Mariwyn Evans writes about commercial real estate for REALTOR® Magazine. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Computing in the Clouds
Storing and sharing real estate documents on the Internet translates into higher productivity and better customer service.
July 1, 2009
No more faxing disclosure statements to clients. No more frantic calls to the spouse because your marketing presentation is on your flash drive—which you left on the dining room table. No more sending multiple e-mails to your team to share updates on the transaction.
Sound too good to be true? Not in the world of virtual computing, where everything from business forms to voice mail messages are available anytime via remote servers accessible through a Web browser.
Often called "cloud computing" because information lives somewhere "in the clouds," virtual computing holds potential for significant impact on business organizations over the next three years, according to analysts at Internet consulting firm Gartner Inc., which identified cloud computing as one of the top 10 strategic technology trends of 2009.
The concept is quickly catching on in the commercial real estate realm because it gives practitioners remote access to important documents and makes data accessible for clients and prospects. "Virtual computing saves me time and helps me keep deals moving forward," says Christian Cardamone, a commercial broker and general contractor with RE/MAX Coast Properties in Wilmington, N.C.
Choose Your Cloud
A centerpiece of Cardamone's virtual work flow is Google Docs, a free, Web-based business suite that includes a word processing application, spreadsheets, presentation templates, and forms you can use to create seller net sheets and lease proposals. (The Google Apps Premium Edition, which costs $50 per user per year, provides a variety of enhanced features.)
Cardamone uses Google Docs as a home for his marketing brochures, profit and loss statements, and rent rolls, among other things. Once a prospective buyer completes Cardamone's confidentiality agreement—also housed on Google Docs—and sends it back by e-fax, he responds with a link to all the information the buyer needs about the historic office and retail properties that are the broker's specialty. "I can be out at a listing and never miss a beat with clients," he says.
All this virtual openness does raise issues of security—and indeed, Google Docs did have a privacy breach in spring of this year—but Cardamone says he trusts the system and has had only positive experiences. He always lets owners and sellers know that he plans to upload property-related documents to the online platform, and so far he hasn't met any resistance.
"What's great about the Google tool set is that it gives you remote access to your data, even if you don't have the corporate infrastructure of a company intranet to have a remote desktop," says Chip La-Fleur, who spent years as an IT pro before moving to commercial real estate sales at Prudential Callander Commercial in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Of course, there are other providers besides Google that allow you to store and share documents. Bob Gibbons, a tenant rep with Reata Commercial Realty Inc. in Plano, Texas, uses software called Syncplicity to share files. Once the program is installed on your computer, all of your documents, photos, and even music are backed up online and are made available remotely via the Web.
Gibbons can create folders to share with others or restrict documents to certain users. Since the software automatically saves all versions of each document, Gibbons knows there are records available if he needs them. "It's ridiculously cheap, gives me huge peace of mind, and increases productivity," he says.
Dropbox is another Web-based option for synchronizing and sharing files virtually, says Chris Fyvie of Colliers International in Toronto, who uses the service for his office leasing work. "If you can access the Internet, you have your files. I can put together an offer anywhere."
Both Syncplicity and Dropbox are free for up to 2 gigabytes of storage, which Fyvie finds sufficient. Some commercial practitioners may want to upgrade to the 50 GB option at $99 per user per year for either service.
Property manager Lee Wheeler III, CCIM, of Fidelis Commercial Real Estate Services in Beaumont, Texas, relies on Web-based management software from Propertyware to let owners check their statements of income and to allow tenants to pay rent and submit work orders for the office and industrial properties he manages.
"Our customers and tenants have embraced the online option fully, which reduces the number of phone calls we have to field," Wheeler says. Other virtual property management software options include OnSite Property Manager and Yardi.
Brokerages Jump on Board
While some practitioners seek out their own cloud computing solutions, many commercial brokerages have created Web-accessible intranets that allow their associates to share transaction information and quickly find forms and business planning tools.
Broker and investment advisor Andy Burnett of Sperry Van Ness in Oklahoma City uses his company's intranet to upload everything from maps and photos to marketing packages. He links the documents to a property's individual Web site, which is also hosted by the brokerage. Some documents can be viewed by any prospect, while more sensitive financial information rests in an online "vault" available only to users who have a pass code. "I can load due diligence information on a property to the intranet one time, rather than sending it out dozens of times to prospective buyers," Burnett says.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of virtual computing is the increased accountability to clients that it fosters, says Burnett, who encourages sellers to log on at any moment to track offers or see how many hits a property is getting on the Web.
That's also a key feature of Blueprint, the Web-based intranet of Coldwell Banker Commercial. "Clients are able to track your progress and see when actual closings or leasing transactions occur," says Nick Silivanch of Coldwell Banker in Wilmington, N.C. The site provides templates for marketing materials and a social networking feature that allows practitioners to locate peers based on geography, property specialty, or experience.
At RE/MAX Real Estate Center+ in Chattanooga, Tenn., Christina Holmes says she gets deals done more quickly by using the virtual computing features of RE/MAX Commercial's national database, which is powered by Catylist management software. "I think it improves the speed of transactions by about 20 percent to 30 percent," she says.
She uses Adobe Acrobat Pro to scan everything from demographic data to photos and then uploads them to a password-protected virtual repository. Other parties can read and edit documents through Acrobat, making it easy for everyone to review changes to contracts and leases.
The Phone Factor
For maximum virtual productivity, documents must be available not only from a computer but also from a smart phone. And with many cloud computing solutions set up for mobile browsing, that's a reality for practitioners with Web-enabled PDAs.
"I can easily review contracts from my iPhone and forward them to clients while I'm away from the office. There's no delay," says Holmes, who also uses her phone to access Google Maps and online demographic data. "I was standing in front of a possible replacement property with a client who was doing a 1031 exchange, and I was able to type in the address and look up property details right there. He was floored," she says.
Burnett uses his iPhone to access property documents, comps, and average local rent rolls through his account at Reis.com. Because Oklahoma City has an open records system, he can also track down property records on the spot. "I recently closed a $132 million sale while I was in Europe. I was able to do everything on my phone and almost no one knew I wasn't in Oklahoma City," he says.
One thing you probably can't do from your smart phone—at least not yet—is access commercial listings. Most of the major commercial listing sites aren't ready for mobile browsing, although LoopNet is "working on it," according to Mike Manning, vice president of marketing.
Virtual computing isn't yet mainstream, but if you're ready to save time and make your work day more flexible, maybe it's time to reach for the clouds.
Virtual Tools Worth Trying
If you've embraced the übermobility of cloud computing, consider these web-based mobility tools:
Have news to share with your social networking contacts? Post your message using this free tool and it will show up on Twitter, Facebook, and more.
Safely send text messages from the road with this voice-powered interface for your BlackBerry or iPhone.
Convert voice mail to text with this inexpensive service. It's perfect for tracking your calls while you're in meetings.
Need to send yourself a quick reminder? Just dial up Jott and start dictating. The software will create a text e-mail of your message.
This free service, still in limited beta testing, automatically forwards all calls to a single number, transcribes voice mail, and makes voice mail messages searchable.