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).
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.
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.
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.
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.