By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Realtors yesterday hailed the Government's Land Registry plan as taking the Bahamas to "first world status", but warned: "It will take 20 years to get straight."
Leading industry players, while giving their backing to the Minnis administration's just-announced plans, told Tribune Business there were "so many pieces and loose ends to sort out" before its ambitions for a system of registered land can be realised.
They acknowledged, though, that the Bahamas "has to start somewhere" on land reform, given its importance to economic development and social well-being as a sector that effectively acts as the economy's 'third pillar'.
Mike Lightbourn, Coldwell Banker Lightbourn Realty's president, said the goal unveiled by Elsworth Johnson, minister of state for legal affairs, "means you can go to a certain location and see who owns a piece of land".
Applauding the Government's intentions, he nevertheless warned that it would take at least two decades to build a Land Registry where - as stated by Mr Johnson - "every piece, parcel, lot or tract of land will be easily identifiable" by a folio number, with all claims, charges and liens against them recorded.
"It's still going to be a damn mess because there are so many pieces and loose ends to sort out. It will take 20 years to get straight," Mr Lightbourn told Tribune Business.
"It's all needed; nobody can doubt that. Everybody's talked about it [a Land Registry] for years. It will take 290 years, but we've got to start somewhere. Everyone of us would love to go into a central location and find out who owns a particular piece of property, and if there are any liens on it. In the US you can do that."
Mario Carey, principal of Better Homes and Gardens MCR Bahamas, echoed Mr Lightbourn's concerns that the Bahamas' current system is well below the "first world" levels employed in most countries.
"I would say that it would give us first world status in an area that is vital to our economy, and I think it should be made a top priority for the Government," he told Tribune Business of the Land Registry plan.
"Almost everyone in the world, especially the US and Canada, and any English-speaking first world country, that's how they have things. In the US, once you have a folio number you can pull up everything on a property, get title insurance and close in two days. For first world countries, that's the way they operate."
The Government's Land Registry plan ties directly to its ambitions of improving the Bahamas' 'ease of doing business'. The World Bank's annual report currently ranks the Bahamas 167th out of 190 countries when it comes to registering property, largely because of the time taken to complete transactions (122 days or three-four months) due to the need to undertake title searches and record conveyances at the Registry of Records.
A complete, accurate Land Registry database that was accessible to all could thus significantly reduce the time and cost associated with both commercial and residential real estate deals, given that title and liens/charges information could be seen by all - not just attorneys.
This, in turn, would boost the Bahamas' economic competitiveness and attraction for both foreign and local investors, since typical problems currently encountered in establishing good title would be eliminated or reduced.
Mr Carey yesterday urged the Government to focus on its Land Registry/registered land plans simply because "so many lives" and jobs will be impacted by reforms that deliver improvements.
"Anything that focuses on real estate to make it easier, more transparent and better for this country is great because it impacts jobs," he told Tribune Business. "It's such a domino effect. If you have effective, transparent land reform and policies that stimulate the real estate sector, and procedures that attract investors and developers, there are so many lives impacted by that. There's no end to it.
"I'm so pro-real estate because it stimulates the economy, stimulates growth and improves people's net worth. We need to start ticking the boxes that help us get to first world status, and this could be one of them."
Mr Carey said a Bahamian Land Registry should contain information such as valuations, title searches and outstanding real property taxes for all properties, and added: "It won't be written by hand. Why can't we do that? Why is it so difficult?"
The Government is preparing a so-called 'White Paper' to outline its proposals, which include dusting-off the three-strong legislative package that was shelved by the last Ingraham administration and never revived by its immediate successor.
These are the the Land Adjudication Bill, the Registered Land Bill and the Law of Property Bill, all of which date from 2010. These were all designed to give commercial and residential real estate buyers greater certainty they had good title to their properties, ending the economic and social disruption frequently caused by problems in this area.
Creating a Bahamas Land Registry, which is what the Registered Land Bill seeks to do, would move the Bahamian real estate and conveyancing market away from one based on "first to record" the title deeds.
A Land Registry would contain all information relating to a specific parcel of land in one database, including its location, dimensions, ownership interests and all encumbrances, such as mortgages and other liens/charges. This, in turn, would boost efficiency and reduce issues associated with title problems.
The Land Adjudication Bill was an attempt to reform and do away with the concept of generation land, aiming to grant title over one acre to persons who can show they have been in uninterrupted possession of that real estate parcel for 12 years or more.
Persons in that situation will receive a Certificate of Title to that one acre, or possibly 1.5 acres in certain circumstances. Generation and commonage land are frequently found in the Family Islands, and it could help development in those areas.
Mr Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday that the Government is eyeing comprehensive reform, with plans to address whether or not the Quieting Titles Act should be repealed given suspicions that it is being used to effectively 'steal land'.
This was the case in the long-running saga affecting hundreds of homeowners in the Nassau Village/Sir Lynden Pindling Estates area, which stems from a Quieting Titles fraud that induced the Supreme Court to grant a certificate of title that was later ruled invalid and set aside.
Tribune Business has also reported extensively on cases such as the 'estate of the late Effie Knowles', which triggered an orgy of speculation in islands such as Long Island, Rum Cay and now Andros, with unsuspecting foreign purchasers being sold lots with dubious title.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that problems associated with obtaining clean title to land frequently inhibited social and economic development, preventing people from using real estate as a wealth creator and asset against with which to secure loans.
Christine Wallace-Whitfield, the Bahamas Real Estate Association's (BREA) president, yesterday told Tribune Business that a Land Registry and registered land system was something that has "always been discussed" among realtors.
"I think it's a great idea," she said of the Government's proposals. "It's something that needs to happen; we definitely support it. It's something that's been needed, and needed to happen, for a little while. We support the Government in hopefully bringing it to fruition.
"Title searches have been something that takes too long, and are always a hassle, so to see the Government taking a look at it, making it better and an easier process for persons to make sure their title is free and clear is a positive step."