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THE RECORD AND GUIDE
MABGH 20, 1886—No. 940.
LAND TRANSFER REFORM
ARGUMENT OF THE MAJORITY OF THE COMMISSIONERS OF
LAND TRANSFER IN RELATION TO THE BILLS INTRO¬
DUCED BY THEM, AND THE OBJECTIONS INTERPOSED BY
THE MINORITY MEMBER OF THE COMMISSION.
There can be no difference of opiuion as to the character or extent of the
evils of the present system of real estate transfer in the city of New
York, and the necessity for a speedy and effectual remedy.
Until such a remedy is applied we cannot too often reiterate the facts
which demonstrate its necessity.
The number of volumes in the Register's office containing the records
of conveyances and mortgages has nearly reached four thousand, and of
these seven-eighths have been added during the last fifty years. The only
method of ascertaining the title of any particular lot is by searching for
every instrument executed by the successive owners of such lot in vrritten
indices containing thousands of names, arranged on various plans without
due order of time, often misspelt or misplaced ; while under the law the
record of au instrument is constructive notice of its contents, even though
erroneously indexed, or never indexed at all.
Such an examination requires a length of time, which prevents any
ready transfer of land and which is increasing with every year, and
involves an expense which is becoming an intolerable burden. It would
be almost impracticable to-day to make the requisite searches in the
Register's office without the aid of private classified indices and abstracts
made by the official searchers for their own use, and claimed by them
as their private property.
'This was equally true of the County Clerk's office until recently, when
such indices were bought by the city, after they had been removed from
the office at the imminent risk of putting an end to, for the time, or
suspending almost indefinitely, the making of transfers.
Nor are the dangers and difficulties to be ove'^come confined to those
which exist in the Register's office, although the long-discussed question
of the lot and block systems and the action of the minority member of
the commission in framing a bUl having almost exclusive reference to
that office have tended to keep all other questions in the background.
The labor and expense of searching for and examining the various
liens against real estate which are filed in the County Clerk's office, with
the uncertainties attending such search, the exorbitant fees exacted and
paid for tax and assessment searches, and the tribute levied on every
examination of title for a seai'ch among the handful of mortgages whieh
are contained in the safe of the Loan Commissioners, unrecorded and
inaccessible, are quite as substantial grievances, and no system of reform
can be regarded as complete that does not contemplate their removal.
They all bear directly upon the question of a safe, speedy and econom¬
ical transfer of land ; aud the best results can only be secured by making
their reform parts of one general system, governed by one general prin¬
ciple. It surely needs no argument to show that bills sb drawn will have a
consistency that they are not at all likely to possess if drawn at different
times and by different hands, and that any proposed system of indexing
must be examined with reference to ils use, both for transfers and liens.
The majority of the Commissioners of Land Transfer felt themselves
charged with the duty of framing ; and, in the bills presented, they have
endeavored to frame such a system.
In the opinion that all instruments affecting real estate should be indexed
not merely against the name but against the property conveyed or charged,
and that all liens on real estate should be specific, affecting only the prop¬
erty described in the notices thereof and so indexed, the members of the
commission were unanimous ; but upon the question of the form and effect
of such local indices they were irreconcilably divided, four favoring a lot
and one a block system. "We purpose to show, as briefly as may be, the
reasons which governed the majority in selecting the lot index, and to
explain as briefly the provisions of the bills by which they have sought to
introduce it. As the evils of the present system are due to the nominal
indices, that form being necessarily liable to many errors in itself, and to
many more in the searching which it renders necessary, this searching involv¬
ing a large expenditure of time and rroney, we were satisfied that the
proper remedy must be an index as nearly free as possible from the inherent
defects of the present system, and which would render "searching''
These requirements, we were satisfied, after careful consideration could
not be answered by the " block system," because imder it, in looking for
all the instruments relating to a particular lot in the block, we must in
order to flnd them, make a " search" among the entries relating to all the
lots on the block.
The long blocks between the more distant avenues, which are say from
feet, but as very many of the lots, under the pre-sent usages of building,
are of very much less width, some of them less than fifteen feet, it is
believed that in respect of these long blocks, from eighty to ninety lots may
be assumed as a fair average, and that in some instances the number of lots
would be from ninety to a hundred, or even more.
Under the block system, all the instruments within the scope of the par¬
ticular index (whether of transfers or liens), which relate to any of these
eighty or ninety or a hundred lots embraced in a block, are to be thrown
together euwasse in the block index. And in this connection it must be
recollected that as well in the block as in the lot system it is contemplated
that all the liens on land in the city of New York are to be made specific
and not general, and to be indexed against the property affected, so that
the index of liens will embrace judgments and notices of lis pendens as
well as the numerous other kinds of liens, and that imder the block system,
this large mass of liens of diverse character, affecting any one of the
numerous lots in a block, is to be thrown together on the block index.
It is further to be borne in mind that whichever system be adopted, it is
designed to be a permanent system of land records for the great metropolis,
and to be suitable for proper working as well in the long future as in the
time of the present generation.
Under the block system, the inconveniences and difficulties consequent
upon massing together the instruments relating to eighty or ninety or a
hundred lots, instead of keeping separate those relating to each lot, would,
of cour.=e, steadily increase with the efflux of time. We should, under such
a system, have an ever-lengthening chain of evil results.
In respect of the conveyances and mortgages it would be bad enough. In
respect of the mass of " liens " of the numerous different kinds it would be
It appears to us quite plain that after the lapse of not very many years,
with the necessarily consequent swelling of the block indices, that method
of indexing, if undertaken to be used and relied upon by itself without
alphabetical indices, would prove to be more burthensome and inconven¬
ient than the present system, and that in the end, i£ the block system were
adopted, the alphabetical indices, with their inconveniences and liability to
error, would come to be practically the chief, if not sole, reliance of parties
having occasion in examining titles to ascertain what are the recorded con¬
veyances, mortgages or liens affecting a particular piece of property.
One thing is certainly too plain for dispute, viz.: that if the "block"
system be adopted, the necessity of making "searches" will be continued,
and that if the " lot" system be aaopted, searches will wholly be dispensed
In speaking of this, we, of course, refer to searches for conveyances,
mortgages or liens, recorded or filed after the system is put in operation.
Neither system can dispense with searches for the time past as the vested
rights acquired under the old or present system, which requires no locality
index, cannot be taken away; although it is possible, by proper classifica¬
tion of instruments ab-eady recorded or filed, and suitable lexicographical
or locality indices of them, prepared under public authority, to lessen the
burthen of making such searches for the past, and to this end one of the
biUs reported by the iiajority of the commissioners is particularly directed.
In order to give the block system advocated by the minority commis¬
sioner any advantage whatever over the present system, which all sides
unite in condemning, it would (it seems to us) be necessary to accompany It
by a provision which apparently he has nofc thought of, or which certainly
he has not chosen to introduce in the bill prepared and recommanded by
him, viz.: an alphabetical index for each block, wholly separate from any
general alphabetical index.
With such a provision the block plan (not as prescribed by the very ill-
drawn bill prepared by the minority commissioner, but as might be pre¬
scribed by a competent, careful and judicious person) might be an improve¬
ment upon the present system.
But as any system which compels reliance upon alphabetical indices is
open to serious objections on the score of liability to error, which chance of
error would still remain under the plan of separate alphabetical indices of
the blocks respectively, and as the block plan, under the best auspices pos¬
sible, would be infinitely less beneficial and desirable than the lot system,
and as all the objections which are made to the lot system will appear,
upon careful examination and reflection by persons competent to judge, to
be really without foundation, and as most of them are absolutely frivolous
or absurd upon their face, we do not deem it needful to enter upon an
examination of the question, what provisions in detail woud be necessary
to make at all tolerable a bill prescribing the block system.
When we come to consider the lot system we flnd that by applying the
simple principle that every instrument affecting a lot or any part of it
must be indexed on a page assigned to that lot, we should attain the follow¬
1st. Names would cease to be in any respect an element of doubt or mis¬
take, and if in the entry of an instrument on a lot page, the names of gran¬
tor and grantee were both incorrect, the libsr and page of record would
stiU be sufficient to completely answer the object of the index by giving
eight hundred 1 o '■ na hundred feet aphivfc, would contain from sixty-four
t9 ?eytiity-two lois each^ if the lots were all of the fuU width of tweuty-five I notic? of the instyumept and showing where it could be fouiid,