(This is Part 4 of a four-part series. See Part 1: Online search to take real estate by storm; Part 2: Real estate maps go from bland to grand and Part 3: Online magazine puts new twist on real estate advertising.)

“The keepers of conventional real estate wisdom said that paper would never go away; that e-signatures would never fly; that brokers would never escape ever-increasing liability and overhead; that agents would never cease working 16 hours per day. Fortunately, we never listened.”

This ad for VREO, the parent company for the Red Tablet and the Real Estate Dashboard, hits at the heart of what the future of real estate looks like. In fact, my new Red Tablet was waiting for me as soon as I returned home from the Real Estate Connect conference. I couldn’t wait to dive into all the cool features it offers, including the ability to take notes in my own handwriting and convert them to a Word file, collect e-signatures, access all the cool mapping tools, as well as being completely mobile.

The Real Estate Dashboard is the software that works in conjunction with a tablet computer to allow real estate agents to eliminate one of the most wasteful of all real estate activities – driving different places to collect signatures on documents. While you may not do this personally, someone else is. Furthermore, either you or your client is being charged for it. In fact, as I listened to the experts in the area of e-signatures discuss the coming changes, I wanted to stand up and scream, “Do you really think we like driving all over town to collect signatures?” Some of them actually thought we did. Given the traffic in most major cities and the high price of gas, there are few activities that are more wasteful.

The Real Estate Dashboard software works on any tablet PC, but is specifically designed for the Red Tablet PC. This is the only tablet and software combination specifically designed for use by the real estate industry. You can download your forms as well as most of the required documents to conduct a sale. Buyers and sellers sign directly on your computer using a light pen, much like what retailers use. One of the interesting features about this approach is that documents are stored in a “vault” rather than in a traditional computer file or PDF. Once the user “locks down” the document, it cannot be changed.

In addition to the tremendous time savings, going paperless has a host of other advantages. Most agents find accurate record keeping to be challenging at best. When did they drop off the document? When was it picked up? Did the seller and buyer actually read it even though they’re saying they have no recollection of receiving it? In a time where litigation continues to soar, going digital is a godsend. You can tell the exact moment a document was sent. You can tell whether the recipient opened the file as well as when it was opened. One attorney who was representing an agent who had closed a digital transaction said her file was the best-documented file he had ever seen. The agent didn’t do any more than she did normally. The difference was the technology tracked it all for her.

Best of all, going digital gets rid of all that cumbersome filing. Say goodbye to stacks of paper on your desk and to searching for that one document you forgot to have signed prior to closing. Instead, the new online transaction systems have a pop-up checklist that allows you to immediately see which action items are complete and which are missing.

Moving to a digital transaction, i.e., a transaction that is completely paperless, is still fraught with problems. Federal law now allows e-signatures on loan documents as well as documents that will be recorded. The challenge is what constitutes an e-signature. The “light pen” signature is one approach, but there is a host of others, some of which are akin to using a safe deposit box where there are two sets of matching keys and/or numbers that must match. Additional problems include how to capture the seller or buyer’s signature if he/she does not have the appropriate tablet technology and software. Someone still has to drive somewhere to obtain the signature. Other issues include a lack of standardization in the actual technology. Right now the industry is in about the same place we were when the first videotape recorders came on the market. The VCR technology became the standard and beta max disappeared.

Regardless of the technology that ultimately survives, going digital as soon as possible will give you a huge competitive edge. For brokers and agents, it will eliminate the huge cost of doing duplicate work. For example, buyers read their documents and then sign a statement that says they have read each document and approve of the contents. This is similar to agreeing to the licensing agreement when you first use a new piece of software. The buyer signs only once. Her signature will then appear on all the appropriate documents in the appropriate place. Furthermore, notaries can now also legally notarize electronic signatures. This means the whole process can be taken care of in just minutes.

In addition, going digital puts you far ahead of the competitors who are still conducting business using paper. Think about it. You’re sitting in front of a seller, your tablet PC in hand. After reviewing the virtual tours of the comparable sales online, you demonstrate how the seller’s property will look when posted to your Web site in your virtual video magazine. You then demonstrate the cool mapping features you use on your site. When you’re ready to discuss the terms of your listing agreement and the supporting documents, the seller can view them right from your tablet and make changes. In case the seller wants a paper copy, you have your portable printer with you. Now compare this to the agent who walks in with a printout of the current comps and a stack of papers. Who would you hire?

If you haven’t already done so, start looking into making these changes today. You can rest assured the rest of the industry will be slow to adapt. Staying one step ahead of the competition is the best way to make your income soar no matter what the market does.

Bernice Ross, co-owner of Realestatecoach.com, has written a new book, “Waging War on Real Estate’s Discounters,” available online. She can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com.

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