Thursday, September 30, 2004

Technology Committee Meeting

The Registry of Deeds Technology Advisory Committee met yesterday in Boston to discuss several topics. I gave a PowerPoint presentation on the ACS electronic recording system (which we hope to have posted for public viewing on early next week). We’ve been testing the system here in Lowell for the past six months and have found it to be a very interesting product that has the potential to revolutionize the way recordings are done in Massachusetts. While the Committee had many questions, two issues predominated the discussion. The first issue dealt with the mechanics of how users will enter names into the system: in a multiple document transaction, all names from all the documents are entered at the same time. The label attached to each name tells the system which document it belongs to. For example, in a sale with a mortgage, the buyer and the borrower on the mortgage are typically the same person. Rather than type the name twice, the system takes whomever you identify as the buyer and makes that name the grantee on the deed and the grantor on the mortgage. Most committee members seemed to think that because of the wide variety of names and documents in a typical transaction, this approach wouldn’t work all that well. The other issue involved the speed with which electronically recorded documents would go on record and the ways by which a submitter could do a final rundown prior to the documents going on record. Nothing final was decided other than to continue testing and discussing the proposed system. Check back tomorrow for a report on another meeting topic – document formatting standards.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Homestead Seminar

We held a Homestead seminar at the Tewksbury Senior Center on Monday night. The registry was invited as part of a comprehensive program dealing with "retirement planning". About forty people attended. The seminar began with a Power Point presentation on Social Security. It was very informative and interesting(you can tell I'm getting older). About thirty of the people in attendance filled out a Homestead. Some younger people, not yet interested in "retirement planning" came just to fill out the Homestead. A few that came had older forms which had been taken off our website a few years ago. It shows the Homestead is something people "absolutely have to do", but never find the time. It's enjoyable to do these seminars and its a nice service. Especially, knowing how busy people are today.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

New Judicial Center for Lowell

Last night’s Lowell Sun contained a legal notice from the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) requesting interested parties to submit their qualifications to construct a new judicial center in Lowell. Past newspaper stories have indicated that this proposal will be a “design/build” project where the developer will construct the building and then lease it back to the state. This is intended to get the new building up much more quickly than by using the traditional state building methods. How does this impact the registry of deeds? It’s unlikely we’ll find a new home in the judicial center. Courthouses are extremely expensive to build and the registry really doesn’t need a courthouse-type setting to operate. There is a good chance that we’ll move, it’s just unclear where that might be. To prepare for this possibility, we will start planning now. If you have any suggestions about what features should be included in a new registry of deeds facility, please share them with us.

Monday, September 27, 2004


I love gadgets! At home I have a talking meat thermometer. A female voice pleasantly tells me "your entree is ready" (it even tells me when it is almost ready so I can begin to salivate), then there's the HDTV(the best thing since sliced bread), wireless internet(why can't they make a wireless toaster? I'd buy one), an electric envelope opener (no more paper cuts). I'm starting to sound like a spoiled brat. But one of the "gadgets" that I couldn't get to work correctly at the registry of deeds was "video help". Here's how it worked...or didn't. We installed an inexpensive minicam on a PC in our lower record hall and one on a PC in Customer Service. The computers were connected through the internet. You're in the lower record hall. You need help. No need to run all the way upstairs to Customer Service. Just "ring"...instantly you "see and hear" someone. I imagined this working similar to a supermarket "information phone"(hello, can you tell me what aisle the LaSeur peas are on?) It just didn't work right. The audio quality was horrendous. It sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher...whha, whha, whhawhaa. After about a month we scrapped the idea. This was about fours year ago. Since that time there have been major improvements in audio and video computer equipment. The equipment is better and less expensive. And as I said... I do love gadgets.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Electronic Recording Update

Our computer company (ACS) has made some refinements to the electronic recording system. Many of the terms, labels and document types available in drop down menus on the Internet-based customer side of the system have been modified to reflect Massachusetts practice, culture and law. The same "look back" feature that exists on our walkin recording terminals is now operational in electronic recording. Anytime a name is entered with a new recording and that name has already been entered in the grantor index within the past 45 minutes, the registry clerk gets a popup box on the recording screen identifying the book and page number of the document where that name appears. When a customer is there in person, we simply say "Do you know about document XYZ?" and the customer either says "yes, proceed with recording the documents" or "no, give me back my documents until we check this out." Because the customer won't be standing there with an electronic recording, our plan is to call the submitter and ask if we should proceed. The alternative is to "reject" the recording until we receive more definite instructions. This is one area where customer input would be very valuable. Anyway, we're having a big meeting on electronic recording next Wednesday in Boston. I'll be doing a PowerPoint presentation explaining in words and pictures how the new system will work. Sometime during the week I hope to put the presentation on our website so everyone can take a look at it.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

1966-75 Grantor Index Soon Available

We’re making great progress in our quest to make older indexes available to you electronically. The 1966-75 Grantor Index should be available by the end of next week. Here’s how it will work: All of our old index books have been microfilmed for disaster recovery purposes. We’ve taken that microfilm and scanned it, creating an electronic image of each page of the index books. While these images (and the original microfilm) are usually quite clear and readable, they contain a lot of extraneous stuff – wide margins, portions of facing pages, for example. Right now, six of our employees are trimming each image to maximize their visibility. As each “letter” is finished, we’re creating an Adobe PDF file containing all of the pages with entries that start with that letter plus a table of contents to help you find the right page. Each letter will have its own file. Tomorrow we hope to put a sample on our website.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Meet George Jetson

A few weeks ago the blog addressed the installation of wireless Internet connections throughout the entire city of Philadelphia. Since that time local periodicals have addressed the possibility of wirelss Internet in Boston and some communities in the Merrimack valley. The installation cost is minor in comparison to the benefits that come from providing high speed Internet connection on a mass level. Most computers are now being sold with internal wireless network cards. A "Jettson like" view of the registry of deeds, has users moving freely around the registry, perhaps searching registry Internet records with their own laptops. People working at a convenient table or study carrell anywhere in the building, free from the restrictions posed by wired public access terminals that are available in limited numbers. Maybe "Jetson like" is not the right phrase. The way technology is advancing this could be possible sooner than one thinks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Variations in Recording Fees

If you bring the exact same document to several registries of deeds, you should pay the same recording fee, right? Well, such is not the case in the Commonwealth. The biggest culprit (document-wise) seems to be a document that discharges a mortgage and an assignment of rents. At this registry, we would charge you $75 to record the document and make marginal references to both the mortgage and the assignment of rents. At another registry, you would be charged $150 because that one piece of paper would be treated as if it were two different documents (at those registries, it is called a "multiple document" and is indexed twice, just as though it were two separate things). It gets even more complicated when that same document also discharges a Financing Statement. Is the correct fee still $75 with three marginal references, or is it $195 ($75 + $75 + $45)? Who's right? Since there's really no need to index such a discharge several times as long as you make marginal references to the appropriate documents (an act that takes about 5 seconds per reference), I don't see the point in doing it. It just creates more work for us and confusion and additional expense for the customer. Still, it's gotten to the point that users want a uniform interpretation on this issue, so I might have to go along with the higher fee. This will be discussed next Wednesday at the Registry of Deeds Advisory Committee meeting. You'll be among the first to know the results of that discussion.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Taxes & the Sox

It's true...some things are inevitable...Taxes and the teasing Red Sox are two of them.
First the Taxes:
A recent article in “City and Town” a publication of the Department of Revenue lists some fascinating facts about assessed values and tax rates in Massachusetts' communities. The camparisons use "fiscal year" information from the largest residential category, the single family home. Below is a chart comparing the average tax rate, assessed value and tax bill over the past ten years.

FY Avg Tax rate Avg Assessed Val Avg Tax Bill
1995 14.21 $153,572 $2,182
1996 14.55 $156,159 $2,272
1997 14.76 $159,838 $2,359
1998 14.92 $165,050 $2,463
1999 14.73 $173,576 $2,557
2000 14.48 $185,009 $2,679
2001 13.67 $206,789 $2,827
2002 12.76 $236,229 $3,015
2003 12.03 $266,350 $3,205
2004 11.10 $307,417 $3,413

A quick analysis shows that the average statewide "assessed value" doubled in the past decade($153,572 to $307,417) and the average statewide "tax rate" has decreased in recent years as the assessed value has grown. The current year's 15.4% increase was the largest single year increase in the past ten years.
A future blog entry will list some specific information regarding assessed values and average tax bills in FY04 for the ten communities in the Middlesex North District as supplied by "City and Town".
Now "How about them Sox"! I think Pedro needs to cut his hair. He looked better and pitched better before. I am 53 years old. I was about 5 when I became cognizant of the baseball world around me. That means 48 years of waiting. Well as they say there is always next...weekend. Go Sox!

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Latest on Homesteads

This week's edition of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (Sept 13, 2004) has a front page story on a Bankruptcy Court decision that interpreted Massachusetts homestead law. It seems the homeowner had a first mortgage that was used to purchase the property, then recorded a homestead and then recorded a second mortgage. The second contained no language releasing or otherwise addressing the homestead. Now the homeowners are in Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings and the second mortgage holder wants relief from the automatic stay that comes with filing bankruptcy. The homeowners claimed that since the homestead preceded the second mortgage, the homestead protected the home from that particular creditor. The judge ruled that since Massachusetts is a "title theory" state, a mortgage constitutes a deed and since a new deed dissolves the existing homestead, the second mortgage holder is not barred from foreclosing by the homestead. The decision seems a bit confusing. If the mortgage/deed dissolves the homestead, it would seem to be dissolved for all subsequent debts, not just the new mortgage. But the decision seems to suggest that it's only the new mortgage that is outside the homestead's protection. Whatever. The important point is that many lawyers and homeowners ask whether a new homestead must be recorded after refinancing. From my non-scientific survey, I would say a slight majority of attorney's say no, it's not necessary. This decision seems to indicate otherwise.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Catch Up Time

You can tell that mortgage applications have fallen sharply. We usually record mail within two days of receiveing it. Today we are working on... today's mail. Recorded Land and Registered Land documents are scanned within two hours of recording. We have begun focusing on returning documents faster. Our usual return time is thirty days. Recently, this has increased to six weeks mainly due to summer vacations. Before a document can be returned it must be scanned, microfilmed and indexed. Normal document flow has four verification checks on imaging. Even with these safeguards, it still comforts me to know the original is in the building for at least thirty days. Also, during these thirty days the public becomes another set of eyes for us. In the unlikely event we miss something obvious the document is still available to make the correction. As I tell the staff, once an original leaves the building that's it. There is no getting it back (usually). I anticipate the return time will be back to thirty days in the next two weeks.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

More on Electronic Recording of Plans

In response to my earlier blog entry on plans, I've already heard from an expert in electronic recording who tells me that filing plans electronically is feasible although no one in the country is doing it yet as far as we can tell. It certainly is an interesting concept, one that we'll continue to pursue. But I was really talking about something much simpler. My initial idea was to have an electronic version of the plan submitted to the registry in addition to (not instead of) the hard copy. Here's the rationale: the surveyers and civil engineers create the plans on computers. They print a hard copy of the plan on "mylar" a plasticy substance much like super-thick plastic wrap for those of you unfamiliar with it. The mylar version is brought to the registry and recorded. At the registry, we scan the mylar, creating an electronic version for our customers to use on our computers and over the Internet. This electronic file to hard copy back to electronic file process is very inefficient. Why can't we just get the computer file that was used to produce the hard copy along with the hard copy. That way, the electronic image on our computers would be much crisper and easier to read. Just a thought.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Mass Assoc of Land Surveyors and Civil Engineers

This past Friday I was the guest speaker at the 50th annual convention of the Massachusetts Association of Land Surveyors and Civil Engineers (MALSCE) in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (To be fair to MALSCE – that is, why would they want to hear from me? - I was a last minute replacement for the featured speaker who had a scheduling conflict). The topic was “what’s happening at the registry of deeds and the role of the Secretary of State’s Office.” Since the Middlesex North Registry was one of the first in the state to move from county government to the Secretary of State’s office, I was able to recount the history of what has happened and why. We also had a spirited discussion on the future of electronic recording, especially as it relates to recording plans. I suggested that we (the registers of deeds and MALSCE) form a working group that would update registry plan regulations and explore the possibility of filing electronic versions of their plans. The group seemed very receptive to that idea and were a terrific audience. On another note, congratulations to Doris Finnegan who retired from the registry of deeds last week and to registry employee Martha Fallon, who married Attorney Arthur Santos on Friday night. Finally, don’t forget to vote tomorrow in the state primary election.

Plan Indexing

Presently our plan index goes back to 1933. As we approach the completion of the plan re-scanning project indexing back to 1855 obviously becomes the next logical step. In the past we have tried to back index our plans without much success. As I understand the situation, in order to display pre-indexed Plan images ACS created a simple index consisting of a series of sequential numbers. We tried to change this index by substituting the "series" with the actual plan information. Surprisingly, this procedure created a second entry. One entry had the correct indexing information, but no image. The second, the ACS "series" with the image. Hopefully, a little tweaking by ACS will solve this problem. Once the re-scanning project is fully completed this project will move up on the priority list.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Good Plans

As mentioned in earlier blogs, we are cleaning up our electronic plan images. After a “long road” this project is finally coming to an end. Even when the project is finished there will still be images that are far less than perfect. A number of years ago the public used the original plans as an information source. As you can imagine some plans became worn from the heavy use. During the re-scanning process we did our best to fix damaged plans but, obviously, there is nothing we can do about a faded or worn plan. We made a list of those in poor condition. It can be viewed in our copy area. Some plans have dimensions that are so small you need the original to read them. We realize that sometimes there is a need to see an original plan. These plans have been stored away to prevent further damage, but can be readily retrieved with sufficient notice.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

More on Formatting Standards

Earlier today we recorded a mortgage that made a compelling case for Document Formatting Standards. This particular mortgage was printed on a single piece of paper that was 8 ½ inches wide and 28 inches long with printing on both sides. It was folded in half, creating the appearance of four separate pages. But the print just ran through the fold, so when we tore the document in half so we could scan it, several lines of text were torn as well. The resulting margin in other places was miniscule, only 1/32 of an inch. Registries are now totally dependent on scanning to create the permanent, historical copy of recorded documents. With lax standards, we do a disservice to future registry users who will be forced to use records that might be partially illegible. The way to prevent this is by adopting and strictly enforcing statewide formatting standards. While the standards have not yet been established, they will undoubtedly include requirements such as white paper, black print of a certain size, signatures in black or dark blue ink, a three- inch first page top margin, one-inch margins elsewhere, and paper size not to exceed 8 ½ by 14 with 8 ½ by 11 preferred.

More on Document Formatting Standards

We recorded a mortgage this morning that had a top and bottom margin of less than 1/32 of an inch. Although it was four separate pages, when it was presented at the recording counter, it was only a single piece of paper, 8 1/2 inches wide by 28 inches long (folded so it appeared to be only 14 inches long). To scan documents of this type, we must tear them apart along the fold. In this case, the print of the mortgage provisions ran right along the fold leaving us with the miniscule margin I mention above. This is a prime example of why formatting standards are needed. The registries have the responsibility to create and maintain a permanent record of documents of this type, and that record is created by scanning. But many documents are created with no consideration of how they'll scan or how the registry will affix recording information to them. Formatting standards might include things like the following: All paper must be white, print must be black, signatures must be in black or dark blue ink, first page top margin of three inches with all other margins a minimum of one inch; reduced print not acceptable, 8 1/2 by 14 inch paper maximum size although 8 1/2 by 11 preferred. We'd like to hear your comments on this issue.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Sales Reports for August

The sales and foreclosure reports for August have just been posted on our website. The sales report gives you all properties sold for the month within each town. The report is organized by street address, date and sales price. If you want more information, you can do a search in our database, but most people are just interested in what properties in their neighborhood are selling for. I didn't realize how popular this feature is until we delayed loading the July reports until mid-August. There were many inquiries asking "where are the sales reports?" so we'll try to post them in a more timely manner as we have done this time. I was reminded of the importance of this at home on Saturday when I received a "now is the time to sell" letter from a local realtor that included "free information on properties sold in Lowell." The "free information" was a copy of our reports for the city of Lowell for the past couple of months. I was please to see one of the innovative ways that visitors to our website are making use of the data we provide.

Lowell National Historical Park

With all of the cookouts, yard work, and back to school shopping of this past weekend, it was easy to forget the significance of Labor Day. Established as a national holiday in 1894, early Labor Day celebrations featured street parades "to exhibit the strength of the trade and labor organizations of the community followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families." Ironically, the strength of the labor movement through the years may have diluted the importance of the type of union-centered celebrations of earlier Labor Days. Now, most people simply enjoy the holiday as part of an end of summer three day weekend. A great way to reflect upon the accomplishments of labor and to experience the history of industrialization and immigration in the United States is to visit the Lowell National Historical Park. Operated by the National Park Service, the Lowell park has many exhibits and tours that are fun and educational. For additonal information, visit the park's website at

Friday, September 03, 2004

More on Standardization

A reader submitted an interesting comment on yesterday's blog entry which discussed the need for document formatting standards. To the person submitting the comment, formatting standards would be acceptable so long as they applied at every registry in the state. I completely concur. Without that type of predictability, what's the point of having standards in the first place? The reader also discussed the difficulties he faced because of the non-standard practices registries follow when it comes to returning documents. Some registries charge postage, others do not, and still others (like this one) require self-addressed, stamped envelopes. I can't speak for others, but I will explain how our policy came about. Up until the fall of 2001, this registry provided return postage service. Back then, employees in the "data processing" department would enter the return mailing address of each document into our computer system. This usually happened a day or two after recording. Sometime later, we would print mailing labels, affix the labels to envelopes, stuff the envelopes with the correct documents, run the sealed envelopes through our postage machine, and then stuff them all in the mailbox. In 2000, we spent more than $40,000 in postage alone. That doesn't count the cost of envelopes and labels, or the time spent by employees typing return addresses, placing labels and postage on envelopes, and stuffing the envelopes. In the fall of 2001, however, the gigantic and unforeseen deficit in the state's budget drastically cut our funding. Suddenly I was faced with the choice of either cutting our postage costs or laying off two badly needed employees. I kept the employees. And the return document policy we developed works quite well. Since the fall of 2001, if customers want documents returned, they must either provide us with a self-addressed stamped envelope or sign up for a no fee document pick up box here at the registry (the customer picks up recently recorded documents during his next trip to the registry). Documents that don't have an envelope or a pick up box associated with them are placed into storage until someone claims them. The system works great. Not only have we saved an immense amount of money in postage and envelopes, we have eliminated a considerable amount of human effort that was previously expended on the old way of mailing documents. The reason we don't just charge extra for postage is that any money we collect goes directly into the state's general fund. Our budget, which has either been level funded or cut in each of the past five fiscal years, in no way would reflect the extra money we took in. That's why we need the "in-kind" contribution of the self-addressed, stamped envelope. Sorry to make this such a long story, but I wanted to explain the logic behind our system. Other registry's might have different considerations that make our policy unworkable for them. That's why something as simple as a document mail back policy might be the toughest thing of all to standardize throughout the state.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Document Format Standards

One of the biggest challenges we face at the registry is how to scan the wide variety of documents that are presented for recording. They come in every size, shape, shade, and font size. With scanning such an integral part of our operation, processing these non-standard documents eats up a big chunk of our time. And the miniscule margins that are left on many of these documents make placement of the label bearing the recording information difficult. On many documents, the label must obscure printing on the original because there is absolutely no blank space left. I will be working with other registers of deeds to formulate clear, easy to comply with standards. I would like to see them take effect on January 1, 2005, perhaps with a one year amnesty period to give companies with pre-printed forms time to get into compliance. I believe New Hampshire registries undertook this process several years ago, so a fact finding trip north of the border might be in order. Informal conversations about this topic with customers have made it clear that there will be resistance, but our informal efforts to get the folks who produce the documents to be more reasonable in their formatting has not prevented the situation from getting worse. One of the chief duties of a register of deeds is to produce a legible and permanent version of recorded documents. Given much of what's now presented for recording, that's an impossible task, so I believe that the time for enforceable standards has arrived.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Where have all the wires gone... long time passing

There is a fascinating article in the technology section of the Boston Globe today. Philadelphia officials are considering turning the entire city into "the world's largest wirelss internet hot spot". Here are the mechanics. Hundreds of small tranmitters would be placed atop lamposts. These would have the capability of communicating with standard wireless network cards that are used in everyday laptops. The city is talking about offering internet access free of at a small fee to users. This would make high speed internet access virtually available to all. Philadelphia is not the first city to consider wireless. Chaska, Minn has been offering citywide wireless internet access for over a year. Philadelphia officials estiminate that the setup cost would be about
$10 million. This sounds like a small price for such a huge technological leap. I use wireless at home to connect to the internet. It is reliable and convenient. It probably won't be long before many more cities follow the lead of Chaska and Philadelphia.