It didn’t take Realty Assist CEO Mark Cira long to realize he’d rather spend his afternoons figuring out how to streamline the real estate process with technology than drive prospective home buyers around town in his car.

 

Cira is one of the leaders behind the digital document movement in real estate, and Realty Assist is one of few companies that gained traction in Web-based transaction management, a concept that long ago promised to transform the real estate process. The company provides transaction management and paperless office products to real estate, closing and mortgage companies.

 

Cira launched Realty Assist 11 years ago with $1 million in capital. Stewart Realty Solutions, a new subsidiary of the Stewart Information Services Corp., purchased the company in February after four years of using its licensed transaction management products.

 

How did Cira keep his company afloat while so many other technology efforts crashed and burned?

 

“We never spend much time proceeding down the wrong path or dead end,” Cira said. “We never had much money to work with, which forced us to be very focused on conservative spending and generating revenues.”

 

Much of Realty Assist’s success came from Cira’s determination to use technology to simplify the real estate transaction and to slash the amount of paper and costs as much as possible.

 

The day after he graduated college in 1990, the 38-year-old executive hitched a U-Haul to his car and drove cross-country from Virginia to San Diego. He’d already obtained a California real estate license, and he started selling homes for Century 21 almost immediately. He sold homes for about two years, but the local market was suffering and he quickly became distracted by his technology endeavors.

 

“The process of selling real estate didn’t exactly stimulate my creative juices. But selling real estate was the perfect segue into real estate technology,” he said.

 

In 1992, Cira started helping brokers in title and mortgage companies implement technology in their businesses as a consultant. A year later, he joined forces with a software developer who had produced a Windows-based contact management platform for real estate agents. Realty Assist was born.

 

Cira then started licensing the transaction management software through title insurance companies because that channel produced more revenue than selling it to individual real estate agents would have.

 

“We had 100 title companies around the country handing out our software like cupcakes,” he said.

 

By 1995, Realty Assist was registering an average 1,000 new software users per month. Today, the company manages about 200,000 files at a time.

 

Cira is very hands-on with product and business development and customer feedback. He spends a typical day submerged in all three.

 

The Virginia native graduated from James Madison University with a communications degree. He never wanted to work with computers and always wanted to work with people. But once he started dabbling in real estate technology, he was hooked.

 

“My technology background comes primarily from the school of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. study method,” he said.

 

Cira was attracted to the entrepreneurial opportunity. He said he watched his own father spend 20 years climbing a corporate ladder only to be forced out when the industry downsized.

 

“That confirmed my entrepreneurial instincts that whatever I was going to do I wanted to not be beholden to corporate politics,” he said.

 

Despite that anti-corporate bias, Cira said he was pleased about Stewart’s recent purchase of Realty Assist. Stewart has used the Realty Assist platform to close files since 2000. Going forward, Cira said, the company will focus on growing the existing transaction management platform and integrating with such partner systems as loan processing, broker back-office and MLS systems software. Cira plans to improve the permanent digital archiving programs for paperless file storage and will implement e-signature functions across the platform.

 

“We’ll probably venture into CRM (customer relationship management) and contact management functions in the near horizon as well,” he said.

 

Through digital document management, the real estate transaction indeed has shaved a lot of paper. But Cira doesn’t think transactions will ever be completely paperless.

 

He expects innovations in electronic signature technology will cut more paper from real estate deals. The deployment of e-signature technology will likely start at the title company closing table over the next one to two years, then expand to offers and listing agreements, he said.

 

Cira last summer purchased his first home, a California beach house about two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Escondido, Calif. He experienced the home-buying process using Realty Assist’s Web platform.

 

Send tips or feedback to Jessica@inman.com; (510) 658-9252, ext.133.

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