Editor’s note: This month, Inman News is exploring business practices that break the mold of the traditional real estate brokerage office, such as new office structures and the use of technology to improve efficiencies and empower agents to work remotely. Click here for details.

Despite the prolonged real estate downturn, companies that provide electronic document, electronic signature and transaction management services for home sales professionals are reporting an uptick in the use of paperless technologies.

"Agents are saying, ‘I need to be smart about how I run my business and do more for less,’ " said Tom Gonser, co-founder and vice president of product strategy for DocuSign, a company that offers electronic signature and online contract execution services for a range of industries.

DocuSign launched services for real estate agents and brokers in 2004, and the company reported increasing traction in the industry last year, its user base rising by about 500 real estate accounts per month.

"This market is definitely growing," Gonser said. "We had one of our strongest quarters in the fourth quarter (of 2008)."

As of mid-March of this year, DocuSign, which charges users $15 to $30 a month for its services, had a real estate agent and broker user base of about 6,500 — still small considering there are more than 1 million Realtors.

DocuSign claims that the paperless contract process allows real estate professionals to slash shipping costs, which can run as high as $20 per envelope for overnight packages, and eliminates the need to track down faxes.

Available 11 years prior to DocuSign, ZipForm and WINForms, two electronic forms services, also report a growing user base of sales professionals.

ZipForm and WINForms are the same service with two different names: ZipForm is referred to as WINForms only in California, and that name will be phased out in favor of ZipForm as of 2010.

The electronic-form service can also be used in conjunction with DocuSign through a partnership agreement.

Lisa Mihelcich, chief operating officer for of zipLogix, a joint venture that offers ZipForm and WINForms, said the company has seen a movement toward paperless transaction documents.

"Our user base has grown from 3,000 in 1993 to half a million (today)," Mihelcich said, noting that 12 statewide Realtor associations offer ZipForms or WINForms as a member benefit. …CONTINUED

Electronic forms can reduce a sales professional’s risk, she said.

"A lot of agents were using preprinted forms that became obsolete after law changes. Electronic forms are always updated and current," Mihelcich said.

ZipLogix also offers Relay, a transaction management service similar to Fidelity’s TransactionPoint.

Since 2003, Morro Bay Realty and Western Heritage Realty in California have exclusively utilized paperless transaction documents, said Dick Fisher, president and broker for Western Heritage Enterprises, who owns the two realty companies.

"It (the paperless transaction process) allows us to do a lot more in reducing our costs," Fisher said. An increasing number of buyers and sellers are inquiring about paperless transactions, too, he said. "But it’s something you won’t institute into a company overnight."

Western Heritage Enterprises has 35 agents and currently utilizes WINForms, DocuSign and TransactionPoint.

Both DocuSign and zipLogix are planning to release updated versions of their software in April.

ZipForm 6 will be released on April 1 and will be Mac compatible and run on any browser, Mihelcich said.

Previously ZipForm, which is available in a desktop or online edition, was not platform independent and users that worked on a Mac needed to have a form viewer.

On April 16, DocuSign will release an upgrade of their electronic signature service.

Gonser said the update of the software allows users to load any document type, such as PowerPoint or Excel, and DocuSign will convert it into a secured document format.

The new version of DocuSign will also "recognize the documents you’re sending," meaning when a sales professional sends a listing agreement the service will ask the professional if he or she wants to utilize the same software and tabs that were part of the previous listing agreement sent.

Fisher said in the future he’d like to see electronic software that enables sales professionals to communicate back and forth with mortgage lenders and escrow companies.

"It’s something that’s another generation off," Fisher said.

Erik Pisor is a freelance writer in California.


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