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How to Set Up a Paperless Office

Joe Ballerino
Find out how one broker ditched the paper files in his office and went electronic.

Let’s face it. Real estate is one of the most paper intensive industries around. In transaction after transaction, we find ourselves up to our necks in legal forms, agreements, contracts and disclosures—you name it. And after each closing, we’re faced with the burdensome task of storing the paperwork—for at least five years, per Florida Real Estate Commission (FREC) requirements.

There are more than 235 sales associates in my Naples firm, and we average more than 1,000 closed sales per year. When you add listings, we’re talking about files on more than 10,000 transactions (five years’ worth) to be stored at any one time. That’s a tremendous amount of paper!

Several years ago, I set about converting my office from a paper-based system to an electronic one. But the conversion didn’t happen overnight; it was a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. Little by little, we started taking all our paper forms and scanning them into electronic files, and we eventually stopped accepting any documents in paper form—now our associates send them to us either by fax (into our server) or by scanning into PDF (portable document format) via our onsite digital imager.

I didn’t set a budget, but the saved administrative time and storage space more than made up for the thousands of dollars it cost to set up a paperless office.

We’ve been entirely paperless since January 2005. Our office closed more than 1,000 transactions during the last 12 months and they were all received and stored electronically. Here’s our strategy:

1. Get Staff on the Same Page
You’ll need the cooperation of everyone in your office—from the administrative staff to the sales staff to top management before you can create a truly paperless office. You might face some resistance early on, but once they all see how effortless it can be to access documents electronically, they’ll eventually come around.

The satisfaction of my sales associates, whom I consider my clients, was definitely worth every penny it cost me to set up a paperless office. Being able to deliver a true online client document system for our staff—one that they’re able to retrieve, view and print from any Internet-connected computer using their login name and password—was one of my greatest accomplishments.

But, most of all, I enjoy seeing the look on potential recruits’ faces when we tell them that we won’t accept paper and that they’ll be able to access all their client files online. It’s been a real attraction for us when hiring new associates.

2. Convert Documents
Obviously, to run a paperless operation, you’ll need to create a way to receive all your paper-based documents and files in electronic versions.

Scanning is probably the quickest way to get documents that you receive from outside sources into an electronic file. A scanner is an essential element of your paperless system because there will be many documents that you won’t be able to receive in electronic form. Scanning will let you convert paper documents into PDF format so they can easily be viewed, stored and shared with anyone in the world. For those of you who don’t know what a PDF is, it’s a format that was developed by Adobe Systems in the early 1990s for capturing, viewing and printing information from any application, on any computer system. Today, it’s considered the de facto standard for data storage and sharing. And, best of all, you can download the Adobe Reader program free at www.adobe.com.

We lease two Konica Minolta bizhub C352 scanners for about $300 each per month. The machines provide scanning ability, but they’re also our copiers and printers, and they can also be used to e-mail documents. Our sales associates pay for prints and copies, so we try to break even on the two bizhubs.

We were using Adobe Acrobat for separating and renaming files, but found that a software program called PaperPort (by Nuance Communications) was much easier.

Using PaperPort, an administrator in our office separates each scanned document—renaming them as necessary—and then uploads them into our Intranet database, where associates can view their clients’ files. Scans are automatically directed to the appropriate folder when being scanned, since the user will select the type of transaction—sale, listing or other— when scanning. A broker, who verifies them for proper form and signs listings using a Tablet PC, reviews them. We have two Tablet PCs—we use both a Motion Computing LE1600 and an Acer Travelmate C204.  

3. Use a Paper-Free Fax
When the fax machine hit the big time in the mid-1980s, it quickly became the standard device for transmitting and receiving documents. But it didn’t do much to alleviate paper clutter—the last thing you want in a paperless office! We use GFI FAXmaker, loaded on a Windows 2003 Server to receive faxes in PDF form. GFI FAXmaker integrates with our server and lets us send, receive, view, print and save faxes from any PC or laptop without having to print a copy or go to the fax machine. We paid about $3,500 for the GFI FAXmaker. Our server cost between $4,000 and $5,000, but we use it for other purposes as well.

Faxes are reviewed by an administrator in our office and forwarded to the appropriate folder on our server for processing.

4. Build an Intranet
Next, we enhanced our Intranet to store client information and relevant documents. An Intranet is a private, secure version of the Internet. Only registered users are authorized access to the password-protected site. Our third-party Web hosting and design firm maintains and further develops our Intranet and public Web sites. We have a monthly development budget so that we are constantly adding new features and functionality.

5. Do a Test Drive
Take time to test each part of your system to make sure that it works to your satisfaction. Our staff worked with an in-house Information Technology professional to test various equipment and software before we went totally paperless.

New users with smaller offices can start with a desktop scanner with an ADF (automatic document feeder). Be sure to watch scan quality and file size, though, and keep playing with the variables to get the best quality with the smallest possible file size to make uploading and online viewing faster.

Joe Ballarino, CRB, GRI, ePro is founder and president of Amerivest Realty in Naples. He is 2006 president elect of the Florida State CRB Chapter and chairs the Florida Association of Realtors®’ (FAR) Public Policy Insurance Subcommittee, and is vice chair of the Technology Committee. He was the Naples Area Board 2005 Realtor of the Year as well as 2004 president.