By NATALIE KEITH
Scott Daniels, a broker with Florida List for Less Realty Inc. in Cooper City, Fla., recognized the need to conduct business in a more virtual way several years ago.
So about two years ago, he created a separate division of his company called Global Partners Realty Group Inc. to attract real estate agents seeking to work in a virtual-office environment.
Now, half of the agents who work under him — or 50 of the 100 — work from their home offices. Under the agreement, virtual agents pay only a $395 transaction fee while keeping the bulk of their commission income.
In addition, virtual agents have access to the same resources available to agents who work in the more traditional office setting.
"Basically, they are their own bosses," said Daniels. "As long as they fill out the proper forms, they’re fine."
Colin Cochrane, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., has been working as a "virtual" agent under Daniels for the past two years. Working virtually makes business much easier to conduct, he said, in part because he travels frequently. He uses Internet-based voice communications through Vonage to take calls from any location. In February he was working in the Caribbean and was able to conduct business in Florida despite the distance.
Cochrane uses a range of other technologies to work virtually, including electronic faxes and a transaction management platform called Transaction Desk that is powered by Real Estate Industry Solutions, a subsidiary of the Florida Association of Realtors.
With the technology, a client can send him a contract via fax and he receives the contract via e-mail on his BlackBerry. Most buyers and sellers in today’s market have cell phones, e-mail accounts and access to a fax machine, he said, which can expedite the transaction process.
"By using these technologies, it allows me to spend more time on marketing and negotiations and less on paperwork," Cochrane said.
He noted that he does not have to sacrifice some of the benefits of working in a more traditional real estate environment, such as receiving training. "A lot of services that are offered by brokerage firms are offered by real estate boards, through webinars and (by) other means," he said.
Daniels noted that working virtually is a good fit for many brokers, but it generally is not conducive to brokers with little or no experience.
"In order to work virtually, agents have to be seasoned," he said. "They have to have at least three to five years’ experience."
Stephen Compas — who runs Miami-based Adamo Realty Network LLC with his wife, broker Ester Maria Alfau-Compas — said companies do not have to be large to transition to a virtual office.
Adamo Realty Network has seven total employees and, except for Compas and Alfau-Compas, none occupy dedicated space within the 300-square-foot office the company shares with another tenant.
Prior to becoming virtual, the company occupied about twice the amount of office space.
"By state law, Florida brokers must have a physical office, but we can minimize the amount of space that’s needed," said Compas, who oversaw the implementation of the technological improvements in the office.
To make the transition, Compas implemented a Virtual PBX phone system, which automatically redirects calls placed by clients to the main office number to agents in remote locations.
Agents can also receive voice mail and add other callers to the line in the same manner. The switch eliminated the need for a telephone receptionist and cut the firm’s monthly telephone bill in half.
"As long as you’re in a position to take a phone call, it doesn’t matter where you are," Compas said.
About nine months ago, the company began using Files Anywhere software that allows employees to access company data from any location.
This eliminates the need to e-mail documents, a process that can be restricted by the attachment size limitations found with most e-mail providers.
The company also began using SherWeb, Web hosting company that provides for a more virtual e-mail environment. Outservicing office functions with Virtual PBX, Files Anywhere and SherWeb costs less than $200 per month and eliminates the need for more costly hardware and software programs, Compas said.
He added that the company may consider using other new technology to further streamline operations, such as Google Apps and Salesforce. "At this point, though, I would be hard-pressed to implement technology that made us less virtual," he said.
In addition to firms that have been making the switch to a more virtual environment, agents have been implementing technology that allows them to work in a more virtual environment.
JoAnn Jacobs, who works as part of the three-person Jacobs Williamson Team with Coldwell Banker Hartung Noblin in Tallahassee, Fla., said she and her partners have been working virtually for about 18 months.
They use Top Producer Systems, a contact management platform offered by Realtor.com parent company Move Inc., for remote data access.
The team also uses Freedom Voice, a product of RealtyOne 800, to add voiceovers to virtual tours with a toll-free phone number.
"We spend half of our time either working from home or in a car," Jacobs said. "Among the only times we go into the office is if a customer wants to meet face-to-face in an office environment."
Natalie Keith is a freelance writer in Florida.
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