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THE RECORD AND GUIDE.
FEBRUARY 20, 1886—No. 936.
LAND TRANSFER REFORM.
ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF THE BLOCK PLAN OF INDEXING
LAND RECORDS IN THE CITY OP NEW YORK, PREPARED
AND SUBMITTED TO THE LEGISLATURE BY DWIGHT H.
OLMSTEAD, SUPPLEMENTARY TO HIS REPORT AS ONE OP
THE COMMISSIONERS OP LAND TRANSFER.
TO THE LEGISLATURE OP THE STATE OP NEW" YORK.
The undersigned respectfully represents that at the lasfc session of the
Legislature, as one of the Commissioners of Land Transfer, he presented to
the Legislature his report as such Commissioner, together wifch a bill pre¬
pared by him to provide for indexing on the Block plan of local indexes the
land records of the city of New York.
That such report owing to differences o£ opinion between the Commission¬
ers upon the subjecfc of Lot and Block indexes was not prepared until late in
the session, and the undersigned having been able fco give f urfcher delibera¬
tion to the subjecfc now desires fco present fco fche Legislafcare such ofcher sug¬
gestions as have occurred to him.
The subjecfc will be considered under the following heads:
I. The present law of this State relating to indexing land records,
and the tnischief resulting therefrom.
II. Local Indexing.
III. The plan of so-called Lot Indexing as proposed by the majority
of the Commissioners of Land Transfer.
IV. Objections to the proposed Plan of Lot Indexing.
V. The Plan of Block Indexing as proposed by the undersigned.
VI. Advantages of the proposed Plan of Block Indexing.
VII. Other reform bills proposed by the Commissioners.
VIII. Further reforms advised.
IX. Beneficial effect of the contemplated reforms.
I. THE PRESENT LAW OF THIS STATE RELATING TO INDEXING LAND
RECORDS AND THE MISCHIEF RESULTING THEREFROM.
Under the presenfc law by which deeds, mortgages and other insfcru-
ments affecting land are recorded in the cifcy ot New York, as well as
elsewhere in this State, the insfcrumenfcs recorded are indexed againsfc the
names of the parties to such instruments, and thus constructive nofcice is
given of their contents.
Nofc less than 20,000 insfcrumenfcs are now recorded annually in the Reg¬
ister's oflSce in said cifcy, aboufc one-half of which are deeds and fche ofcher
half mortgages and other instruments. The insfcrumenfcs to be recorded
in fche Register's office wifchin fche nexfc five years will number not less than
100,000; and this without taking infco accounfc the rapid growfch of fche cifcy,
or fche greafc mass of instruments already recorded.
The index used for indexing the instruments forms no part of the
record (Bedford vs. Tupper, 80 Hun. 174 and cases there cited); and the
availability of the recording acts for fche purpose for which they were
designed, namely, to prevent fraudulenfc transfers and dealings, is practi¬
cally of little moment, ifc being much more likely thafc an instrument will be
improperly indexed, or not indexed afc all, or thafc ifc will be overlooked in
examining the index, than fchafc a f raudulenfc fcransf er will be attempfced.
Of course, the fact of a public record, however imperfect ifc may be, is
a check upon fraudulenfc dealings; bufc, on fche ofcher hand, fche imperfecfcions
of the present system, and fche results fco which it htis led, more fchan coun¬
terbalanced ifcs advantages, and require its speedy abandonmsnt unless
some change is made and a safer and more convenient plan adopted. Nofc
only are the presenfc nominal indexes inaccurafce, bufc fche names enfcered in
them have accumulated to such an extent as to entirely defeafc the purpose
of the recording act, which was to establish a public record, thafc is, a record
which can be examined by, and be advantageous fco, the public, for the pur¬
pose for which ifc was established.
For the last quarter of a century, bofch in the cifcies of New York and
Brooklyn, fche laud records in the Register's offices in those cities have been
entirely under the control and afc the mercy of the ofiBcial searchers, who
have adopted for their private use different methods of indexing from that
provided by law, and, by the aid of fcheir so-called privafce indexes, fchey have
fche enfcire monopoly of the business pretty much fco the exclusion of the
In a report made by a Special Commifcfcee of the Association of the Bar of
the City of New York in 1882, ifc was stated as follows: " Your committee
are of the unanimous opinion that without the aid of the private indexes
which ai-e claimed and controlled as fcheir private properfcy by the searchers
in the ofiices bofch of the Counfcy Clerk and Register of Deeds in this city,
searches pracfcically could not be made afc the presenfc time in those offices."
At least twice within fche past fcwenfcy years the searchers in the New
York Register's office have carried away from that office their private
searches and indexes, and stopped^ further searching, and in each case fchey
have compelled the Regisfcer to accede to their fcerms.
Searching in fchafc office is now, and has been for many years past, wholly
afc fcheir mercy.
Only very recently, fche chief searcher in the office of the New York
County Clerk removed his so-caUed private indexes, and completely
sfcopped the business of seai'ching in that office, until he was prevailed upon
by the agreement of the cifcy authorities to purchase his indexes for a large
sum, stafced fco be $30,000, and by the offer of ofcher pecuniary compeusatlou
fco restore fche indexes to fche office and fco confcinue fche searching.
Besides, fche researching of fcitles which this system compels imposes an
inexcusable tax upon fche properfcy owners of the city. The searching
which has once been done by a public official should inure fco fche beneflt of
all subsequenfc holders of fche properfcy, as is fche case in Scotland.
The condition of the land records in New York cifcy is so bad and unsafe
as to have recently induced the formation of a Title Guaranfcee Company,
which now insures tifcles in thafc city. Ifc is understood thafc this company
has been for some fcime past engaged afc considerable expense in reindexing
in local indexes, on the block plan, all fche land records in the offices of the
Regisfcer and Counfcy Clerk; and fche company is, in facfc, fchrough its
attorneys and agents, one of fche most hostile and vigorous opponents fco the
passage by the Legislature of the bill for the block plan of indexing; since,
should this plan come infco use, considerable of the capital of the company
WlU have been wasted, and ifcs business would be substantially afc an end.
Ifc is now proposed by fche adoption of the block plan fco accomplish for the
benefit of the public what this company has been endeavoring to do for
itself and the exclusive benefit of ifcs stockholders.
In fche cifcy of Brooklyn a combinafcion of all the searchers in the offices of
the Register and Counfcy Clerk, or, as it is undersfcood, a corporation
organized under the general laws of this State has been formed, which
owns all the privafce indexes of the members of fche associafcion, and also
pafcented indexes which have been purchased; and for a considerable time
pasfc these persons have been engaged in preparing a block index of the
entire city, and in reindexing in such indexes all previous land records;
and the undersigned has been credibly informed that it is fche infcenfcion of
this associafcion, whenever fcheir business as official searchers is infcerfered
wifch by the Legislafcure, fco open an office across the sfcreet, opposite the
Courfc House, fcake all fcheir privafce indexes and records there, and thus
confcrol fche enfcire business of searching fcifcles in EZings Counfcy. And in
case of the failure of fche Legislafcure fco enacfc a bill for block indexing the
infceresfcs and aims of fche Brooklyn company and the New York Title Com¬
pany, as well as of a few conveyancers in those cities, would be identical.
Enough has been said fco show the workings of the presenfc system and its
oufccome. Such a sfcafce of things as exists in the large and important cities
of New York and Brooklyn would be incredible were ifc nofc notorious.
Now comes fche quesfcion, Whafc is fco be done aboufc it ? And fchis quesfcion
is presented to the Legislature squarely this presenfc session.
Can the Legislature reply fchafc ifc will do nothing and give no relief
because fche few members of fche Commission appointed by fche Governor fco
consider and reporfc upon fchis mafcfcer have failed to agree, or because the
members of the Legislature from the fcwo disfcricfcs mosfc infcerested fail to
agree upon the proper bill fco be enacted ?
The solufcion of the difficulty does not interest fche two principal cities of
the Sfcate alone, bufc Albany, Ufcica, Syracuse, Rochesfcer, Buffalo, and the
other cities as well where the same condition of the records is fast coming
fco pass as exisfcs in New York and Brooklyn.
Any plan of relief or of reform now defcermined on must be such thafc it
can, if necessary or desirable, be applied fco all fche cifcies of fche Sfcafce.
For example, if by the adoption of any new plan of indexing the funda¬
mental law of the Sfcafce is fco be made differenfc in fche cifcy of New York from
whafc it is throughout the rest of fche Sfcate, fchen fche Legislature musfc be
prepared to extend the same form of relief to Brooklyn and the ofcher cifcies;
and in such case we will have one law and mefchod of recording for the city
of Brooklyn and another entirely differenfc for the residue of the county of
Kings, one for the city of Utica and another for fche residue of the county
of Oneida, and ao on, wifch differenfc offices and officials for the two methods
in fche cifcies and counfcies respecfcively to the great inconvenience and
expense of the public.
Therefore ifc may be said respecfcing fche matter under consideration, that
the whole State is equally interested with the city of New York; and
although the bills prepared by the Commissioners of Land Transfer upon
the main subject of indexing relate only to the city of New York, ifc follows
as a mafcfcer of course fchafc only such a bill should be enacted for that city
as would be proper and expedient fco enacfc for Brooklyn and fche other cifcies
of the State.
Something has already been done towards remedying the evils complained
of. The Chamber of Commerce, the West Side and ofcher real estate associa¬
tions, the Bar Association, the Real Esfcafce Exchange and fche Land Transfer
Reform Association of the City of New York, have all denounced the present
condition of things in that city.
In 1884, fche Legislafcure passed an act for fche appoinfcment by the Governor
of five Commissioners, to be called Commissioners of Land Transfer, whose
duty ifc should be " to prepare and reporfc to the Legislafcure a bill fco facili-
fcafce and lessen the expense of the transfer of land and dealing therewith in
certain cities of this State," and said Commissioners were permitfced to con¬
fine the operafcion of fche bill to be prepared by them fco fche city of New
York, Upon fche passage of fche bill the Governor appointed five Commis¬
sioners, all lawyers, who took the subjecfc into considerafcion. Owing to
differences befcween the Commissioners respecfcing fche reforms to be recom¬
mended, fchey did nofc report to the Legislature until nearly the close of the
last session and too lafce tor furfcher acfcion by the Legislature that session.
The Commissioners agreed afc fche outset upon three fchings: (1) Thai
immediafce refoi-ms in indexing were necessary; (2) to confine the bills to be
prepared by them fco the cifcy of New York, except as to fche bill for short