I have been fairly absent from the blog for the past week because I attended two conferences and prepared to move from Boston to the Twin Cities. Fortunately, Tim and Derek have had a lot to say. The virtues of co-blogging!
The conferences were great. I already blogged about the University of Maryland symposium. Then earlier this week the Berkman Center hosted a really great gathering for the Identity Mashup conference. Until I have time to say more, podcasts of some of those sessions are available here.
Moving consumed the rest of the time, and then some (as anyone who has done it can attest). Earlier in this process, when my wife and I bought our house, I mused that the internet could never fully displace personal presence when it comes to inherently physical decisions like choosing a place to call home. True enough. The same reasoning certainly does not apply to signing the giant stack of closing documents that officially transfer title. Yet, it is a very strong norm for the buyer to inspect the premises and then sign in person.
That might be fine for people who live across town already, but it was quite a bother and expense for me. For scheduling reasons, I had to fly out one morning, sign in the afternoon, and return on another flight early the next morning. Devoting a day to that in the midst of conferences, packing, and saying good-bye to friends was difficult and seemed somewhat pointless. My wife assigned me power of attorney so that we did not both need to fly out and back, but doing so required notaries and other hassle, and the expense was about as much as her plane ticket would have cost anyhow.
Why not encourage remote house closings, where the buyer more or less clicks “I agree” via internet to buy the house? In addition to the obvious convenience, buyers might actually have a chance to review and even understand the documents to which they agree. Instead, those papers pass in a blur (including multiple “disclosures” supposedly intended to inform me of things I have already forgotten). There is something highly ceremonial about the experience, a little like the waiter giving the person who ordered the wine a chance to inspect a bottle and take a sip before serving it. That ritual makes some sense, however — you can’t taste remotely.
The most likely reasons I can think of for resistance to this innovation: (1) in-person closings help resolve last-minute glitches; (2) lawyers like to charge more; and (3) it has always been this way and lawyers resist change. The first makes a little sense in theory, but in our increasingly mobile and networked society it’s hard to see how that alone justifies the old practice.