P R O B A T E   &   P R O P E R T Y
January/February 2002
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Technology—Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Real Estate Transactions on the Web

One recent trend in technology for the real estate lawyer is the development of online resources for coordinating and conducting closings. These are not typical, online resources, in which information is provided or software can be downloaded and used or evaluated. Instead, these sites actually assist directly in conducting closings, and often allow communication among the players to a real estate transaction. A number of such sites are now available on the World Wide Web, and this column will endeavor to compare the functions and features of a few of them.

General Functions and Features

Many of these sites have similar or comparable features. The utility of some of these features will vary, depending on the style and nature of one’s practice. This introductory portion of the column will look at the differing features that might be included on the sites and note examples of site functionality for each area covered. The sites reviewed in this column are:

•   CloseYourDeal: http://www.closeyourdeal.com;

•   SettlementRoom: http://www.settlementroom.com;

•   SmartClose: http://www.smartclose.com;

•   TitleLink: http://titlelink.interliant.com; and

•   BridgeSpan: http://www.bridgespan.com.

Although offering at least superficially similar services, the sites do not have the same functionality or focus. Some may be more appropriate for a title insurance practice, others for a bank practice, and still others for a practice representing parties to land transactions. Each site has information on how it operates, the features it contains, and how to access those features. No recommendation as to which site to use is given in this column because different practitioners will be interested in differing functionality and because there is insufficient space in this column to review all of these sites in depth. An interested practitioner will need to test the technology at the listed sites to find the one that will best fit his or her practice.

Task Lists

Many of the online closing sites include task or “to do” lists that allow closing participants to check off completed items. This feature allows everyone involved in the closing to have real-time information on the status of the closing, including outstanding documents and uncompleted requirements and related responsibilities. As tasks are completed, the list can be updated by the person responsible for the task, so that a complete picture of the status of the closing can easily be obtained by everyone interested in the transaction.

Deadline and Date Tracking

This useful feature is one that attorneys might not purchase alone because it is often included in other practice management software for law firms. Nevertheless, including dates and deadlines on the web page associated with a particular transaction reminds not only the lawyer, but also other parties to the closing, of important dates. As the dates and deadlines approach, using a date tracking feature along with a task list can help ensure that each participant in the transaction understands not only the tasks required for a successful transaction but also the deadlines required to facilitate a smooth and timely closing.

Online Document Posting

Of the many reasons for using a web-based method of closing coordination, none is as compelling as the potential to share actual documents over the web. Different services handle the posting and retrieval of documents in different ways. Some require scanning of the documents in the originator’s office and downloading from the web only. Others allow faxing of documents to and from the web page, in addition to downloading and sharing via the Internet. The ability to work with “original quality”documents and to have access to them at all hours is a potentially significant benefit of using web-based online services. All of the web sites reviewed allow for online posting of documents.

Online Message Posting (Private/Public)

The ability to send messages to other parties is another function that many of the web services reviewed provide. Again, however, the manner in which this is accomplished differs from site to site. Some sites allow faxing documents or messages directly from within the web page. Others allow posting of messages on the site, so that when participants log in, messages are displayed for them to read along with other updates (such as newly uploaded documents). Still others allow for the sending of e-mail messages from within the web site itself. A lawyer’s preference for communication method will likely depend on the sophistication of the parties to the transaction as well as the practitioner’s degree of comfort in relying on electronic communication in various transactions.

Customized Access

A significant consideration for most lawyers in selecting a web site will be the ability of the site not only to allow access to various parties to a transaction, but also to allow the easy customization of that access so that certain participants can reach only certain areas of the site or specific information relevant to their roles in the transaction. The sophistication of the various sites allows for different levels of customizable access.

Software Integration

Another functional element useful in dealing with real estate transactions is software integration in data, documents, and information. This feature, which until quite recently was difficult to find in web-based transactions, has become quite widespread. The transactional web sites reviewed in this column often include various options for integrating software into the closing process. These might involve coordination with MLS documents and forms, or export of data to other software applications or databases. Attorneys interested in using one of these services, but who have specific software compatibility issues, should review the sites thoroughly.

Report Generating

As the Internet and the World Wide Web, in particular, have moved from a strictly web-page based design to one more heavily focused on databases and data integration, the ability to use data not only to conduct transactions but also to generate reports based on the data has been incorporated into web sites. Based on a lawyer’s administrative support needs and the manner in which closings are undertaken, such reports could represent a useful tool for transactional work in the real estate arena. SettlementRoom not only provides report generation but also archives data monthly to a CD-ROM disk.

Customized Branding

Finally, one less significant element of many of the web sites reviewed here is the ability to brand or co-brand the site. “Branding” means that a lawyer’s name or law firm name is presented on the web page on which the transactions are taking place. In co-branding, the firm name appears along with the name of the site providing the ser-vices. This allows association of the firm or lawyer with the work being done each time the transaction page is accessed. The marketing benefits are apparent, but choosing a site primarily based on this opportunity would seem to be putting form before function and could lead to unhappy results with interaction at the site. Instead, choose the web site that offers the required functionality, but note whether this option exists and, if it does, take advantage of it.

Additional Integrated Services

Some sites provide additional, potentially integrated ser-vices through their web sites. For example, BridgeSpan is a licensed title and closing service provider. Use of its web site entails use of its services, but the fees for site use are included within the fees generally charged for title and closing work. CloseYourDeal uses a different model, providing an integrated network of service providers to users of its site. Depending on the size of the real estate practice and the lawyer or firm needs, sites such as these may provide value-added services in addition to the web site (or the web site may be a value-added service to its core transactional services).

Evaluating the Sites

Although this column does not provide a recommendation for “one-site-fits-all” transactional closing web services, as with other services, there are a few strategies to use when choosing a site. One strategy is, of course, to review the site itself and whatever information or demos are present. Is the web site easy to navigate? Is relevant information present and easily located? Do you need to register and provide personal information before you can review the site? Registration requirements are often a telltale sign that a site is focused not on service but on gathering potential sales information, and caution is urged in providing professional information to such sites. TitleLink requires registration to run its demos, but it allows practitioners to see outlines of the service and detailed descriptions of its product without registering.

Has the site received any reviews in the press? Are the reviews and articles listed on its web site? Are user testimonials offered on the site? Are the testimonials from users who make similar use of the site to the use your firm or practice would make? Examination of these issues will assist practitioners who are considering a foray into the world of online transactional administration.

Technology—Property Editor: Robert A. Heverly, Graduate Fellow, Yale Law School, robert.heverly@yale.edu.