May 10

How to Use the Massachusetts Registry of Deeds Search Function OR A very basic guide to determine who owns your house

The Registry of Deeds is an important institution in Massachusetts and other states. Transfers of real property (land and improvements on land such as buildings) are recorded and kept at the Registry, and these documents are highly important when it comes to legal transactions relating to real estate. You can’t sell your house if you don’t own it, so how do you prove you own it? When you bought it, under almost all circumstances you your lawyer recorded a deed to the property at the Registry. The deed is a legally binding document stating that the previous owner transferred the specific property to you, the new owner, and states the amount of “consideration,” i.e. the amount of money you paid for the exchange. Without a legitimate and properly recorded deed, your ownership of the property could come into question and you may have serious problems selling it. You can view the deed to your house on the Registry of Deeds website in Massachusetts, as deeds, mortgages, and certain other documents are public information. Seriously, read that again: the information contained in the deed to your house and your mortgage is public in nature. Anyone can view it at any time via the website.

Are you thoroughly creeped out yet? Alright good, let’s move on. Using the Registry of Deeds website to determine the status of your property or any other purpose is fairly easy to do, though the site itself is a bit dated and can be a pain to use from time to time. I hate to sound ungrateful, obviously the state has a limited budget to work with, and seeing these records from the comfort of your home and office is infinitely preferable to physically going to the Registry, waiting in line (yes, there are lines at the Registry, and it’s a bit like the DMV where you pull a number and then wait for it to be called) and then requesting that the documents be pulled from the archives for you to view, and then paying to have copies made…

But still, the website is not perfect and might not be overly intuitive to some people. That’s why I threw this guide together. I was inspired to do so by an ex girlfriend who had certain issues with her landlord. I tried to explain to her over the phone how to utilize the Registry’s site, which was very helpful to her, but during this conversation I realized that even though I have a lot of experience using the site for various things, the site itself isn’t that easy to use unless you know what you’re doing, and it can be difficult to explain how to use it.

Viewing the deed to the property is a helpful starting point if you have legal troubles as a renter. If you live in a large building or complex, the documents at the Registry can be used to determine the name of your landlord in the event that you need to sue him/her/it; and additionally you can figure out what kind of mortgage is on the property to determine if it is worthwhile to sue. Why wouldn’t it be worthwhile to sue? Even though the landlord owns property and you pay them rent every month, they may not actually have that much money. If the mortgage is huge and they recently refinanced, you may not be able to get any money out of the landlord even if you successfully sue.

In any event, even if the landlord does have some monies available or some worthwhile equity in the property, they probably don’t have a pile of cash sitting in a bank account, their mattress, or anywhere else , so if you sue and win a large sum of money for multiple egregious violations of the law, don’t count on the landlord writing you a check on their way out of court. Do count on needing to force the landlord to pay you what they owe. One powerful way to compel them to start writing checks or start negotiating some kind of payment plan is to put a lien on their property. It makes sense to determine who the actual owner of the property is. Is it in a trust? Is it owned by a company? Is your landlord the actual named owner on the deed? Is there a massive mortgage on the property that would render your lien almost worthless? These questions and more need to be answered before you begin litigation, because frankly, if you go through the legal procedure and win and then have nothing to leverage to enforce the judgment, you’ve basically wasted a lot of time and money for nothing.

Alright enough about that, on to the practical aspects.

So you want to view the records of a property. Step 1: Determine exactly where the property is located. I say “exactly” because you need to know the county in addition to the street address and city. For some out of state people, the county government is a big deal, but here in Massachusetts, not so much. How can you find out what county the property is in? It really isn’t that hard with the internet at your fingertips, seriously . If you aren’t sure, don’t just guess, it’s important.

Your starting point with the Registry of Deeds website in Massachusetts is www.masslandrecords.com. The picture below is the home page from which you will pick your specific Registry. There are different Registries in different parts of Massachusetts. They are divided mostly by county, but some counties have more than one, so make sure you are picking the right one. Refer to the illustration below. Here’s where it gets a little more difficult- If you are in one of the many counties that has more than one Registry, I cannot tell you exactly which Registry services your city/town (and a snarky link to google doesn’t do much good here either). If you don’t already know (and why would you, unless you’re a lawyer?), the website tries to make it easy to select the correct Registry with the click-able map right on the first page. If you know your geographic location, you click on the Registry that appears in that general location. However, if you’re not certain of your exact geographic location, then you have to guess. Click on the one you think is correct, then go to “Property Search” (follow the instructions for “Property Search” below), and then go to “Select town.” If your town isn’t in that drop-down list, then back out and try again with another Registry and repeat until you figure it out (it really should take two tries at most… if you’re doing this three or four times with no luck, you clearly did not get that my link to Google above was my heavily sarcastic hint that you use Google to determine your county and general location before beginning this process).

reg of deeds 1st

reg of deeds 3

Once you’ve done that, you’re on to Step 2: The Search. The default search is by name. This can be helpful if you know the name of your landlord and you want to see if they own any other properties. You can also search by property address, which I think is usually more helpful if you are a renter and you are looking to see the status of the property you are renting. The illustrations below show how to do both type of search.

reg of deeds name search

reg of deeds 2

reg of deeds property search

reg of deeds property search 2

The results below are from a search by property address. I obscured the names not necessarily to protect the privacy of the individuals (this is seriously 100% public info) but to reduce the likelihood that I’ll get sued… because people can sue you for dumb reasons and even if they lose, it’s still a pain in the neck to deal with it. The results for a search by name are similar, except you obviously get hits based on the name and not the address. The name search can be a pain if the person you are searching for has a common last name. Also, one thing to remember when doing a search by name: You are only getting the results for that particular Registry. So if you are using this site as a tool to try to find out if a person has any assets, you may want to search multiple Registries.

search results page modded

Few important notes:

Notice the spelling of the address. Should you use “Mt,” ‘Mt.,” or “Mount” Auburn street? You have to try them all!! Even if one works and brings up some results, search the other possibilities as well! It’s not a perfect system so it’s on you to make sure you’re not overlooking anything because the person who uploaded these files could very easily have skipped a period or abbreviated differently than the person before him!

Notice the “Description”- I used this example on purpose to show that the description can be used to indicate the Unit number. In this case, it’s referring to condominiums. Don’t enter the apartment/condo number into your search box, it will most likely come up with no results, you have to sift through the results and look at each document to figure out which correspond to your unit. Is it tedious? Yes. Is it better than going to the actual registry of deeds and doing the same thing with the paper files? Yes, by a wide margin. So learn to love it.

There are probably many documents relating to the property you searched for. Look at them all!! You may find something relevant in an unexpected place!

If you come up with zero hits on your search results, you probably did something wrong. Don’t take it personally, I made this guide because it’s fairly easy to make some kind of mistake on the Registry’s web site. It is possible, but very unlikely that there are no documents relating to your house/building/property. There are certain circumstances where that could be true, but it is far more likely that you made a simple error somewhere along the way in your search. I’d always recommend starting again from the beginning, go through each step carefully and make sure you made all the correct selections, and check for any typographical errors.

Step 3 is probably your final step in this process: View images. Here again the site is not overly intuitive, but don’t get frustrated. Once you think you’ve found what you are looking for, click on it in the search results column on the left hand site (the illustration should be helpful here, I hope… otherwise I wasted a Saturday night fooling around with MS Paint and screenshots of the Registry of Deeds website). Double clicking doesn’t pull up the image, you have to go to the right hand side of the screen and click “view images.” Before you do that, check out the details that come up (right hand side, below the “view images” tab) when you click on the document in the search results. Some of that info might be help you figure out if you are looking at the right thing.

search results view image

image page

Pay close attention to my notes in the illustrations regarding viewing multiple pages, printing, and saving as a PDF. This is where I think the lack of user-friendliness of the site is most apparent. It seems like it was originally designed to be a pay-site, i.e. you would have to pay to access or print these documents. As of this writing, I have never paid to access anything on the Registry’s site, nor can I find anything on the site that costs any money. For whatever reason you have to go through the process of adding documents to your “basket” in order to save them as a PDF, and then download them as a .zip file, which I find fairly odd. In my practice, I always make electronic copies of everything and keep minimal paper copies wherever feasible. Given the strange multi-step process of saving a document as a PDF from the Registry of Deeds website, I often find myself simply printing the document and then scanning it as a PDF later if desired. The more I use the save feature, the more I get used to it, but at no time has it ever felt easy to use or intuitive. Yet, having gone to the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds in person to visually inspect the official copies of some documents, I’m still very thankful that this site exists and it can do what it does. The staff at the Registry are always very helpful but you just can’t beat doing it from home almost instantly.

I hope you found this guide helpful. It isn’t meant to be all-encompassing or extremely detailed, but rather just a basic manual for those who have never used the Registry’s site before. As always, I recommend calling an experienced lawyer for all legal matters.

March 15

Body Armor, Crossbows, Open Carry…. Myths, Bad Information, and Legal Gray Areas of Massachusetts Law

Is it illegal to own ballistic body armor in Massachusetts? Can a person possess a crossbow? Does this bastion of liberal views and gun control allow open carry? I admit, there was a time when I assumed I knew the answers to these questions without actually doing any research, and I even perpetuated some of the bad information (to my friends, of course, never a paying client who asked me to advise them about these specific topics. If you’re writing the checks, I’m hitting the books, but… if you’re buying me a beer, all you get is the intel I have stored between my ears). The answers seem so intuitive to anyone even vaguely familiar with Massachusetts that you might think it’d be a waste of time to do any sort of deep research. Everything is illegal in Massachusetts! Of course body armor is illegal in Massachusetts! Crossbows? You need a permit that shows you have a disability that prevents you from using a regular bow in order to hunt with one! Open carry of a firearm? Heck no! Where do you think you are, Texas? Is this the full story? I think not.

Here’s the real deal (see disclaimer). Body armor: You cannot wear it while committing a felony in Massachusetts. Notice it does not say “violent” felony, so … stow the flak jacket while fudging your taxes. There are additional federal laws that also apply, e.g. you cannot own it if you are a convicted violent felon, but that’s about it as far as laws I could find regarding ballistic armor in Massachusetts. Having worn it myself for military training, I don’t recommend it. The military grade vests are heavy (between 35 and 40lbs and I’m a big boy so they gave me the XL size), hot, and uncomfortable. The first time I wore one I was fine for about 20 minutes, and then three hours later it felt like someone had worked my shoulders over with a hammer. But… it’s not illegal as far as I can tell, so if you’re into that sort of thing and you can find it, afford it, aren’t going to use it during the commission of a felony, and aren’t a convicted violent felon, suit up!

Crossbows: Not illegal to own in Massachusetts, but apparently not lawful for use in hunting unless you have a disability of the sort that doesn’t allow you to use a standard style bow. That’s it. As far as I can tell, you can own a crossbow in Massachusetts, but you cannot use it for hunting. I checked a few sporting and hunting retailers’ web sites and none seem to have a problem shipping crossbows to Massachusetts. I don’t see anything requiring a permit to own one either. But you can’t use it for hunting… so why would you want to own one? Because…. You know… Reasons.

Open carry: This is an easy one, right? NOT illegal with the correct permit and for certain kinds of firearms! Who would have thought? This is Massachusetts after all, the state with some of the strictest gun laws in the United States. How can this be possible?! Ok, first thing’s first: It is 100% illegal to open carry a rifle or shotgun loaded or unloaded on a public way in Massachusetts unless you fall under the exceptions described in the law. Even if you have a permit to own the rifle/shotgun, you aren’t allowed to carry it on a public way (but, see the exception for hunting). With a Class A License to Carry Firearms, however, you can “… purchase, rent, lease, borrow, possess and carry: […] firearms…”. Note that “firearm” in this instance means basically pistols, handguns, and revolvers. Here is an interesting article regarding the possibility of open carry in Texas with a good discussion of Massachusetts firearms law (you read that right, as of today’s date, Texas does not allow open carry of handguns). Note that the executive director of the Gun Owner’s Action League talks about the fact that open carry of a handgun seems to be technically lawful because the licensing statute allows licensees to “possess and carry” such firearms and makes no further specification, so it does not distinguish between openly carrying or carrying concealed when it comes to handguns. Interesting that Texas, a state widely known (or at least believed by many) to have a pro-gun culture, is referring to Massachusetts, one of the most restrictive states in terms of gun laws, as a reference point to craft its open carry laws. You can also refer to G.O.A.L.’s website, which has some very good and comprehensive information regarding licensing and other gun laws, but as always you should contact a lawyer for legal advice and never rely solely on information given on a website. Full disclosure: I am a member G.O.A.L. and an occasional donor.

So what about open carrying a rifle, shotgun or handgun in or on a place that is not a public way? Well, it is this young lawyer’s opinion that if you are not on a public way, you are most likely on private property (although not definitely… how are we defining “public way” here anyway? Another question for another day). In that case, the property owner sets the rules, which might include ejecting you from their property for carrying a weapon whether you are licensed or not.

So why is it often assumed that body armor, crossbows, and open carry are illegal in this fine state? The best answer I have is the cultural and social norms of this very weapon shy state make it seem like it is. That’s it. People think these things are or should be illegal, and generally people are not lawyers and don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

Try Googling these questions, or read a few online forums, even some reputable hunting/shooting sites… they are chock full of absolute nonsense and bad legal advice. If you are trying to get legal advice for free online (including from this Blog!!!!) you will get exactly what you paid for, which is terrible free legal advice from someone who was probably not a lawyer, or worse, you will get terrible free legal advice that will put you in an extremely bad position (e.g.: Someone told you it was legal to openly carry a shotgun on a public way as long as it isn’t loaded? That excuse won’t fly with the cops nor a judge, and you will be on the hook for criminal and civil penalties despite your very best intentions and attempts to follow the law that you only thought you understood). The Internet, particularly sites where anyone can post answers to questions (contrast with a site like Avvo, where the people answering the questions are actually lawyers; Full disclosure: I pay for a sponsored listing on Avvo) is the worst place to get legal advice. You don’t know who is answering your question, you might be getting flat out wrong information, and you will be held liable if you unwittingly break the law because you failed to understand it properly.

The law is complex. It turns out that you need roughly 7 years of school in most states to become licensed to give legal advice, so you should probably think twice before you go out armed with a lethal weapon and intel you got from a website of dubious quality and origin. What’s the best source of information on the laws? I’d like to direct your attention to the end of each and every answer given by a lawyer on Avvo.com. They all recommend you talk to a licensed attorney in your state. The best source of information on the law as it relates to your specific case is your attorney, one that you called on the phone, talked to in person, formed an attorney-client relationship with, and paid. No one is ever in a rush to fork over cash money, but my legal education was not free, so yours won’t be either, but, you’ll get what you pay for, and it sure as heck beats going to jail because you got shoddy backyard legal advice.