The latest on real estate recordings and new technology from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Lowell
A comparison of the documents recorded this August with last August shows that the volume of sales is about the same but that the rate of foreclosures continue to increase. In August 2007, there were 638 deeds recorded; in August 2006 there were 645. In August 2007, there were 84 orders of notice; in August 2007 there were only 51. In August 2007, there were 54 foreclosure deeds; in August 2006 there were only 22.
On Tuesday shortly after noon our link to the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds suddenly stopped working. We have operated a satellite recording office for Middlesex South since March of 2003 and have never experienced on outage of more than on hour and that only a handful of times. The system really has been totally reliable. Well Tuesday’s problem spilled into Wednesday. Throughout the period we had to share the sad news with attorneys who were under time constraints to get their stuff on record and with members of the public who had traveled here from distant towns such as Concord or Townsend. Our connection was restored last evening and from the moment we walked in this morning, all has worked in good order. As best as I can tell, the problem was with the communications link between here and Cambridge and was not caused by any equipment within the control of the Secretary of State’s office. Still, we have to look at the intervening phone lines and our ability to have their owner react more quickly should anything like this ever happen again. Thank you all for your patience during this situation.
Sometimes I think it’s me…maybe I just don’t get it. I read this one in USA Today this morning. NASA has agreed to take Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber along on the next space shuttle mission. Apparently, this year is the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie Star Wars . “What better way to celebrate the 30th anniversary than to send the original lightsaber into space with the shuttle” said Julie Kuenstle, Space Center Huston spokesperson. Hey Julie, are you kidding? It’s a movie. Maybe I’m stupid, but I thought the lightsabers in “the movie” were really just special effects equipment invented by George Lucas. I wonder…is someone playing a joke on NASA? According to Johnson Space Center officials the “saber” will remain in storage throughout the entire mission…Oh no! Are you kidding? What will our astronauts do if they encounter someone from the “Evil Empire”? (no, not the Yankees).
I look forward to the Saturday Lowell Sun for two reasons: former publisher Kendall Wallace’s column on local politics and Attorney James Haroutunian’s column on real estate. Last Saturday, Jim Haroutunian wrote about a recent bankruptcy court case that seemed to hold that property owned by a nominee trust could be eligible for protection from the Declaration of Homestead. This has been a contentious issue since the Land Court has been rather adamant in its position that a Homestead cannot be registered for property held in trust under any circumstances. I can’t argue with the Land Court’s reasoning: a homestead is designed to protect the residence of an individual but a trust is a separate legal entity so therefore a house owned by the trust is not technically an individual’s residence. Still, most believe that where homeowners (usually spouses) have placed a property in trust but continue to live in the home and treat it as their personal residence, they should be entitled to a homestead’s protection. On the recorded land side where we have much greater latitude regarding what is recorded, homesteads are placed on property held in trust. With the help of the folks in the Law Library here in the Superior Court (which is a great asset, readily available to the public), I obtained a copy of the relevant decision. It’s by the US Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the 1st Circuit and is dated July 6, 2007. Unfortunately, the holding of the case is not as simple as it seems at first. The debtor, Edward Szwyd, was the beneficiary of a trust created by his parents. The main asset of the trust was the family home. When his parents died, Edward became the sole trustee of the trust as well as the sole beneficiary. He then filed the homestead. The Bankruptcy Court concluded that under Massachusetts law, the trust had ceased to exist the moment Edward became both the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary. My recollection of Wills and Trusts from law school is a bit fuzzy, but here’s how I think this works: The essence of a trust is divided ownership – the trustee owns legal title and the beneficiary owns the beneficial title. When there’s only one trustee and only one beneficiary and they are the same person, those two titles merge together and the trust ceases to exist. (If there are contingent beneficiaries, for instance A is trustee and A is beneficiary but upon A’s death B is the beneficiary, then there’s no merger because B is in the picture, too). By my reading of the Bankruptcy Court decision, the court held that title had merged prior to the homestead being recorded, so when the homestead was recorded the property was owned by Mr. Szwyd as an individual and his designation as trustee was just an alias. So that really doesn’t conclusively answer the question of whether property held in trust will be protected by a homestead. Hopefully some future case will.
His name is George Hotz and he’s a bad Apple. Hotz is a 17 years old computer hacker and… a genius, but he is a bad Apple. Just two months after Apple Computer introduced the iPhone to the world, Hotz hack into it. The iPhone was a locked device until last week that is when Hotz got his hands on it. By locked I mean it could only be used on the AT&T cell phone network. Apple Computer and AT&T currently have a revenue sharing agreement…that’s good for Apple and good for AT&T, but what about the consumer. Now Hotz, the boy genius says he has unlocked the iPhone and it can be used on the T-Mobile network and overseas. Hotz put nearly 500 hours into hacking the iPhone. He stayed awake for long hours aided by caffeinated beverages. Why did he do it? Hotz says it wasn’t for the money…he just wanted to use his iPhone on his T-Mobile service. Hotz has published the instruction for unlocking the iPhone on his blog iphonejtag.blogspot.com …after reading the instructions, if you can’t figure out how to do it on your own, don’t lose hope…Hotz is selling his unlocked iPhone on eBay.
The www.lowelldeeds.com site was down from about 7 pm last night until about 8:45 this morning. The site that holds most of the land data, www.masslandrecords.com was fine, and I want to remind you to bookmark both of those sites because they are on two different computers in two different places, so if one goes down, it’s likely the other is still working. There was really nothing wrong with the lowelldeeds site, either. The problem occurred when a technician came and performed a routine upgrade to our computer security. Because it deals with security, I won’t get into the details here. When he finished, we thought we had adequately tested it (I was the one who was here with him) but obviously we had not. Traffic from our website out to the rest of the world wasn’t getting out, so when you tried to pull something out you got the standard “site not available” screen on your internet browser. So the good news is that it wasn’t a mechanical failure or something unexplained. We know what happened because we inadvertently caused it. We’re also treating it as a learning experience so we can ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.
Every day the business pages are filled with contradictory stories about housing, credit and the wider economy. Speculation about what the Federal Reserve will or will not do has been rampant. Whatever happens, the economic history of the past seven years teaches us that trying to correct one problem often creates a new and sometimes more hazardous situation. For example, through the end of the 1990s and into the early part of this decade, the American economy was riding the Internet boom to historic highs in the stock market. Suddenly, that all came crashing down, a situation worsened (but not caused) by 9/11. In an effort to keep the country out of a recession, the Fed cut interest rates to almost unheard of lows. That set off the refinancing stampede of 2003 and let to the skyrocketing values of housing thereafter. Many Americans were seduced by the allure of ever rising home values and either stretched financially to buy new homes or refinanced existing homes to extract all the new found wealth, using it to carry the economy with consumer spending. As is now clear, housing values may continue upward over time but not in a straight line trajectory. We’re now in a trough (hopefully that’s all it is), but the debt owed remains high, often higher than the current value of the home that secures it. Whatever steps are now taken to address this problem will have some consequence that we will feel two, three or four years from now.
Thanks once again to the Worcester Registry of Deeds. A couple of weeks ago we borrowed a large paper cutter from them. This morning Joe Simone from Worcester graciously came to Lowell and gave us a “how to” lesson on the cutter. Since we are going to remove all record books as soon as possible we plan on re-scanning the bad images in our database. Experience has taught us the easiest way to do this is by disassembling the book and using the auto-feed feature on the scanner. In order to disassemble the old large record books we need to remove the cover, then cut the thread and glue from the book’s spine. This is where Worcester’s book cutter comes into play. This cutter is amazing. It cuts through 100 pages with ease. Even at one hundred pages a “chop” it will still take some time to prepare all the books for scanning. Once the book is “dissembled and scanned it will be placed in storage.
An article in yesterday’s New York Times examined the efforts of California attorney Carl Malamud to make court decisions and other legal material generated by the government freely available online. Running a site called www.public.resource.org, Atty Malamud is a frequent user of Public Records laws which he uses to force government offices to release reams of records. He then digitizes the records and adds them to the public domain. Such an effort poses a major threat to the $5 billion per year legal publishing market which is dominated by just two companies – West (now owned by the Canadian publishing conglomerate Thomson) and LexisNexis (a division of London-based Reed Elsevier). With that much money in play, Mr. Malamud is certainly fighting an uphill battle. But besides inventorying the obstacles faced by Malamud, the Times article also paints an encouraging picture of the work of a number of American legal scholars who hope to transform the way legal information is maintained.
The unifying vision of all of the challengers to the current system is a Wikipedia-like effort to make the nation’s laws freely searchable y Internet search engines. They believe this will lead to a public system of annotation of the laws by legal scholars as well as bloggers, giving the American public much richer access to the nation’s laws.
Today is my first day back from a week long vacation. During my time away many positive changes were made here at the registry of deeds. Last Thursday we unofficially began giving back “ALL” recorded documents immediately after recording. Today, August 20, 2007 that policy became official. Things are working out very well and the feedback from customers has been great. We built some additional safeguards into the system. The most significant is a different person from the scanner views all images a second time. This measure ensures that all documents have been scanned accurately before being returned. The process by which we deal with mailed-in documents has also undergone a major change. All items mailed in are recorded, scanned and returned the day they are received. Before returning, the images of these documents are also quality checked the same as live customers. I am excited. The changes were long overdue and are another step in the road to a paperless registry.
We’ve spent the day disassembling the “pick up boxes” that have been in existence in one form or another probably since the registry first opened in 1855. From now on, all documents presented for recording will be scanned right away and returned to the customer. Inevitably, there will be someone in a hurry who has to rush off without waiting the two or three minutes for the documents. We’re not sure what we’ll do with those abandoned documents. But we will definitely consider them abandoned and that will inform the manner in which we dispose of them. Documents received by mail will also be scanned immediately and the originals will be sent back in accompanying self-addressed, stamped envelopes the very same day. For documents received by mail that do not have an accompanying envelope, we will send notices out initially but will eventually treat those documents as abandoned as well. For anyone who feels they will be inconvenienced by the slight wait involved in receiving back the original documents a few minutes after recording, I suggest you investigate electronic recording. There are now two companies offering that service for our registry (eRX and Simplifile) and they would both welcome new customers.
After seventeen years, three months, six days and two hours of gawking at the Bush family I finally met former President George HW Bush (41). I went to Kennebunkport last Sunday to attend an art show (trust me, I buy the prints not the originals). This show was of special interest to me because the local art association was holding it in the Kennebunkport Yacht Club. I love old buildings, especially those with history. I wanted to see this building for years but, it’s “members only” and… well, I buy prints not originals, if you get my point. The show was actually being held in two building one across the street from the other. My wife and I entered the first beautiful old building. We strolled around looking at the “prints”…As I approached the ocean side of the building I saw two US Secret Service boats, each manned by four or five uniformed agents. Fidelity III was docked between the two Secret Service boats. Fidelity III is former President Bush’s boat. How long have I been stargazing the Bushs?…I remember seeing Fidelity I in the cove at Walker’s Point when the elder Bush was president. I said to my wife…”the President must be mooring Fidelity here now”. Behind me I heard a know-it-all say to his friend…”the president is across the street. Do you want to go and see him?”…My ears perked, ”Hey, did you hear what that guy said? Let’s go over and see if Bush is there”. As soon as my wife and I entered the second Yacht Club building I saw the president’s daughter Dora…but no President. I looked at a few paintings, then said to myself, “What are you doing! These aren’t prints, they’re originals! You’re not interest in this stuff. Go see if the former President is really here”. I looked down the first aisle no president, the second no president, then the third…there he was standing beside Barbara Bush talking casually to a Kennebunkport friend. The atmosphere in the hall was so casual it would have been awkward to approach him. I moved toward the president but kept my distance…How close was I? I heard him tell one person he eat so much Mexican food for lunch he didn’t know if he’d ever eat again. He strolled to the next aisle. I followed slightly behind. Another person walked by him and said “hi” it was definitely another friend. It was amazing…everyone seemed to know him, and not one of them was looking at “prints”. At this point George had separated from Barbara. Then finally… he walked by me. I could resist no more. “Mr. President” I called out…startled he turned to me “Yes?”…I was in awe…I had waited for this moment for seventeen years, three months, six days and two hours… but nothing came out of my mouth…I stuck out my hand. He took it and shook it. I was surprised. His hand was very large and muscular…my mouth finally utter, “I hope you are having a good summer”…”Why, thank you young man (me young?). I am so far”. He walked away and I continued to pretend to be interested in the rest of the paintings. I did buy one piece of art. It is a lovely “print” of a salt-marsh. It cost $30.00…I skipped lunch that day.
We received our first electronic recordings from Simplifile late this morning. A set of six documents was submitted by a local law office and recorded by us without any difficulties. This is further evidence of the explosive expansion of electronic recording that is now underway. In addition to this e-filing news, we also made a slight modification to our scan and return process to better prepare ourselves for the complete transition to that method of recording next Monday morning. Now, when a document is recorded, we immediately scan it and return it to the customer. In today’s change, we have asked the customers to move to the Customer Service area which is where their documents will be returned. (Formerly, the customer just stood around the recording counter area, creating a feeling that it was more crowded than it really was). We have also injected a verification step into the process. Before the documents are handed back to the customer, one of our employees checks the images to confirm that we have good images before the original documents are handed back to the customer.
There’s been a discernable upsurge in the number of customers arriving at our Customer Service office looking for Homestead forms. I checked the stats and they don’t really disclose the increase when compared to August of last year, but there certainly seems to be rising interest in homesteads. This may be due to many people being on vacation this time of year which presents a rare opportunity to come to the registry and not miss work. But another inference is that people are becoming more nervous about the economy and their place in it. With all the talk of mortgage foreclosures, the credit crunch and stock market mood swings, it’s inevitable that folks grow more uneasy about their financial situation.
A representative of REBA (Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts) sent an email over the weekend asking some thoughtful questions about the safeguards we have in place to secure our records once we fully transition to a paperless registry. My response was lengthy, but I thought it should be shared with everyone:
The first imaging system was installed in Middlesex North in November 1994. All documents recorded since then have been scanned either at or shortly after the time of recording. All of those images are initially verified by the scanner operator immediately after scanning and then are verified in a separate process by other registry employees within 48 hours of scanning. The third verification occurs after the developed microfilm of those documents is returned to the registry. An employee reviews the film frame by frame to ensure the quality and existence of images. I am confident that all images created of documents recorded from 1994 to the present are available on the in-house computer system and on the internet (which are essentially identical versions of the same database).
At various times since 1999 we have added images of pre-1994 documents to the system. The most common method of acquiring those images was by scanning existing microfilm. This was usually outsourced to companies that had multiple, high-speed automated microfilm scanners. Because of the automated method of naming these millions of images, some were misnumbered which accounts for many of those that cannot be located on our computer system. For example, if a microfilm camera operator years ago forgot to turn a page and photographed the same document twice, that would throw off the numbering scheme of the images yielded when that roll of film was scanned. Despite this type of challenge, we have found that this mass scanning method, produced images with an accuracy rate of approximately 97%.
Before existing record books can be entirely dispensed with, however, we must get that number to 100%. We have made good progress filling gaps in the most recent of the pre-1994 images because they are contained in the white plastic, snap together books in an 8.5 by 11 inch format. Because these books are easily disassembled and then reassembled we can manually scan those pages that are missing from the electronic images and fill in the gaps.
The older books, those in a 10.5 by 16 inch format with sewn bindings have presented more of a challenge. We have used an overhead scanner specifically designed for bound books to try to capture those images, but it takes one employee several days to rescan one book by this method. Because this is not an efficient way to fill in the gaps for our older records and because the microfilm of older documents does not yield a particularly good image in some cases, we have decided to disassemble all of the large size record books and rescan them on our existing high speed scanners. We believe using this method, one employee will be able to scan multiple books each day. We have tested this and the image yielded is of superior quality. Of course a consequence is that the pages will have been cut out of the original binding. We will be ordering customized storage boxes for the loose pages of each book, but we will not be rebinding these books since the cost of such an effort will be huge. One of the reasons I have not aggressively addressed the gaps in imagery of our older records prior to this is that cutting up these books is a major step, one I was hesitant to take. But not doing this leaves us straddling two worlds, the paper and the electronic, and until we get full coverage of our documents on the electronic side, it will continue to fuel unease with a non-paper system.
Other registry documents such as plans, registered land documents, and pre-1976 indexes have all been scanned from paper and have created very good images. Most of these are already on our computer system and the rest will be added soon. My objective is to have every single document of any relevance in the possession of the registry fully available electronically.
As for the reliability of our system, we have all records on a server in Lowell and an exact duplicate of all those records, continuously updated, at another server in Boston. If one system was to fail, the other would continue operating. In addition, appropriate tape backups are made daily. With the plummeting cost of electronic storage, we also have most of our records duplicated on external hard drives. I could easily load the entire electronic contents of the registry into my backpack and still have room for a notebook computer. This kind of mobility and flexibility would allow us to reconstitute the registry anywhere should a catastrophic disaster occur. Finally, all documents continue to be microfilmed. All microfilm that is shot is verified by registry employees after it has been developed. One copy comes to the registry; the other goes to a professional data storage facility located at a distant location.
Regarding changes to the index, they fall into two types. When a document is first recorded, a registry clerk enters data about the document to create that index entry. Sometime after that, another employee “verifies” that entry. In Lowell, we use “blind rekey verification” which means that the other employee calls for the next document which then appears on the verifier’s computer screen along with a blank data entry form. That clerk re-enters all of the data that was originally entered at the recording counter without seeing those previous entries. If all the new entries match all the old ones, the system automatically moves to the next document. If the entries differ in any way, the verifier is then able to view the two versions and, after scrutinizing the document image, choose the most appropriate one. In Lowell, verification usually occurs 24 to 48 hours after recording. We rely on the computer system alone to track these changes (and it does track them) but we produce no separate report of these types of changes. Index changes made after verification, be it 10 days or 10 years after recording, are also tracked on the computer system. In addition, we keep a log book showing for each change, what the original entry was, what it was changed to, the date and time it was changed and who changed it. One employee is primarily responsible for this log. While this log is not readily available for public inspection, upon some preliminary showing of a need for access to the log, we would provide copies of any relevant entry in the log and a written explanation of our standard operating procedures for keeping the log. I believe that this system fully protects examiners from any instance of an index entry being changed after their examination. If an examiner missed an attachment because we had spelled the name wrong but we later corrected the name, our records would show that at the time the examination was conducted, the attachment was misindexed and that the examiner had not missed it.
I do have one unsolicited suggestion you might share with anyone agitated by the phasing out of paper records. That advice is that searches conducted using our website on one’s own computer provide an unrivaled opportunity through the use of screen captures and downloaded images to replicate exactly what the examiner examined. There won’t be any question of whether the registry changed anything because an exact replica of what was there when the examination was done will have been retained at no charge to anyone. It seems to me that would be the best evidence of the competency and completeness of the examination. If some of the energy now being expended on trying to retain a 19th century, paper based way of doing things was diverted to developing imaginative ways of using our electronic records, the business of title examination would become both more efficient and more precise, but that’s just my opinion.
When we first implemented electronic recording two years ago, one of our challenges was where to place the recording information on an electronically submitted document. Because we have no real formatting standards in this state, the layout of every document is different. When the document is sitting in front of us, we can usually wedge the label containing the recording information into some spot on the face of the document. With an electronically recorded document, however, the recording label must go onto the same spot on every document. Due to the diversity of formatting, we would inevitably have recording information overwriting important text of the document. Consequently, for all electronic recordings, we use a coversheet that is automatically generated by our computer system. All recording info – Document number, type, book and page number, date of recording, receipt number and recording fee – is printed on the cover sheet. The cover sheet then becomes the first page of the document. A one page discharge recorded electronically enters our system as a two page document (the discharge plus the cover sheet). This system has worked quite well. We’ve now decided to roll out a similar process for some regular (non-electronic) documents. The formatting standards that are now under consideration by the registers of deeds association call for a blank space 3 inches by 3 inches in size at the upper right corner of the first page of each document. This is where recording information would be placed. But we recognize that the customer who is trying to record the document may not have any control over the formatting of the document. A municipal lien certificate, a death certificate or any other document produced by a governmental entity would be an example. If New York only produces death certificates with ¼ inch margins all around, how could a customer every get such a document recorded in Massachusetts if we strictly construed the “recording box” requirement? For cases such as this, we will make available a coversheet similar to the one used in electronic recording. This coversheet would be affixed to the document and recording information would be placed on it. In the coming weeks, we hope to make samples of possible cover sheets available for public comment.
Today I travelled to Worcester to the old registry of deeds site which is now serving as a test site for our computer company, ACS, and their latest version of our registered land application. While the new program probably won’t look any different to the using public, it will make the job of the folks who work in the registered land sections of registries of deeds a bit easier, particularly when it comes to creating new certificates. I’m not sure when the new application will be installed here - it’s still being tested, after all - but we hope that it coincides with our effort to scan all existing certificates and to find a better way to maintain the existing paper-based certificates until Land Court authorizes the transition to a fully computer-based system. (Don’t worry, that probably won’t happen anytime soon).
Have you ever text messaged? Have you received one? I never did until I started getting them from my nine-year-old granddaughter this summer. I’ll never forget my first one…
My cell phone rings…hello (no answer), hello, Hello! What’s going on? The cellphone screen displays: “You have one text message”. I have a What? I thought…“Tony”, my wife says, “check the messages received folder on your phone”…OK…”Hey, Elizabeth wrote us something. That girls got to work on her spelling.” I must admit there is something addictive about text messaging. Once you start, you’ll never stop. But text messaging has a language of its own and it takes some getting used to. Last weekend I got this one from my grand-daughter… WU WL U T ME 2 CNDY ST LY…interpretation What’s Up? Will you take me to the candy store? Love You! Now how can I say no to that? I text back OC C U TM LY2…Of course, see you tomorrow, Love you too. Here are few more text abbreviation “smile”…LOL “Laugh out Loud”…B4 “Before”…It really is great fun and a unique way to communicate so I would say TI U LI, you’re right Try it you’ll like it.
IG2R…you figure it out.
During the past few weeks, there has been a distinct surge in the level of interest in electronic recording. Two new companies, Simplifile and LandData (working with Stewart Title) are about to join eRX as electronic document middlemen. The two new companies have local attorneys as their target audience. If anyone would like more information about this process, please send me your questions by email and I’ll respond. We’ve been recording at least a dozen electronically submitted documents per day for the past two years. The system works quite well. It’s much more efficient for both us and the customer than is the walk-in process I predict that by the first of the year, the percentage of our overall recordings that are submitted electronically will approach 20% or more..
Imagine being famous enough to have a “fake”…I mean, like someone who fakes being you. Well, Apple guru Steve Jobs has that dubious honor. Jobs’ fake is referred to as, what else… “Fake Steve Jobs”. “Fake Steve Jobs” has been the anonymous author of a blog for more than a year featuring a caricature of the real Apple genius. The “Real Steve Jobs” has attracted great attention in the computer world with his hero/villain image. This tongue and cheek look at “Real Steve” reeks with humor… many other famous techies are also mentioned in the blog, usually by their nickname…for instance, “Fake Steve” calls Bill Gates Beastmaster and Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt, Squirrel Boy. “Fake Steve Jobs” labeled open source enthusiast “freetards”… but all things come to an end and so to Fake Steve. The “Fake Steve Jobs” has been found out. It is none other than Danial Lyons of Forbes Magazine. If you can believe it, Lyons was able to attract 700,000 visitors a month to read about the antics of the “Fake Steve”. It will be interesting to see if the popularity of the site diminishes now that he has been outed.
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