Lowell Deeds

The latest on real estate recordings and new technology from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Lowell

March 31, 2008

Accessible to All

by @ 12:51 pm. Filed under Registry Ops

Starting tomorrow April 1 the old basement research room will no longer be open to the public. This move makes all registry records handicapped accessible. As of minutes ago the final four public access computers have been moved upstairs to the new research room and are operational. The research room will house fifteen individual workstations each with its own public computer. Here is what the registry has for public access computers…fifteen in the new research room, ten in the hallway outside the new research room and six in the hallway across from Customer Service. The Middlesex South, probate, corporations and Internet terminals will remain in theeir present location, for now.

March 28, 2008

Movement Timeline

by @ 3:46 pm. Filed under Registry Ops

First, there are problems with www.masslandrecords.com - it’s a hardware issue and the appropriate technicians are working on it. Our in-house system and www.lowelldeeds.com are functioning normally.

As for our transition, this afternoon we opened the new research room to the public. Right now, there are ten operational computers in it. All contain the normal Public Search application along with the historical indexes (the PDF versions) and our older record book images (through a direct connection to the lowelldeeds server). As the afternoon goes by, we will move the six remaining public terminals from the basement and position them in the Research Room. Those six computers will be activated on Monday. So when folks return to the registry from the weekend, there will be no computers left in the basement. The public will still be able to access the books for one more day (that day being Monday, March 31). Then, on Tuesday, April 1, access to the basement (and all remaining record books) will end. We have created a form for users to identify missing or illegible images. Such images will be rescanned within 24 hours of our receipt of such notice.

March 27, 2008

Print Function

by @ 4:14 pm. Filed under Registry Ops

This morning the Secretary of State’s IT people began setting up the print function on the computers that will populate the new research room. This is one of the only issues we need to resolve before we can move the public research area upstairs. Ideally, we want Account Copies to print in the hallway outside of the new research room and all other copies to print in Customer Service. Since we will be using two computer modes for research and printing (Internet and internal ACS database) it looks like this may be impossible. The more likely alternative is that all copies will print in Customer Service.

March 26, 2008

Housing Slide Continues

by @ 5:01 pm. Filed under Real Estate

A Lowell Sun article reports that the decline in house prices from February 2007 to February 2008 was the largest month to month decline since 1990. Our statistics show that the overall slowdown continues. Comparing the period of January 1 to March 26 in 2007 with the same period in 2008, we see that the total number of documents recorded slid from 14963 to 13714 and that deeds fell from 1288 to 1043. Foreclosure deeds rose from 69 to 128. As we reported at the end of February, however, the number of Orders of Notice showed a decline. Our three month snapshot in 2007 saw 263 while the same window in 2008 had only 227. Hopefully this is an indicator that the rate of foreclosures is slowing.

March 25, 2008

New Uses for Old Technology

by @ 4:28 pm. Filed under Technology

An article in the Business Section of Sunday’s New York Times explained that the IBM mainframe computer is thriving these days, despite predictions of its demise a decade ago. A number of institutional users, particularly banks and other financial institutions, have always appreciated the simplicity, reliability and security of the mainframe, so IBM has re-engineered the operating system to allow it to work in a modern, internet environment. While the mainframe won’t soon be relegating PCs and Windows Servers to the technological scrap heap, it has preserved its place in the 21st century. It’s a good thing we held onto our Wang VS computer. Someday it might have a use other than as a museum exhibit.

March 24, 2008

Is Universal WiFi Dead?

by @ 2:18 pm. Filed under Technology

A year ago I was excited when I read that Philadelphia intended to provide free or low cost WiFi to all its residents.And I was even more excited when I read that Philadelphia’s idea spread…shortly other cities like San Francisco, Houston and Chicago followed. Unfortunately, Sunday’s New York Times burst my bubble. The paper ran an article warning of the possible demise of universal, affordable WiFi. EarthLink sounded the “death knell”. A year ago EarthLink agreed to be the main Internet Service Provider for most of these experiments…at a profit of course. Unfortunately, in February EarthLink withdrew from the project leaving its partner cities hanging (or so they think). According to the NYT EarthLink announced “the operations of municipal WiFi assets were no longer consistent with the company’s strategic direction”. Wow, why such a radical change from a company that even outbid Google for the right to make wireless available in San Francisco? …First, it seems EarthLink under-estimated the cost of building a “good” wireless network. As an example…in Philly, it took more routers than expected to provide a “dependable connection” throughout the city. Second, market conditions drove the price of all Internet connections far lower than anyone ever expect. This forced EarthLink to lower its municipal prices also. And finally…Garry Betty, EarthLink CEO passed away in January. Betty was a strong advocate of universal, affordable WiFi. So where do we go from here?…According to the Time’s article many experts feel that US cities must adopt a model similar to European cities such as Athens and Vienna. These huge municipalities provide free or affordable connection through a system owned and operated by the city itself. I wonder if the time will ever come when officials in the US see the cultural and educational benefits of providing free Internet access to everyone. We can only hope.

March 21, 2008

Understanding High Finance

by @ 1:22 pm. Filed under Archived, Real Estate

In the opening line of his Economic Scene column in this Wednesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt writes “Raise your hand if you don’t quite understand this whole financial crisis.” He goes on to explain that even the people who created this mess don’t really understand it, and makes a valiant and useful attempt to lay out the various factors that have brought us to this point. One of the biggest factors was the huge amount of money that was floating around looking for investments with high returns. Traditionally, an investment based on mortgages has been considered quite safe (”fixed income”) and provided competitive returns. While extremely low interest rates made refinancing so attractive, they also made mortgages as an investment less attractive. That’s where subprime mortgages with their higher interest rates come in. Because the borrowers were such poor risks, lenders would routinely charge higher rates - that’s nothing new. But the higher rates made these much more attractive vehicles for investors and this is where the system fell apart. A year or so ago, the Lowell Sun ran a front page profile of an individual who was on SSI, taking in about $300 per month, who qualified for a loan with an initial monthly payment of $1200 at a very high rate of interest. Who in their right mind would have considered putting up the money for that mortgage a wise investment? No one, but package that mortgage up with hundreds of thousands of like risk, and they suddenly become a magnet for those seeking higher returns.

In explaining the situation, Leonhardt recommends a book by Charles Morris. Last night I was at Barnes and Noble, so I asked the help desk if they could assist me. I asked for “The Billion Dollar Meltdown” but they had trouble finding it. The title is “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown”, a distinction that really says it all.

March 20, 2008

Progress on Public Access Terminals

by @ 7:41 pm. Filed under Registry Ops

We’re making excellent progress in supercharging our existing public access terminals in time for the move into the upstairs research room. All terminals will now run the existing ACS 20/20 Search application, which is what everyone who’s done research at the registry has used for the past six years. Also on these terminals will be the PDF format Grantor and Grantee Indexes from 1629 to 1975 - we’ve discussed them before. The third feature on these workstations will be access to the registry website. You will see the same page that you do when you go to www.lowelldeeds.com on the internet. But that site will be accessed via our internal network and not over the internet, so any links (like “search land records” or “send email”) will not work on the in-registry machines. The main features - older document images, the marginal reference look up table, and older plans will all function without difficulty.

March 19, 2008

The Move Continues

by @ 12:59 pm. Filed under Registry Ops

This morning we moved the “large, heavy, awkward (get the message) book cutter we borrowed from the Worcester Registry of Deeds downstairs into the lower research hall. With the re-location of the research room, one of our plans is to scan books in the basement. This brings us two advantages…First, this will eliminate the need to carry the old books upstairs; and second the basement is large and much more conducive to this project. This morning we also moved an HP 9000 printer into the upstairs hallway outside of the future research room. This HP will print “account copies only” for the public. All other copies will need to be picked up at a registry department. We also moved the plan apperture card storage cabinet into the hall. Hopefully, before the end of the day a card viewer will be in place also.

March 18, 2008

Pre-1976 Indexes on Computer

by @ 4:23 pm. Filed under Website

Index information from 1976 to the present is available in a searchable database on public access computers in the registry and remotely via the internet. Earlier indexes will soon be available in a different way. Some time ago, we scanned all of the pre-1976 indexes for disaster recovery purposes – they had never been microfilmed – and the resulting images were quite good. So good, in fact, that we completely changed our approach to adding index information to our computer system. Rather than spend thousands of hours (or dollars) doing data entry, we decided instead to present the scanned images of the existing paper indexes as electronic books. After all, back when we produced a current index on paper as well as on the computer, registry users would often say that they preferred the paper version because it allowed them to flip forward and back through the pages, potentially catching spelling variations that would otherwise be missed on the more precise database search.

Here’s how these “electronic index books” work. We have duplicated the Grantor-Grantee and date range divisions that existed in the paper books. For example, there are ten sets of books divided into the following year groupings: 1639-1855; 1855-1880; 1881-1900; 1901-1915; 1916-1925; 1926-1940; 1941-1950; 1951-1960; 1961-1965; 1966-1975. Within each of these date ranges, we have taken all the images containing names that begin with the letter “A” for example, and bundled them into a single PDF file. Since some of these files may contain 800 or more images/pages, they are quite large and cannot be made available over the internet in their current form (but more on that later). To assist users in finding the relevant entries, we have created a table of contents consisting of the first name on every page and the corresponding page number. To illustrate, let’s say you’re interested in Grantee Index entries for “Richard Howe” in the 1940s. After navigating your way through the Grantee folder to the 1941-1950 folder, to the letter “H” folder, you would peruse the table of contents looking for that name. You see that the closest name that alphabetically precedes it is “Raymond Howe” on page 581 and that the first name on the next page (582) is “Samuel Howe.” Using the “go to page” feature in the Adobe PDF viewer, you enter “581” and are immediately forwarded to that page. You view the page just as you would view that page in the paper index book. If you want to flip backwards or forwards, you use the “next” and “previous” page arrows to do it. It’s as simple as that. When you find an entry of interest, you just jot down the book and page on your legal pad, just as you do with the paper index, and then use the appropriate computer application to display the image of that book and page. That’s how it all works.

We’ve made these PDF files to our customers on CD for several years now, providing them on a barter system that requires the customer to provide us with a set of blank CDs which we swap with CDs containing these PDF files. Registry employees have used them for years on our internal network, rarely having to look at paper index books. On April 1, 2008 when we make the leap to the entirely paperless registry, these PDF files will be available on most public access terminals within the registry. Users will find this method of viewing our pre-1976 indexes superior to the current method. As for offsite access to this data, we’re working with a computer consultant to devise a simple application that will work on the internet, but that’s still a few months away.

March 17, 2008

More on the Move

by @ 1:29 pm. Filed under Registry Ops

This morning the last registry employee was moved out of what will soon be the new research room located in back of the building. This moved has opened a number of opportunities for us. One of the registry employees has been moved across the hall and has begun scanning our Registered Land certificates. Another employee has been re-assigned to quality check the marginal reference we manually captured a few years back (these are all now available on our website). The next step in preparing the room for public occupancy is removing the furniture. I plan on doing this in stages over the next two weeks. Several of the folding worktables that were used by employees during our scanning projects have already been broken down. Over the next few days some of the small research tables located in the lower record will be moved to the future research room. They will be replaced by “temporary” worktables for the public. More on the move coming…

March 14, 2008

More Changes at Registry

by @ 4:46 am. Filed under Registry Ops

A complaint to the state’s Architectural Access Board about last fall’s relocation of the registry research area to the lower record hall has prompted that agency to scrutinize how we deliver services to the public. The fact is that accessibility of the lower record hall is limited even though that space has been used by the public at this registry without incident for more than 25 years. While the procedures we had in place – accessible computer terminals on the first floor and registry employees retrieving downstairs materials for individuals with mobility limitations – did meet the requirements of the law regarding accessibility, we decided to take another approach, one the Architectural Access Board has fully ratified. So, at close of business on Friday, March 28 (if not sooner) we will be closing the lower record hall and making it entirely off limits to the public. A smaller public research area will be created in the room that formerly housed the Middlesex South satellite recording office and that now contains registry scanning equipment – the room located just beyond the Jury Pool Room in the rear of the building. We are in the process of equipping that room with some tables and work stations so that individuals who chose to do their research here at the registry rather than online will have some space. Of course, this now means that all record books and indexes will be taken out of service permanently, but we’re confident that the new features and content that we just made available on our website (see yesterday’s post) will be a suitable replacement. As always, check back for updates.

March 13, 2008

New Look and Features on Website

by @ 11:51 am. Filed under Website

We’ve made some changes to www.lowelldeeds.com. Besides changing the appearance of it, we have added a “marginal reference lookup” capability. We spent several years entering all marginal references from book 1 through book 4216 (which is in 1987) into a database. Using the lookup link, you enter the book and page of the beginning document and click “find marginal references” and the screen will display the book, page number and document type of any reference that was written in the margin of that book. All references later than 1987 exist as hyperlinks in our main database. We have also made images of our Middlesex South books - those containing documents for the towns in this district recorded prior to 1855 - available online. To retrieve them, you must know the town, the book and the page number. Finally, we’ve put the images of all documents from book 1 to book 2789 in the “record book” link. But we will soon add higher numbered books that for whatever reason do not appear as images in our main database. We have already scanned them and stored them locally, but importing them into the ACS system has been problematic. This will provide a short term solution. Please send me an email if you have any comments about the new design and the new functionality.

March 12, 2008

Foreclosure Stats Since Jan 1

by @ 8:35 am. Filed under Statistics

Since January 1, 2008 the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds has recorded 94 Foreclosure Deeds. Here is the registry’s breakdown by town:

Billerica: 6

Carlisle: 0

Chelmsford: 6

Dracut: 12

Dunstable: 0

Lowell: 57

Tewksbury: 4

Tyngsborough: 1

Westford: 3

Wilmington: 5

March 11, 2008

Claypit Cemetery Update

by @ 8:49 am. Filed under History

Last week I announced that we had found the deed to the Claypit Cemetery (located behind the Brunswick Lanes Bowling Alley in Lowell’s Pawtucketville) and that the deed clearly showed that the property had been conveyed to “the Inhabitants of the town of Dracut” back in 1868. Someone then asked “are you sure” and I set out to corroborate our assertion. Far from corroborating it, further research shed more doubt. True, the deed was for a “burial ground” and the dimensions on the deed fit almost precisely within the bounds of the Claypit cemetery as set out on deeds of adjacent (and interlocking parcels), but the name trail just didn’t make sense. So now I’ve revised my conclusion. I won’t make any pronouncements until I have solid, irrefutable evidence, but for now it’s looking like neither Dracut nor the city of Lowell “own” the cemetery in the property law sense. What has become clear after looking at dozens of deeds from the mid-1800s is that back then, people were going to great lengths to make it clear that they were not owners of the cemetery which is one of the reasons why finding who is the owner is so tough. I presented this information to the Dracut Historical Society last evening at their monthly meeting. The 30 people in attendance seemed fascinated by this mystery and urged me to stick with it. I promised that I would and that I’d return to a future meeting when I found the answer.

March 10, 2008

Get Back…Soon

by @ 8:34 am. Filed under Current Events, Pop Culture

At home I use a wireless router to connect to the Internet…and I love it. Since I own a laptop I go anywhere in the house and I am still connected. It is the greatest. Last Saturday I noticed my trustie baby would not connect to the wireless router. Oh no, something is wrong. I wondered, could I connect the old fashion way? ..using a paaatttcccch cord? Yes, yes that worked…but what about my wireless…what about my freeeeedom to go anywhere in my house and be Interneted. I need that! I decided to call technical support. I’ve gotten great results doing that in the past.

Rep: ”Sir, please shut your computer off and remove the battery.”
Me: “I did, it is still not connecting”.
Rep: ”Sir, restart your computer and hit F10 rapidly. This will start your BOIS”. Please return it to the Normal mode.
Me: “I did, it is still not connecting…what could be the problem”.
Rep: “Sir, hold you computer over your head and jump up and down while singing The Beatle’s song “Get Back”.
Me: What? “Get Back?”
Rep: “Yes Sir, This will restore the computer to its default settings.”
Me (huffing): “I did, it is still not connecting.”
Rep: “Sir, it looks like we need to service your laptop.”
Me: “What, will someone come to the house?”
Rep: “Sir, tech support does not do house calls. You will need to ship the computer to us?”
Me: (shaky voice) “What? You want me to send you my baby?”
Rep: “Sir, you can be assured that your computer will be in competent, caring hands. We will treat it as if it were our own.”

I was in a panic. I couldn’t concentrate. The service representative explained the procedure for shipping my laptop. I didn’t comprehend a word. I got off the phone. My wife looked at me.

Wife: “What’s the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost?”
Me: “My laptop has to be admitted, I mean sent out to be repaired.”
Wife: “Yeah, so send it. What do you have to do to get it to them?”
Me: “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening when they explained it”.
Wife: “Are you serious? It is just a computer”.
Me: “No,… no, you’re wrong. You don’t understand…It is more than a computer. It is part of my essence. Looking at my Internet favorites is like looking into my soul. My browsers is an old friend I trust and care about. Why, don’t you understand? My laptop, “my” Internet… I connect, therefore I exist. It is a slice of my very being”.
Wife: “Well, unslice it and get it fixed. I don’t want to listen to you crying about it”.

So, some time in the next twenty four to forty eigth hours a box with an accompanying shipping label will arrive at my home…my laptop will be sent to some far off, unknown location. Strange hands will probe its insides. Then in seven to nine business days it will come back as good as new, capable of wireless connection, again…While waiting, I’ll comfort myself by singing “Yesterday” and counting the minutes as if they were hours.

March 7, 2008

Foreclosure Update

by @ 12:29 pm. Filed under Real Estate

With all the media reports about the rate of foreclosures continuing to rise, I took a look at our figures for the first two months of 2008 in comparison to January and February of last year. For the entire Middlesex North District, in Jan/Feb 2008, we recorded 75 foreclosure deeds and 147 orders of notice. For the same two months in 2007, we recorded 39 foreclosure deeds and 150 orders of notice. Looking at just the city of Lowell, in Jan/Feb 2008, there were 44 foreclosure deeds and 83 orders of notice. Same months in 2007: 23 foreclosure deeds and 76 orders of notice. With the number of foreclosure deeds nearly doubled, it’s tough to find anything positive to say except that the orders of notice seem to have leveled off which suggests the number of foreclosures that we’ll see in the late spring and early summer should stabilize, as well.

March 6, 2008

New Websites Under Construction

by @ 12:42 pm. Filed under Website

Last night I finished a “web design” class that gave me many pointers on how to improve lowelldeeds.com, so I’m about to begin a redesign that will hopefully be easier to use and filled with more information. Rather than wait a month until the new version is completely finished, we might roll out new features as they are ready and then bring it all together at the end. As always, stay tuned to this blog for details.

In addition, I also got a glimpse yesterday at a proposed new version of masslandrecords.com. The registers from the registries that use the ACS system (like we do), met with ACS almost a year ago and presented a comparison of the in-registry public search system and the website version. Almost everyone prefers the in-registry system, but for security, cost and reliability reasons, we want to move to an entirely web-based public search application. Before we can do this, we have to get the website functioning more like the in-registry software. I think this new design does that. I won’t go into the details because, as I said, this was just a prototype and there’s no specific timetable for when it will be fully implemented. But from what I saw, I am quite optimistic.

March 5, 2008

Mortgage Help

by @ 10:43 am. Filed under Real Estate

In an effort to slow down the rapid rate of foreclosures in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick has begun a proactive program. Last week the governor’s office sent homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages an informative letter. The letter addresses a mortgage problem that some omeowners may face in the upcoming year and offers a possible option for help…let me quote the governor:

Over the past several years, many homeowners got mortgage loans with adjustable interest rates. In some cases, these rates were especially low for the first two or three years. Now, many of these loans are adjusting, or re-setting, to a sharply higher rate.

If you have not done so recently, take a fresh look at your mortgage document or call your lender to determine if you have an adjustable interest rate that may be scheduled to re-set in the near future. If so, and you suspect that you might have difficulty paying the new higher monthly payment, it is important that you contact your lender and discuss your situation now. You may be able to refinance to a fixed interest rate loan, or arrange to alter the terms of your loan in such a way that you can still afford the monthly payment.

I also urge you to consider calling 1-888-995-HOPE. This toll free foreclosure hotline is staffed by trained professionals from the Home Ownership Preservation Foundation and NeighborWorks America who will provide guidance to you on steps you can take to deal with increased mortgage payments.

The letter is signed Deval L. Patrick, Governor

March 4, 2008

Reverse Mortgages

by @ 12:02 pm. Filed under Real Estate

Sunday’s New York Times had a front page story on the risks involved in reverse mortgages, telling the story of a woman who fell victim to a salesperson who had her withdraw several hundred thousand in the equity of her home and invest it in an annuity that pays her a certain amount of money monthly over an extended period of time. The problem is that the resturn on the annuity was less than the interest rate being paid on the borrowed money, so the woman now only has a very limited flow of monthly income but stands to lose her house in the not too distant future when the borrowed money and the accumulated interest exceed the value of the home. Undoubtedly, reverse mortgages are a useful tool for some elderly home owners who are house-rich and cash-poor, but it’s a not something that has been widely used, at least in this zip code, so everyone is still getting a feel for how they work. We haven’t seen too many reverse mortgages recorded here, but after reading this article, we’ll start paying closer attention to those that do show up.

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