Real estate documents have been a part of my father’s life for more than six decades. At 80 years of age, he still conducts business from his office in one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods. He can recall when an agreement of sale was two pages, printed on both sides. Now, the document can be up to 19 pages. Of course, back in the day, he added, you could also make a deal on a handshake.
At that time, too, a salesman came by on a regular basis to provide his business forms, but eventually the increasing prices were keeping pace with the neighborhood’s escalating crime, and the computer hit the scene. Now, the Realty Board’s Internet link and the local Staples provide any products he needs.
Whether working in a small neighborhood office or for a large national franchise, brokers list the three most important things in real estate as documentation, documentation, documentation. Their shared pains are a confounding amount of paperwork for agents and clients—driven by a litigious society necessitating original documents and signatures—and places to store it all.
Technology is enabling workflow efficiencies, but the tools only work when brokers and clients accurately complete forms used to populate electronic templates. Even then, the general consensus is that electronic tools improve services to clients, but inadvertently exacerbate realtors’ paperwork.
Shaun White, a Denver-based Re/Max agent, explained that he and his colleagues actually stock very few forms. Instead, they rely on the industry-specific WINForms software. The program provides access to up-to-date real estate forms from any computer with an Internet connection, enabling required documents to be printed out and used as needed. The software library is automatically updated as it resides on Web servers, and template-creation tools allow realtors to group forms commonly associated with a transaction.
“The software package comes personalized when it’s purchased,” continued White. “The agents have all the forms loaded on their laptops and they are [customized] with their specific information, and in accord[ance] to the laws in their state[s]. An individual office may provide a few locally specific forms, but by and large, all the contracts and disclosures are created in WINForms by each individual agent.”
Roger Nordin, relocation director for a California-based Century 21 office, also uses WINForms to populate documents such as disclosures and listing forms, but noted they must then be printed out for signatures and additional processing. “You’re still dealing with paperwork and a lot of filing cabinets containing hard copies. The documentation is never-ending. In fact, the California Association of Realtors just issued another mandatory, 12-page legal form that requires original signatures,” he added.
Steve Roberson has owned a Century 21 franchise for the past 14 years. From his vantage point, a paperless society is not in the foreseeable future. “We have approximately 16 disclosures in a typical real estate transaction. Our files are 1" to 3" thick when ... complete[d],” he explained. “Every year, one or more disclosures are added by the attorneys. In a few years, the files will be 4" to 5" thick.”
Roberson acknowledged the online WINForms system makes writing up offers easier and quicker, but doesn’t eliminate the need to make several copies for buyers’ and sellers’ signatures. The plethora of forms can be just as confusing for the agent.
Conrad Vanino, Jr., president, broker owner of Century 21 Park Road, Wyomissing, Pa., has been in the real estate brokerage business since 1965, and agreed that despite computers, paper usage has increased. “One recent change that I believe will be really meaningful is the file storage system in which we download all documents of a file onto a CD after the file is closed. We maintain file rooms filled with thousands of old files, which is a waste of prime space,” he said. Under the new system, the company will be able to backup its network by storing thousands of files in one filing cabinet, and the company providing the software also maintains a backup of the information for several years.
“There are so many ways that the computer and the Internet have changed the way we do business today in real estate brokerage. Even the processing of deposits with banks and the speed that accounts are credited saves us so much time and effort. But, we will continue to use more and more paper as we get more automatic,” Vanino added.
For Corey Thomas, manager of public relations for Century 21, technology has definitely reduced some of the paper from the transaction, but he reported there are several forms, contracts and public record processes that are still paper-based.
He also pointed out there are many seasoned real estate veterans and older clients who simply are not comfortable using computers—particularly for such major financial matters. “Some consumers ... just prefer to work with hard-copy documents,” he said. “In addition, I come from the school of thought that while I use as much technology as I can, I like to back my crucial documents up with actual hard copies, just in case my hard drive crashes or my computer network is temporarily unavailable.”
Roberson uses Web-enabled tools for various tasks, including working with listing referral organizations such as LendingTree. LendingTree is an online lending and realty services exchange that assists consumers with home loans, and matches them with certified and experienced local real estate agents.
“The listing inquiries are paperless. Internally, we would like to be able to move it around a little bit, but we don’t have a hard copy of an input form. This is where I see an NCR form can be helpful to make sure we get correct information into the computer,” he said. Missing or incorrect information prevents the data entry process that records the listing. “We need the completed forms. Getting consumers to provide all of the necessary information, and agents—who are mostly independent contractors—to do structured forms and reports is a difficult thing,” Roberson added.
Said Vanino, “The more we are able to understand the limitations of the computers and software, the more we will be able to adapt to protect [ourselves] from the loss of files [and] information, and thus have more confidence in the systems to the point that we will use less paper. The youth of today will not have the problem[s] that the old pros have with [technology], as they grew up with it. [They] may have a problem with it, though, when the electricity and backup power sources go down, and the old pros pull out the carbon paper.”
Distributors looking to beef up sales within the real estate market most likely will not be taking orders for real estate forms, judging by the feedback these end-users have shared. Clearly, forms management and solutions that help to organize and simplify are the ticket. As Roberson so concisely summed up realtors’ greatest desire: “Products that make [our] lives easier would be great.”