Editor’s note: We scoured the industry in search of behind-the-scenes technology innovators driving change for real estate. In this special Inman News series, we share their stories, but the five people and companies we chose are by no means the only pioneers in real estate. There are hordes of innovators out there, and we’d like to hear all their stories. Drop us a tip if you have someone in mind. (See Part 1: Age doesn’t stop Baird & Warner’s innovations; Part 2: Neighborhood real estate videos come alive; Part 3: A perfect online real estate marrriage and Part 5: ‘Lazy’ investor turned tech pioneer.)
After pounding 88 keys in nightclubs and concert halls across the Gulf Coast for 19 years, Darren Ross decided to become a computer programmer, a decision that eventually led to his tenure as a technological innovator at Stewart Information Services Corp.
“The parallels between playing music and writing computer programs are clear. In music you set it up in the key of A and it has three sharps and 4:4 tempo and so on. With programming, you define the variables, the looping process – it’s very similar,” said Ross, who is director of electronic commerce for Houston-based Stewart.
This methodical planning is reflected in SureClose, Stewart’s transaction management system that enables everyone involved in a transaction to communicate, set notifications and manage documents online. In October, the company added eClosingRoom to the mix.
Seniors, people with disabilities and folks prone to writer’s cramp owe thanks to Ross for eClosingRoom. The system makes it possible for all non-notarized closing documents in real estate transactions to use a single signature. Buyers sign an electronic pad, similar to those at 7-11s and other chain stores, and that signature is duplicated on all the documents.
“Instead of signing 50 or 60 documents they only have to sign the five or six they need notarized,” Ross said. Though he is a programmer, Ross did not create the core technology.
The new software is being beta-tested at the company’s Irvine, Calif., office, and has done well over the last couple of weeks, Ross said.
“We are anticipating at least a 66 percent improvement in the reduction of both documents and the amount of time spent on closing. So if you might spend normally an hour and a half in an office signing documents we could cut it down to 30 minutes or less,” Ross said. “The less time consumers have to expend, the better it is for them. And by reducing the average amount of time title or closing offices spend per closing, they can do more deals per day.”
Attitudes toward digital signatures have proved to be more positive than expected, Ross said.
“What we’ve seen over the last four or five years is, surprisingly, consumers are not as uncomfortable or as apprehensive as we may have thought,” the e-commerce director said. “Through the various pilots we’ve seen that consumers enjoy electronically signing and their only complaint is, ‘Why wasn’t I able to just sign this one document?'”
Stewart first began exploring an eClosingRoom type technology in 2000 and did a couple of loan closings using early technology, Ross said.
It has taken this long to get the process automated because there are so many elements involved in the various steps, he said. The number of different entities involved in the real estate life cycle plus the lack of technology and enabling legislation all conspired to slow things down.
“We needed to take notaries and counties into consideration, could we register them, where could we store them,” Ross said. “For some time, there were only two counties in California legally authorized to do e-recording.”
The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act went into effect Oct. 1, 2000, giving electronically signed contracts the same legal weight as contracts written on paper and signed with a pen. The legislation gave digital signatures a significant boost.
Stewart is not the only company that offers a digital signature process. As just one example, Seattle-based DocuSign offers an electronic signature service to any business requiring a document with a legally binding signature. Unlike eClosingRoom, DocuSign’s system doesn’t use an electronic signing pad or an actual manual signature. It is also available to anyone for a fee, unlike eClosingRoom, which is still proprietary to Stewart.
Looking to the future, Ross said integration is a critically important concern.
“There are islands of technology out there, whether Realtor technology or lender technology. Throughout the whole chain everybody’s got a little piece of technology they use, but there’s been little integration. Our Realtors and investors want an open platform. We need to use industry standards such as those being created by the Mortgage Industry Standard Maintenance Organization.
“You have to bridge those islands of technology,” Ross said.
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