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The Digital Office: Less Paper, More Green

August 18th, 2009 Mike Leave a comment Go to comments

This post was written by me during my tenure at the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS. Original article here.

Over the last few decades, the business of real estate has undergone significant changes as to how technology is used to communicate with clients and facilitate transactions. But one thing that has not changed is the mountain of paper required to document the exchange of property. There are close to 40 pages of forms required during the process, and all signed pages must be stored for up to six years as historical and legal records.

Archiving paper copies offsite is expensive; storing them onsite can be legally devastating should a fire, flood, or other disaster destroy them. Luckily there are affordable, reliable, and accessible technologies for eliminating paper from the process entirely while securing you against disasters. Add to that the benefits of saving you time, making you more flexible for clients, and earning you the title of a truly “green” agent, and going paperless is worth achieving.

Forms Online
Electronic real estate forms are the most common method of eliminating paper from a transaction. They help reduce errors and save time by allowing agents to enter information only once, which then automatically populates across all forms in the transaction, and they currently are stored completely online. This “hosted” storage gives you accessibility from any Internet-connected computer.

Additionally, the automatic updates eliminate the need to install a new version because it all happens on the company’s server. Finally, online forms are automatically backed up; you never have to worry about losing data because all forms companies have specialists working to keep your data secured. Agents who are not using electronic forms still must print all the required forms to be signed by the client, unlike electronic forms which use a “digital signature” to alleviate this problem.

“Going paperless has changed the way I do business and my clients appreciate it,” says Sven Andersen of RE/MAX Leading Edge in Winchester. “We scan in listing contracts and have all clients sign my tablet PC. Within two minutes of the documents being signed, I use a Scansnap scanner to e-mail the documents. We use it to scan in sellers disclosures, plot plans, home upgrades list, floor plans, and any other documents associated with the listing. Our transaction and marketing coordinator says it is the best device we have.”

Simple Signing
Digital signatures have had the full force of law since the National Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) of 1999 and, later, the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (MUETA), effective February 24, 2004. The process of signing a digital document is as simple as typing one’s name.

The requirements to verify a signature are implemented in different ways depending on the vendor. In Massachusetts, a digital signature provider must be able to prove the identity of the person signing the document (this is usually done by sending the client a special password); the intent of the signer must be captured (this is often done with a disclaimer that typing one’s name here constitutes a signature); the signature must be bound to the document so it cannot be altered; and, finally, the document itself cannot be altered once it has been signed.

You have more options than you may realize for accepting digital signatures. DocuSign is a notable vendor for  roviding an applicable solution for the real estate industry. All MassForms™ vendors offer a digital signature capability, as well as most major transaction management software. Even the US Post Office offers a digital signature tool that uses a special plugin for Microsoft Word 2003 to meet the requirement of the UETA. Digital signatures usually cost a small fee per signature, or you can purchase in bulk for greater discounts.

Transaction Management
Some might think that “paperless” means e-mailing documents to everyone involved in the transaction, but e-mail is not a secure way to send sensitive files. While e-mail travels to its destination, it bounces through many different computers, at which time the contents and attachments can be read without leaving a trace. An alternative that protects your client’s security, and helps you keep abreast of all your listings in one place, is transaction management software like SettlementRoom, Relay, or TransactionDesk.

These tools allow agents to invite others to exchange documents, track current tasks, view a detailed history of actions, and more in a secure, password-protected website. Corinne Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Real Estate in Greenfield has been using SettlementRoom for some time and says, “It has cut down on my time and my support staff’s time, made us more efficient, and I’m able to deliver a service to my clients that they really like and find valuable. And, by having all of our documents, date reminders, and contacts in the transaction, and e-mail correspondence in one place online, I’m able to do business literally from anywhere. As long as I have my laptop and my blackberry I can do everything I need except show property.”

Transaction management software integrates with electronic forms software so you don’t need to re-enter listing information: TransactionDesk integrates with Instanet Forms, Relay integrates with Zipform, and SettlementRoom integrates with Trueforms. Another added benefit, much like any online service, is that they are accessible from any Internet-connected computer and the data is secured against loss by trained professionals. Because of the safety, security, and accountability of transaction management software, some Errors & Omissions Insurance providers offer discounts to offices using such technologies. Check with your E&O provider for more information.

Fitzgerald concurs, stating that, “My clients love the fact that they have a password protected website just for them. They like that they can see all their docs, they like the calendar and reminders, and they like that they can see it from work or at home. Recently one of my clients told me it was the ‘coolest way to do business’ and asked me, ‘How did you ever do business before without it?’ ”

Digitizing Everything
You are on your way to paperless using electronic forms and transaction management software, but what do you do with your existing files and documents that are not included in an electronic forms library? You have two options: a fax-to-e-mail service or a quality multi-page scanner.

Although fax-to-mail is not ideal for digitizing a large quantity of documents, there are many fax-to-e-mail services available. Some notable examples are eFax and Unityfax, both of which are inexpensive compared to the cost of a dedicated fax line. If you offer designated agency in your office, a fax-to-e-mail service can help you comply with the security requirements to protect client data. Since it’s inexpensive for each agent to have a personal fax number, which sends an e-mail with the fax attached as a PDF, there’s little chance documents might accidentally be seen while sitting on a public fax machine.

The best way to digitize your documents, however, is with a high-capacity document scanner. One of the best  options currently on the market is the small, yet powerful, Fujitsu ScanSnap S510. This device can scan both sides of eighteen full color pages every minute and turn them into searchable PDFs using a technology called optical character recognition (OCR). OCR allows a computer to “see” the text on a printed, and sometimes written, document
and turn it into something you can edit on your PC or Mac using MS Word or similar. You can also search those documents for any keyword or phrase, a time savings alone that is worth the investment in document scanning and OCR.

Safe Storage
Once you have your files digitized, you need to think about protecting that valuable data. Your data stored with online forms or transaction management vendors is already safe, so this protection is for things like e-mail archives, contact lists, accounting documents, photos, videos, and more. External USB hard drives are good for storing large amounts of information, but they can fail just like the drive inside your computer and still won’t protect you from a fire or flood.

The best storage option is remote online data storage from a company like Mozy, Dropbox, or MAR’s member benefit partners, MoreStor and aNetworks. These systems work by sending the files or folders you select over the Internet to a secure datacenter. The data is encrypted (i.e. scrambled) for storage so no one but you can read it; not even the vendor’s employees can access your information. The backups can happen continuously so that the instant you edit and save a file on your PC, the backup is updated to the new version as well.

“aNetworks’ remote backup service takes away the administrative costs of doing tape backup as well as the costs of buying software licenses. It provides faster and more reliable restoration of data, helps to meet compliance requirements through enhanced security, and also to meet business continuity if there is a physical disaster at your corporate site,” states Bill Minahan, CEO at aNetworks. Additionally, all of these vendors have highly trained staff who ensure that your data is safe from computer failure and natural disasters.

The piece of mind you get from knowing that you have the ultimate in disaster recovery is well worth the five to 20 dollars a month you’ll spend on these services.

Take One Step at a Time
There’s no point in denying that, eventually, paperless real estate transactions will be the norm instead of the exception. Whether it’s measured in terms of money saved, time gained, customers pleased, or security achieved, the benefits are immense. It can seem daunting at first, but the best way to approach challenges like these is to take them one step at a time.

Take 30 minutes every few nights and learn one or two new features. After a while, you will have a deep understanding of how the product works and discover ways to use it that you never imagined. Remember, these technologies are tools of the trade that say something to clients about your proficiency. It’s not only about going
green to reduce paper and save money while saving the environment—it’s also about the image you project.

“As we see more and more brokerages adopt paperless technologies, the amount of paper removed is quite astounding, says Martin Scrocchi, President/CEO of Instanet Solutions, Inc. “Brokerages are taking advantage of not just the cost savings of going paperless, but are also leveraging the green environmental message when it comes to marketing their services to the consumer. ReMax Alliance in Colorado is one of our customers who have taken advantage of both the cost savings and green marketing advantage. They currently save over 120,000 sheets of paper monthly along with the time and man hours it takes to manage and retrieve old paper files. On top of the savings they also have actively promoted themselves as being green and using green services.”

Imagine if two contractors of equal skill and cost showed up to build a house, one with a simple hammer and hand saw, the other with an array of equipment like nail guns, laser range finders, and power saws—who would you choose?

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  1. October 23rd, 2009 at 13:29 | #1

    Mike: This is great stuff. Before I got into the document scanning and storage business, I was in the Real Estate arena and I am amazed at how many people are still using paper for every transaction. Not only that, they fax the paper so many times, it becomes illegible and impossible for other third parties to read.

  2. October 28th, 2009 at 20:22 | #2

    @Dennis Hendrickson
    Hey thanks for stopping by, Dennis!

    I know, I recently completed a first-time home buy here in North Carolina and I was amazed at the amount of paperwork. Not only that, but those involved in the transaction that did send PDFs and digital documents did so with little thought to security: PDFs with SSNs and more without any password protection. My mortgage broker (great guy, at least) had an assistant sending confidential PDFs and more from an AOL account!

    You offer an interesting service, it seems. I think a big hurdle to going paperless is the mountain of existing documents to digitize. Outsourcing that is a must for some orgs.

    OCR is great, but how do you handle OCR on those repeatedly-faxed, barely legible docs?

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