of any equipment. We are very aware of the historical significance some of this represents. With this in mind, we kept samples from each generation of equipment. Of course, we never expect to use this stuff again …and I doubt it is even operational…but this old equipment serves as a representation of the various operational stages of the registry. I laughed when I saw the old Xerox drive system…I also found plastic tape cartridges measuring about ten inches by ten inches by one inch that the Xerox drives read…You can bet, at some point in the future our current system will find its way to the basement and one of my successors will get a laugh when he/she finds it…Coming shortly will be an explanation of what the removal of this equipment means to the upper record hall renovation.
Having backups of registry records is one of our most important responsibilities. Disaster can strike at any time, and the ability to reconstitute the records of who owns what land in our district is a critical function. These days, for example, we have microfilm images of all of our documents stored at a secure facility at a distant location. With everything scanned, we also have multiple copies of the digital images of all documents stored in various places. Or so we thought. Yesterday I started work on a paper that traces the history of this registry’s record keeping practices. Knowing that this office opened in the summer of 1855, I tried to add some life to my opening paragraph by describing the first document ever recorded at this registry. Looking at our digital image of Book 1, Page 1, I first noticed that the document was dated in 1888 - thirty-three years after this registry opened. But that 1888 document was clearly placed at page 1 of book 1. The digital image was of poor quality and was difficult to read. Still, I was able discern other mentions of 1888 as well as references to Worcester, Fitchburg and other towns far from Lowell. Soon I discovered a line that said “Received and recorded in the Worcester North Registry of Deeds.” I immediately checked the digital images of several of our oldest books and found that they, too, showed documents from another registry. Rushing downstairs to our basement annex, I retrieved the actual record books and found to my relief that they hold the true Middlesex North documents. Here’s what I think happened: These digital images were created from our archival microfilm so we’re assuming that also contains the wrong images. Sometime many decades ago, this registry probably shot microfilm of its earliest books and sent it out to be developed. The Worcester North Registry was probably doing the same thing at the same time. The company - and I don’t yet know its name - may have mixed up a roll of film (each roll holds several books worth of images) and sent us Fitchburg’s film labeled as Lowell’s. Now that we’ve discovered the problem, we’ve already started to scan these books so we have a backup copy, but that will take us a few days. In the meantime, we’ve secured these un-backed-up books in a safe place. We will conduct a full investigation and present our conclusions here at a later time.
What types of documents do we record on an average day here at the registry? I selected this past Tuesday, February 20 to use an example. A total of 238 documents were recorded; 98 were mortgages (41%), 27 were mortgage discharges (11%); 23 were homesteads (10%); 19 were municipal lien certificates (which aren’t really liens - 8%); 16 were deeds (7%); and 14 were orders of notice (the start of a foreclosure - 6%). The remaining 41 documents (17%) fell into 18 categories of document types. Now compare our statistics for the same day back in 2003. We recorded a total of 960 documents that day: 470 were mortgage discharges (49%); 184 were mortgages (19%); 95 were municipal lien certificates (10%); 64 were mortgage assignments (7%); 29 were deeds (3%); and 21 were homesteads (2%). The remaining 97 documents (10%) were divided among 19 document types.
Yesterday we expanded our Point of Recording Scanning project. As you might recall during phase one of POR scanning the registry only returned Homesteads and Discharges to homeowners. I am happy to say it worked out great…people were delighted when an employee immediately scanned and returned their document to them. On Friday Dick Howe and I had a discussion with the recording counter employees about the best way to expand the POR scanning project. They suggested that Orders of Condition and Certificates of Compliance should be added to the list of returned documents. This was a great idea, especially since most homeowners head directly to the building department after recording an Order of Condition… but as the group conversation continued we became even more confident that our system was working well. This led to another major change…we decided to give our recording counter employees the latitude to scan and return “any document” if they felt comfortable doing so. We did add one stipulation…no document would be scanned and returned unless the recorder had an internal registry box or unless he/she gave us their telephone number. A person’s telephone number will only be used if we make a scanning mistake and need to retrieve the document to re-scan it. I am told that today (only the second day with the expanded policy) over 50% of the original documents are being returned immediately to the custodian…I think we are on our way.
Several recent news reports have examined declining sales of wristwatches. The sale of watches that would most likely be purchased by young people declined 10% during the past year. The cause? Young people now use their cell phones or iPods to tell time. This makes the watch a superfluous device, and in an age of too many electronic gadgets, having one less to buy and carry around would seem to make sense. Watch manufacturers aren’t raising the white flag, however. Soon you will see more and more wristwatches that make phone calls, play music or give you directions. Will this strategy work? I kind of doubt it, but stranger things have happened. This story is a good example of the unintended consequences of technological innovation. As technology changes the way we live, there will be some winners and losers
Today’s New York Times reports a decline in the median price of homes in half of the nation’s 149 metropolitan markets. Since Lowell is not included in the group, I looked at the median price of property sales (we can’t distinguish between residential and commercial properties) in Lowell from January 1 to February 15 for this and the past three years. This includes all sales in excess of $100,000 and is broken down by condominium and non-condominium sales. The chart can be viewed HERE.
In the past few days we’ve received calls from several new home buyers who just received a letter from a company called National Deed Service Inc of Washington, D.C. After citing (accurately) a U.S. Government publication that recommends that every homeowner possess an original or certified copy of the deed to his home, this company offers to get one for you for just $59.50. Our first reaction to this was negative since we provide homeowners who come here to the registry with a free copy of their deed and anyone can obtain a certified copy of a deed by mail just by sending us $5 plus a self-addressed, stamped envelope. But someone finally provided us with a copy of the letter from National Deed and it seems a bit more reasonable. For example, prominently displayed in caps is this: “Many government records are available free or at a nominal cost from government agencies.” And on the FAQ section of their website is something that says you don’t need National Deed to get a copy of your deed just like you don’t need an accountant to do your taxes for you. If you want to spent the time to figure out how to do it yourself, you can save some money. But if you just want it done and are willing to pay for that service, then they’re offering to do it for you. I don’t see anything wrong with that, although I would be curious to know how many people take advantage of their service. Maybe our initial negative reaction was caused more by resentment of not having thought of this first.
It has been snowing here in Lowell since about 4:30AM (that’s when I got up). This morning driving and walking conditions were sloppy, but they appear to be getting worse. Around 10:40AM I checked recordings. We had processed only nine documents…the Lawrence Registry of Deeds called around 10:30 inquiring about weather conditions in Lowell. During the conversation they said they had put nothing on record (yes, zero documents) up to that point. I checked our recordings again about fifteen minutes ago and we were up to 67 recordings. There are only four people in the record hall and no one using a computer terminal. No, this is not the blizzard of 78 but…it is the first significant storm of the winter…I am amazed how much this storm has affected business. Then again maybe it’s not just the storm…maybe it’s partly the way “business” has been lately.
Another registry employee mentioned in passing that a lot of foreclosure-related documents were being presented for recording, so I took a closer look at what’s happened so far this month. From February 1st to the 12th, a period of just eight business days, we recorded 13 foreclosure deeds. For the same eight day period in 2006, there were only 2 foreclosure deeds and the same was true for 2005. For 2007 to date, there have been a total of 31 foreclosure deeds recorded. Of those, 20 have been for properties in Lowell, 7 in Billerica and one each in Chelmsford and Dracut. This number is considerably higher than that seen in 2006 (12) and 2005 (5), but it is not even close to what happened in the 1990s. Here are the number of foreclosure deeds recorded between January 1 and February 12 of the years indicated: 1991 - 57; 1992 - 70; 1993 - 97; 1994 - 74; 1995 - 45; 1996 - 47; 1997 - 43; 1998 - 27; 1999 - 15. What can we tell from these stats? First, it’s not as bad now as it could be. But also that once it gets bad, it tends to stay that way for a group of years - 5 or more if the 1990s are any guide. We will continue to watch this.
Big news for all you political junkies out there…a techie company just launched a great new political website today. They call it techpresident… and it can be found at obviously,techpresident.com. This new website reports the online happenings in the upcoming presidential campaign. This includes candidate’s efforts to establish campaign websites, create networking organizations and fund raise… just to mention a few activies. The Internet emerged as a major political tool during Howard Dean’s presidential run four years ago…and more recently… newly elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick used the Internet to bring a powerful grassroots organization together. The New York Times described techpresident as sort of an “online equivalent of a trade magazine”…a trade magazine!… I know, it sounds boring, but if you are interested in politics this site is anything but boring …you’ll even find a link to Flickr so you can see uploaded pictures of the presidential candidates on the campaign trail…the site also tracks candidates popularity. The owner of techpresident, Andrew Raseij knows the website targets a niche market…well, when it comes to a political junkie like me, they’ve got the right niche.
The median price of a single family home in Massachusetts fell nearly 6% from 2005 to 2006. Today’s Globe (that’s “Saturday”, since I missed posting yesterday) contains a story comparing median home prices from community to community. The story’s conclusion is that home prices vary widely from community to community, with even neighboring towns showing wide discrepencies in prices. More useful, perhaps, is an interactive map that appears on the Globe’s website (use the above link to find the story then scroll down until you see “Interactive Graphic: up or down?” and click on it). All you do is position your mouse over a town on a map of Massachusetts and a data box magically appears showing you the name of the town, the percentage change of the median single family home price and the actual price in 2005 and 2006. Here’s what I found for the communities in the Middlesex North Registry District:
Billerica: Median home price declined 8.8%, from $369,900 to $337,187
Carlisle: Median home price increased 0.2%, from $828,440 to $830,500
Chelmsford: Median home price declined 0.3%, from $370,000 to $368,750
Dracut: Median home price declined 2.5%, from $307,600 to $300,000
Dunstable: not enough sales (50) to make the comparison
Lowell: Median home price declined 4.0%, from $265,500 to $255,000
Tewksbury: Median home price declined 6.9%, from $376,000 to $350,000
Tyngsborough: Median home price declined 0.7%, from $360,000 to $357,000
Westford: Median home price declined 15.0% from $500,000 to $425,000
Wilmington: Median home price declined 1.7%, from $374,750 to $368,450.
That’s how many pages of records we have here at the registry as of December 31, 2006. We had done an extremely detailed survey of our records in December 2005, so when a request for information arrived from an “echelon above registry” (EAR) yesterday, we were able to respond quickly. Here’s how it’s broken down: There are 20,850 record books containing 7,610,050 pages. Of course, the last bound book we created was Book 12442 back in November 2001, so everything since then only exists as a computer image and on microfilm. (That 40% of the registry’s record books were created in just the past five years - which represents only 8% of the registry’s existence - is a topic for another day). We then have 282 “Middlesex South” books which contain documents from 1631 to 1855. These came into existence before this registry opened, so they were recorded initially in Cambridge and re-copied into our records in 1855. Then there are 270 Grantor/Grantee Index Books containing 66,600 pages (these are from 1855 to 1976 which is when all indexes shifted to the computer). There are 223 plan books containing 34,334 plans; 1,087,919 pages of registered land documents, and 78,000 pages of registered land certificates. All of this except the registered land certificates have been scanned and are available in electronic format.
All of us who lived though the Blizzard of ‘78 have “life long memories”. The storm dumped close to 36 inches of snow on the area with difts as high as 15 feet. Yesterday’s 29th anniversary of the storm of the century “inspired me” to investigation what took place at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds during the week on the great storm…. Early in the morning on Monday, February 6 it began to “innocently” snow. Obviously, no one could have possibly imaged what was to come. By rush hour Massachusetts was in the midst of a full Nor’easter. The registry of deeds recorded 103 documents on February 6, the first day of the storm…the last one at 3:41 PM. Long time registry employees tell me the Middlesex County Commissioners closed the registry shortly before 4:00 PM that day. On Tuesday, Feb 7 and Wednesday, Feb 8 the registry remained closed…but here is where the story becomes intriguing…the following day Thursday, February 9, 1978 one document was put on record at 9:31AM (a mortgage recorded in Book 2289 Page 269). How could this be? Had the registry re-opened? It didn’t look that way…I checked February 10… no documents were recorded which meant that the registry was again closed. How could there be no documents recorded on Tuesday and Wednesday, one on Thursday and none on Friday. I speculated that maybe there was an indexing mistake and the Feb 9, 1978 document was really recorded on a different date. No… that wasn’t it…I checked the time stamp on the document and it clearly stated 9:31AM February 9, 1978. This morning…perplexed, confused and curious I talked to two people who worked at the registry during the Blizzard. They confirmed that the registry was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday of the week of the storm…but on February 9, 1978 several brave individuals made there way to the courthouse and opened the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds. These employees recorded the “mystery” document…but business came to a close quickly on February 9…after a short 90 minutes of operation the registry closed, again… and employees were sent home…This time the registry didn’t open again until the following Monday, February 13, 1978.
Prior to the fall of 2002 and the arrival of the Windows-based ACS system, the transition to and from Daylight Savings Time was a bit of an ordeal for us here at the registry of deeds. We were lucky to have a clock as part of the old Wang mainframe, never mind one that automatically changed time with the rest of the world. Our respite from such worries is short lived, however, since the transition to Daylight Savings Time this year will again be cause for concern. Last August, President Bush signed a comprehensive energy bill which included a provision that lengthened the amount of Daylight Savings Time. This new system takes effect in a few weeks. Instead of “springing ahead” an hour on the first Sunday of April, we will do it on the second Sunday of March (March 11). And rather than moving off Daylight Savings Time on the last Sunday of October, we won’t do it until the first Sunday of November. Got that? I hope our computers do. Supposedly, up-to-date Microsoft products have been modified to automatically change, but that’s not the case with every software product. In some ways, this is a little like the Y2K issue except no one’s stockpiling canned goods this time. Because computer time is so important to those recording documents at the registry, we’ll check into this in some detail before March 11 and will be in early on March 12 to test everything before the documents start arriving.
Superbowl XLI is over… (I still can’t figure out why the NFL uses Roman Numerals to name Superbowls but)…here are Ten (X) of my Superbowl impressions.
Prince provided the best halftime show I have seen since Michael Jackson (Superbowl XXVII).
My favorite commercial was the one with the rabbit “clicking’ on the back of a live mouse and asking his friend “are you sure this will get us on the Internet…oh yeah, and what about the Bud Lite one with the marriage auctioneer.
Colt’s Number four (IV), Adam Vinatieri is a major advantage in post-season play…
Two (II) Questions? Was Prince really playing the guitar or just faking it?… And I kept looking closely…was he getting wet from the rain or not? It didn’t look like it to me.
Colt’s running back Joseph Addai, not Peyton Manning, should have been the Superbowl’s MVP…he gained a total of 143 yards (CXLIII yards) with ease.
Bear’s quarter, Rex Grossman’s horrible performance reminded me of Tony Eason’s disaster in Superbowl XX when the Bears crushed the Patriots XLVI to X. By the way ESPN ranks Eason’s performance as one of the X worse in Superbowl history.
Question: Didn’t Prince change his name to the “Artist Formerly known as Prince”? I asked a music afficionado here at the registry… he said that he changed it back to Prince again…Sooooo that means Prince is actually the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
The NFL’s real championship game was played two weeks earlier between the Colts and Pats…Dese Bears aren’t Da Bears of Mike Ditka!
Watching the teams play in the rain says it all…football was meant to be played in bad weather…not under a climate controlled dome.
My prediction for Superbowl XLII…it’s the Patriots over the New Orleans Saints by a score of XL to XXVI…
The long awaited new version of the website is now operational. Much of the same information is still there, it’s just presented in a more basic (and hopefully, easier to use) design. One of the biggest changes is with the Sales and Foreclosure Reports. Formerly, these were presented as a matrix of hyperlinks. The new design contains drop down menus and is more compact and easier to navigate. Please let us know what you think of it by sending along an email. When you send that email, you also might want to sign up for the Middlesex North E-News letter. The first issue was sent today. Here’s a link to it in case you’re curious about it. The E-News will be sent twice each month and when there is breaking news at the registry.
As a small article in today’s Globe points out, yesterday’s terrorist alert in Boston illustrates a cultural divide between a younger generation that has embraced new technology and new ways of doing things and (for lack of a better term), the “establishment.” Since one of the ongoing themes of this blog is to explore new technology and new uses for this technology, emphasizing this angle seems appropriate. It all began yesterday when a railway worker spotted a suspicious looking package placed under an overpass and called the police. When the police scrutinized it more closely and saw wires running from the device and an attached battery pack, they called the bomb squad. Through the day, other similar devices were located and seized. It turns out they were all part of a marketing campaign to promote the Cartoon Network’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a program it seems no one had ever heard of (maybe that’s why they needed to do some marketing). By this morning, two of the men - “artists” - who emplaced the devices have been arrested and Mayor Menino and others have vowed to sue Turner Broadcasting (the owner of the Cartoon Network) for reimbursement for the cost of the public safety response. Watching a news conference of public officials late last night, I felt that their outrage seemed a little bit forced. I’m sure they were extremely and legitimately angry, but they may be overplaying the “threat to public” safety card. That in turn, plays into a counter reaction that is bubbling up now that asserts the officials in Boston grossly over-reacted, citing for support that fact that the same devices had been installed in a dozen other major US cities and no where else did anyone react in this manner. My view: I think the initial governmental response was appropriate. In the post-9/11 age, we can no longer afford to ignore strange or suspicious events or items, shrugging them off as innocent coincidences. This marketing scheme was just plain reckless, so there blame must be placed at the feet of those who came up with it and carried it out. Still, once it became apparent that there was an innocent explanation, the authorities should have ratcheted down the rhetoric while firmly explaining why this was such a bad idea. By carrying on at a fever pitch, however, they risk not only losing the attention of a whole segment of society, but of further alienating them and making them downgrade the importance of constant vigilance against terrorist threats.
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