For Nancy J. Becker, recorder of deeds in Montgomery County, Pa., outside Philadelphia, property records are practically sacred. So much so that her office keeps digital copies of land records dating to 1784 on four separate databases, including one 1,700 miles away. If the county seat were leveled tomorrow, she says, “I could still record documents on my laptop on the street corner with a card table.” Becker may sound tech-savvy, but to some of her constituents’ dismay, she can’t always call up a property with a keystroke and see who holds its note. That’s because more than 200,000 of her records list the lien holder as MERS, the private company that acts as a proxy for banks that bundle and sell off mortgage securities. That can make it all but impossible for a recorder to determine who really holds the paper.
Homeowners have registered property at municipal land offices for more than 200 years. It used to be that every time a loan changed hands, the bank recorded the new deed holder with the local register for a small fee. In theory, this meant a property owner could walk into the land office and look up who held the note on his house. In reality, the registration process was often slow going, and files piled up partly because many offices stuck with pen and paper long after the rest of the world went digital.