Monday, February 12, 2018

Latitude, Longitude and the Registry of Deeds

A newly arisen boundary dispute with a neighbor will frequently prompt a homeowner to come to the registry of deeds in search of his deed and a plan of his property. The expectation that these
Middlesex North Registry of Deeds
documents will resolve the problem is soon punctured by the realization that even the most precisely drawn deed or plan is of limited use unless one can accurately translate a point on the document to a point on the ground.

While there will always be a need for surveyors and civil engineers, a uniform system of corner markers embedded in the ground would do much to resolve these kinds of disputes. But physical markers are expensive to emplace and subject to loss or relocation. Perhaps technology will provide a solution to this problem.

The same GPS technology that guides your car to its destination also has the potential to resolve boundary disputes like the one described above, and to revolutionize land records in the process. GPS devices calculate their location by “triangulating” electronic signals emitted by GPS satellites that continuously orbit the earth. The result is given as the latitude and longitude of the GPS device, numbers often referred to as GPS coordinates.  

So what does GPS have to do with land records? By including the GPS coordinates of corner points and other terrain features on new subdivision plans (and perhaps even on new deeds), the challenging task of aligning a point on a document with a point on the ground will become infinitely easier. Supplied with the GPS coordinates of his lot line, a homeowner with a GPS-enabled smart phone would be able to accurately identify the boundary line on the ground and resolve the dispute.

Consumer grade GPS devices today are only accurate to about six feet, but more expensive military and commercial grade devices are more precise with error rates of only a few inches. History teaches us that technology always gets better and more affordable over time, so soon the GPS capability of the standard cell phone will be as accurate as its more sophisticated counterparts.

While mandating the inclusion of GPS coordinates in subdivision plans and deed descriptions will be a big undertaking, there are other steps registries of deeds should take now to ease the coming integration of real estate documents and mapping technology. A starting point would be to include the MassGIS parcel location identification number – the LOC_ID – in the registry of deeds database. MassGIS, the state agency responsible for geographic information in the Commonwealth, selects a point within each parcel of land in the state and uses the latitude and longitude of that point – its GPS coordinates - for the parcel’s LOC_ID. Because this same ID number is already included in every assessor’s database in Massachusetts, LOC_ID is the digital link that connects mapping and assessing information. By adding LOC_ID to the registry database, deeds and subdivision plans could be similarly linked to mapping and assessing information. Once this LOC_ID link was established, users viewing a deed could, with a single click, display assessor information for the parcel and, with a second click, view the parcel on the state’s mapping system.
Creating a new field in the registry database would be relatively easy. Populating that field with data will be the big challenge. One possibility would be to amend the Massachusetts Deed Indexing Standards to require the LOC_ID of a parcel being conveyed to be included in new deeds and subdivision plans and for the registry to capture that information in its database. However, an easier way to capture LOC_ID information might be through the use of standard addresses.

Property addresses have never been a central feature of our system of land records. It was only in the late 1990s that we consistently added street addresses to our database. Even today, address is a flawed method of searching land records.

One way to make property addresses more useful in registry of deeds records is for the Commonwealth to adopt standard addresses. With a list of standard addresses, the address field on registry computer systems could be converted from today’s “enter whatever address is on the document” field to a drop down menu of standard addresses. To be recorded, the property address on a document would have to match an address on the drop down menu of standard addresses. This would increase the accuracy of address searches on registry computer systems and, because standard addresses could be programmatically linked to the corresponding LOC_ID number of the parcel involved, the registry’s LOC_ID field would be automatically populated each time the address field was filled.

While much of the above may seem far-fetched to those in practice today, our records are inextricably linked to land. Anything we can do to better connect registry records to the land depicted in those records will benefit everyone. The exact path we should take is unclear, but technology is propelling us rapidly forward. Now is the time to convene a working group of registry personnel, conveyancers, surveyors, and GIS and IT professionals to help guide us through the integration of registry of deeds records and mapping technology.  

Dick Howe’s column, “From the Recording Desk...,” is a regular feature of REBA News.  Dick has served as register of deeds in the Middlesex North Registry since 1995.  He is a frequent commentator on land records issues and real estate news.  Dick can be contacted by email at

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