Monday, August 31, 2009

"Operations Management"

The Sunday Globe had an interesting story about increasing efficiencies at hospitals through better use of "operations management." I mention this here because many of the concepts are applicable to the operation of a registry of deeds. Here's a sample:

In the fast-food industry, maintaining an even flow is what keeps dozens of chicken fingers from stacking up while frustrated customers wait for cheeseburgers; at Toyota, it turns automobile production into a tightly choreographed dance that minimizes wasted time and materials. Thanks to strong central management and years of practice, companies have become expert at ensuring that steel arrives exactly when it needs to be rolled into car hoods, or a container of dishwashers from China shows up almost exactly when stores need to restock them for customers. Good flow keeps costs down and customers happy.

Maybe improving operations management and "flow" in the registry would reduce waiting time and the recording counter and increase our overall efficiency.

School opens tomorrow in Lowell

The public schools in Lowell officially open tomorrow, so commute times to the registry will be lengthened, especially in the morning and mid-afternoon as school bus drivers learn their routes and parents used to the slower pace of summer rush around, dropping off and picking up their children.

Traffic congestion in the immediate vicinity of the registry as well as competition for curbside parking should be considerably diminished this year with the closing of the nearby Rogers Middle School. Because of declining middle school enrollment and the budget crisis, the Lowell School Committee chose to re-assign the students and staff of the Rogers to other middle schools in the city and then move the school department central offices into the vacated school. The administrators, however, will be arriving gradually and are not yet there now, so there’s very little competition for curbside parking spaces, for the time being.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Welcome to the NEW LowellDeeds Blog

Welcome to the NEW LowellDeeds blog, the source of the latest news and information about the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds including our observations about the state of the real estate market and advances in new technology.

There are several reasons why we switched our hosting platform: (1) this new site contains some features that will make the blog more interactive while allowing us to provide you with more information in a variety of formats; (2) this is a Blogger site, which is owned by Google, which means it's all free; (3) the old blog, which remains available here for researching things we've written about in the past, had gone for nearly four years without a software upgrade and we decided shifting to a new platform would be easier; (4) this is actually the original LowellDeeds blog and still contains all of our posts from 2003 to 2005.

Besides the new platform for the blog, we have also created a Facebook page. If you're already a Facebook user, please click the Facebook icon at right to begin following us. We expect our Facebook page to become a must-see site for the most recent sales information.

We're also Tweeting - something we've been doing for sometime. If you have a Twitter account, please click on the link at right to follow us.

Finally, thank you for your continued readership. Your feedback helps motivate us to keep writing. Please note that we have activated the "comment" feature here, so we invite you to use that feature to become part of the conversation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is a housing market rebound underway?

Articles in yesterday’s Boston Globe and New York Times both suggest that the nation’s housing market is slowly starting to rebound. Both total sales and median price for sales in both June and July when compared to a year ago show a slight increase.

Locally, evidence of a market turnaround is more elusive. Looking at sales with prices above $75,000 and below $750,000, we find the following: For Lowell, in July 2009, the median sales price was $179,000 while in July 2008 it was only $173,500. That represents an increase of 3%. In the towns, the median price in July 2009 was $305,750, but in July 2008, the median was $316,450. That represents a 3% decrease.

Despite these figures, I believe the real estate market in the towns is bouncing back slightly, while Lowell remains troubled due primarily to the high inventory of foreclosed properties. Still, the situation is much better than it has been. For example, here’s what I wrote on August 14, based on mid-month recording statistics:

Besides the continuing trend of fewer foreclosures, the most important observation we can make is that homes in the towns seem to be holding their values pretty well. This conclusion is based on the significant increase in the number of suburban mortgages being recorded. In Lowell, on the other hand, the number of mortgages being recorded is down slightly, but it’s down nonetheless which suggests that any rebound in home prices has not yet reached the city of Lowell.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy

So many many memories, so many many years ago...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

House Histories

Homeowners often contact us asking us how they might determine the year in which their homes were constructed. Here’s an inquiry I received yesterday by email:

Hi. A fellow old-home owner in Lowell referred me to your website as a good source of historical info about our house. When I do a search on the address, I only see info going back to 1990. I'm looking for info back to 1890! Does the system contain old info? I'm trying to determine the actual year the house was built. I've seen conflicting dates on various documents, from 1860, to 1880, to 1905, to even 1917!
Here’s my reply:

All of the land ownership documents (deeds, mortgages, etc) going back to 1629 are available on our website ( although they are in several places, depending on their age. The more recent ones are on while the older ones - before 1950 - are on Unfortunately, the name index used to find these documents only goes back to 1976 online. We have it all the way back to 1629 but that's only available here at the registry. It is in electronic form, however, and if you bring in a 16 gigabyte flash drive (also known as a "thumb drive") we will give you a copy at no charge. The files for the index are so large that we have not yet been able to get them on the internet.

More to your inquiry, records here at the registry of deeds are primarily concerned with who owns the land and not what is built upon the land, so nothing we have would tell you precisely when your home was built. The best you can do with our records is draw inferences from the various deeds and other documents. For instance, if someone bought the property for $1000 and a year later sold it for $5000, you could infer that something had been built upon it in the interim.

If you decide to come to the registry to conduct your research, we're open from 8:30 am to 4:15 pm Monday thru Friday. On whatever day you do make it to the registry, please stop by our Customer Service desk and ask for me. If I'm available, I'll show you how to use the computers; if I'm not, just ask anyone at the Customer Service desk to help you.

Sorry I can't be more helpful than that, but if you have any more questions, please let me know.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Great Job

Three Lowell High School Interns paid by the Lowell Career Center finished their employment at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds last Wednesday. The assignment I gave them was straightforward and clear…”actuately scan as many of our old records books as possible”. Here is a little context…Before July we had one volunteer employee scanning these books and one full time employee preparing them to be scanned. During a normal week these two working (without interruption) would scan 20-25 books. Truthfully, the prep work for these old books is far worse than the scanning. When the interns arrived our permanent employees we working on record book number 500, moving backwards. Scanning 20 books a week meant the project still had rough another six months before completion. Today there are 250 books left to scan. In a short five weeks these student workers finished 50% of the project (250 books)…we couldn’t be happier. It is difficult in the summer to make significant progress in long-term projects. This is mainly due to employee vacation schedules, so the accomplishment by these interns was a welcome development for us. Thanks for a great job.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Do-it-yourself deeds

August is a popular month for vacations here at the registry, so I usually spend more time than usual working at our Customer Service Counter which gives me a valuable opportunity to assist customers who call or visit the registry of deeds. Those in the real estate related professions typically have straight forward questions, but members of the public often have more complex inquiries.

This summer, many of these calls are requests to “take a name off of a deed” or make some other change to the ownership of property. These calls make it clear that much of the public is under the impression that we here at the registry maintain some kind of master list of who owns what property and that we either cross out or write in names as ownership circumstances change. In response to these questions, we try to provide a simple explanation of the role played by deeds in land ownership. We then explain that to change ownership, a new deed must be created. That leads to the inevitable question, “can I do that myself?” That’s a tough question to answer. Technically, the answer is yes, but we emphasize that real estate law is complex and that one or two words in a deed could completely change the meaning of the document. Because the asset involved - a home, typically - is worth so much money, it’s reckless for anyone to put it at risk by trying their hand at deed drafting to save the cost of hiring a lawyer to do it. Some people see the wisdom of that approach and call an attorney. Others insist that they can’t afford an attorney and will have to do it themselves. At that point, all we can do is suggest they visit a law library for further assistance.

Happy Anniversary Hawaii

Happy Anniversary to Hawaii. Our fiftieth state joined the Union fifty years ago today on August 21, 1959.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Electronic Recording Statistics

Now that the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds in Cambridge has been recording documents electronically for a couple of weeks, it’s an appropriate time to review some electronic recording statistics from Middlesex North were the system has been in use for several years. While processing electronically recorded documents has become a routine part of our operation here in Lowell, the percentage of documents being recorded by that means remains capped at about 12% of our total daily intake. My sense is that number is artificially low because many real estate practitioners have held off on adopting electronic recording until more registries of deeds allow that process. Now that Cambridge is open for business, perhaps our volume will rise.

For now, here are the stats for 2009 up to the end of July: In those seven months, we recorded 4889 documents electronically which accounted for 12% of our total of 41282 documents. The monthly volume of electronic recording rose steadily from a low of 344 in January to a high of 805 in July. On seventeen days, we recorded more than 50 documents electronically. The five highest volume days were April 13 (107 e-docs), Feb 24 (78 e-docs), Feb 23 (75 e-docs), July 21 (73 e-docs) and July 1 (68 e-docs). As for document types recorded electronically, 59% were discharges, 20% were mortgages, 3% were deeds and 18% were other types of documents.

And has been the case from the very beginning, electronic recording from the registry end has been a fast, efficient and trouble-free means of recording documents.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Problem with Appraisals

For months now attorneys have been telling me that as many as two-thirds of the sales or refinancings that come through their doors are scuttled when the appraisal comes back with a lower than expected value. Recent comments, and our own statistics, suggest that this phenomenon is more often true for properties in Lowell than for those in the towns in this registry district, but it remains a system-wide obstacle to the recovery of the real estate market.

While many of the properties being valued have certainly lost considerable value, there may be more going on here. Today’s New York Times carries a front-page story detailing how the appraiser’s profession was upended by a new “Code of Conduct” that went into effect in May. The main feature of this code is that the lender, and not the real estate broker or the mortgage broker, selects the appraiser.

The intent of this rule was to insure the independence of the appraiser by eliminating any incentive he had to shade his valuation upward for the benefit of the broker or mortgage originator who both get paid only if the deal goes through. But with the lender making the decision, many local appraisers have been forsaken by major lenders who have turned to larger, centralized appraisal firms to do the work. The concern now is that the appraisers working for these firms are inexperienced and not locally based and are therefore less likely to accurately value the property. At least those are the concern raised by the article. Still, based on the comments of local attorneys, there is some validity to these concerns.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tax Lien Foreclosures

The New York Times reports today that foreclosures are rising in some parts of the country, not because of homeowners falling behind on their mortgages, but because they have failed to pay their real estate taxes. This situation is somewhat foreign to us here in Massachusetts where the philosophy and the practice by municipalities is to encumber the property with a lien and then to wait until the present owner sells or refinances and brings the taxes current. In other parts of the country, however, governmental entities (usually towns or counties) routinely sell tax liens to private investors who charge interest of up to 18% and aggressively foreclose on homeowners who are in arrears. These investors are quite sophisticated (“you don’t get 18% return on a CD!”) and have their own organization - the National Tax Lien Association - complete with a sophisticated website.

The governmental entities find the practice of selling tax liens attractive because it results in a rapid infusion of cash into the treasury. But this practice also results in more foreclosed and vacant homes which causes further deterioration of the neighborhood. It would seem that a better approach would be to work with the homeowners to find ways to make the taxes current.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Trends in Lowell Home Sales

We’re in the midst of a study of home sales in Lowell during the month of June that we hope will provide a sense of what is going on in the real estate market. Looking at the prior sales history of the 146 properties sold in Lowell during June confirms that real estate values remain considerably lower than when they reached their peak during the 2003-2006 bubble. On the other hand, the current value of properties that last sold in 2000 remains higher than the earlier purchase price.

Here are some examples of bubble property sales:

In 2005, 119-121 Livingston St sold for $415,000. In 2009, it sold for $180,000.
In 2005, a condo at 16 Merrimack St sold for $142,100. IN 2009, it sold for $75,000.
In 2005, 52 Kinsman St sold for $240,000. In 2009 it sold for $135,000.
In 2005, 590 Pine St sold for $305,000. In 2009, it sold for $228,000.
In 2002, a condo at 18 Hampton Ave sold for $210,000. In 2009 it sold for $168,000.

Here are some examples of pre-bubble sales:

In 1998, 809 Chelmsford St sold for $128,000. In 2009, it sold for $199,000.
In 1999, 73 Magnolia St sold for $138,000. In 2009, it sold for $223,000.
In 2000, 25 Putnam Ave sold for $165,000. In 2009, it sold for $214,900.
In 2000, 250 Butman Rd sold for $230,000. In 2009, it sold for the same price.
In 1999, 16 Wetherbee Ave sold for $194,000. In 2009 it sold for $334,900.

These are just a few examples that illustrate the variability of prices during the past decade. If you bought ten years ago (and refrained from refinancing to extract increase equity during the boom), your house is probably worth considerably more than you paid for it. If, on the other hand, you bought five years ago, your house is worth less than you paid for it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mid-August Statistics

As we reach the half way point of this month, it’s time to look at the number and type of documents being recorded to help us spot any trends. Today, I’ve compiled stats from Lowell as one group and then stats for the other nine towns in the district as a second group. This differs from our previous practice in which we looked at Lowell in isolation but also looked at the entire district including Lowell. Because current trends in the towns differ significantly from those seen in the city, separating the two groups will provide a more accurate picture.

When recordings for the first two weeks of August 2009 are compared to the same two weeks from August 2008 for the nine towns, we find that the number of deeds recorded is up 13% and the number of mortgages recorded is up 27%. Foreclosure deeds declined by 38%. The picture in Lowell is different. While foreclosure deeds are down an impressive 63%, the number of deeds and mortgage recorded are also down (2% for deeds and 14% for mortgages).

The second major comparison we’ll make is for year-to-date recordings for the same groups. When the number of documents recorded from January 1 to August 14, 2009 is compared to the number of documents recorded from January 1 to August 14, 2008, we find that in the towns, the number of deeds recorded is down 4%, mortgages are up 34%, and foreclosure deeds are down 44%. In Lowell, deeds are down 12%, mortgages are down 4%, and foreclosure deeds are down 40%.

Besides the continuing trend of fewer foreclosures, the most important observation we can make is that homes in the towns seem to be holding their values pretty well. This conclusion is based on the significant increase in the number of suburban mortgages being recorded. In Lowell, on the other hand, the number of mortgages being recorded is down slightly, but it’s down nonetheless which suggests that any rebound in home prices has not yet reached the city of Lowell.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Update on new

Yesterday I travelled to Worcester for a meeting with representatives from other registries of deeds, from the Secretary of State’s office and from ACS, the company that provides computer services to many of the registries. Our purpose was to review feedback that’s been received about the new masslandrecords site. Not surprisingly, the feedback has been mostly negative – that’s usually the case when you propose something new – and much of it was of the “new site is horrible” variety. But other comments were specific and we focused our attention on those. Rather than compile all comments and then try to make one big fix, fine tuning the new site will be an evolutionary process with gradual change implement in small doses over time. Two upgrades that will be implemented fairly soon will be to convert them format of document images viewable on the site from TIFF to PNG which should improve the speed of performance considerably without sacrificing image quality (and printed or downloaded images will continue to be of a very high quality that will yield a clear print). The other change will be to make a popup image viewer the default setting. A number of people found that having the image appear in the right half of the viewing window (the data retrieved in the query was in the left half of the screen) made it difficult to navigate around the image. The pop up viewer can be easily repositioned to allow the user to see as much of the document as the user’s screen will permit. Another change that should be implemented fairly soon is to add the ability to print multiple pages of a document rather than just the first page or the entire document. Other possible changes remain under consideration.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Update on new site

The new version of continues to be available for testing by customers. When you go to that web address, the old (a/k/a "classic") version displays and is fully operational. There is also prominent language inviting customers to "click here" to try the new site. Unfortunately, many customers are interpretting that as a command and not an invitation and are clicking through to the new site and becoming discouraged by what they find.

My sense is that the criticism falls into three general categories: The first is that the new site is more difficult to use which is true, at least for the first few times you use it. Once you become familiar with it, however, the added functionality of the new site should be readily apparent. Every time we've deployed new technology at this registry, it has resulted in a negative reaction from users, but that negativity only lasts for as long as it takes for them to get acquainted with the new system. Ironically, when "classic" masslandrecords first came out, the reaction to it was quite negative. Now that folks have grown comfortable with it, the reaction is much more positive.

The second area of criticism is the speed (or lack thereof) of the new site. I have to agree with this. For someone pulling up a random document, it might not be too bad, but when you have to do a title search and retrieve dozens of documents, it's aggravatingly slow.

The third area of criticism is the layout of the front page. The page is dominated by instructions and other non-functional items with the search boxes and links to advanced search funcitons tucked away in the upper 20% of the page. The functions available on this new site are an improvement over the "classic" version. I'm just concerned that no one is going to get to them to discover this on their own.

Sometime next week there is a meeting of all the registers of deeds who utilize the masslandrecords site. More information about whether it will be fully deployed or sent back for a re-configuration will be available then. I'll keep everyone posted.