The Digitalization of Land Records and You

Yesterday, I had an experience at a local county. Great clerks there, terrific record keeping, fast service and digital records of all land deals.

Great thing, right? Well, yes and no. Let me explain.

Traditionally, land records are recorded in a book, assigned a page and record number. The resulting book and page are then printed onto the front of the order that is sent to court recording the sale. For instance, Joe Doe’s sale of his house will read, Plat Book ____, Page number ____. These numbers will appear on the side or top of the final order that is sent to court for the land records office to make the sale official by entering it into their Plat Book of Deeds.

What startled me yesterday was the look of the recorded order. No Plat Book ____, Page Number ____ was printed on the final order. Nothing in print at the top or on the side of the document. Nothing except what looked exactly like the order we sent to the county for them to record. The only difference was that above the order number was a bar code. A bar code?! Yes, a bar code. Sigh.

I could get all historical on you and say that this is a system going back to the Domesday Book in 1085 by William the Conqueror. This book recorded all the wealth of England for the French to tax and redistribute to their worthies. Here is a link to that site for more information.

Interestingly enough, that exact recording came to the colonies when the English started making records of who owned what. We have a long and vigorous tradition in this country of knowing where to find a record of what we own.

I don’t know that we do have that precise ability anymore. And certainly with bar codes we have to trust that what is recorded is exactly the same as what would have been entered into a Book on a certain Page. Trust is a dicey concept these days.

After Wall Street’s traunching of mortgages, this digitization of land records strikes me as a disturbing development. See, for instance, this link on what the word ‘tranche’ means. I believe that here is the reason we all heard so much about ‘slice and dice’ when pundits would talk of the bundling of mortgages and then selling slices of those bundles to Joe Doe investor.

I certainly cannot put the ditigal genie back into its bottle. I do think that those of us who have scanners would do well to put any dealings they have with mortgages and land sales onto their home computers and then store them carefully to guard against any dispute in the future about who owns what.

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