Paperless Real Estate: Proof of Concept

I recently went on a bit of a journey to see if we had finally come to a place where it’s possible to conduct real estate business totally paperless. For me, the notion of the paperless brokerage is something of a Nirvana and my recent acquisition of an iPad had me wondering if we’d come along far enough to make it a reality. What follows is my journey to complete a sample Offer to Purchase agreement as a “Proof of Concept”.

Problem #1 was the ability to work with fillable PDF files on an iPad, which you’d think would be a simple matter but I was to discover that this isn’t the case. A fillable PDF is simply an Adobe PDF file that has fields in it allowing you to enter text data. It turns out that vast majority of iPad apps that work with PDFs are not capable of dealing with fillable PDFs. Fortunately, one that I found can handle this task well. PDF Expert by Readdle is actually a really, really good PDF viewer, allowing you to not only open and work with fillable PDFs, but also add highlighting, annotations, insert text, and other useful features including…wait for it… adding a signature (see Problem #3).

Problem #2 was really not a problem at all, but it might be for you so I’ll include it. I needed to get a standard Offer to Purchase contract form into a fillable PDF format. My board offers all of our standard forms as PDFs, though not fillable, so getting the PDF was easy. Using the Acrobat PRO Forms feature, I was able to add all the fields I needed to make my PDF fillable. It was simple, though somewhat finicky and time consuming. But the good news is that you’d only have to do this once per document you use, and once it’s been done it could easily be shared amongst REALTORs in your area. So now I had my fillable PDF and I shot it up to my Dropbox. If you don’t already have Dropbox, it’s a (FREE) simple, and secure backup system that has the benefit of allowing you to easily move files about from device to device, computer to computer, or to share files with others. If you use the link I provided, I even get a dandy little referral bonus of 250MB additional free space. PDF Expert can connect to your Dropbox and import PDFs that you have stored there. Simple and elegant. So far so good.

As I alluded to earlier, Problem #3 was the ability to actually sign the document. This is a biggie, ‘cause without that you’ve got no contract and no hope of going paperless. Fortunately, PDF Expert comes to the rescue here too! Now, I’ll admit that its handling of signatures is not the most slick, beautiful system out there, but hey… it works and it’s the only solution I’ve seen that covers fillable PDFs too so you’ll just have to deal with the fact that it’s not all that sexy. Here’s what you need to know (because this wasn’t immediately obvious to me and I almost never read help files)… When you’ve got a document open in PDF Expert, there is a fountain pen icon that brings up a signature pad. You need to do this BEFORE you drop in a signature. My way of thinking is that this should have been the other way around – I select a place to drop a signature and then the sign pad pops up, but this is not how the fine folks at Readdle dreamed it up. So you pull up the signature pad, have your clients sign or initial (whatever you’ll need first), and click “Save”. Essentially, you now have the signature saved in a clipboard of sorts, ready and waiting for you to drop it onto the document at a place of your choosing. So go ahead and fill out all the fields you need to fill out to complete your contract, and where necessary drop in a signature or initial as needed.

Once complete, if you’ve been following along, you’ll soon discover Problem #4. If you save and choose to email the document you just created, the recipient will have to open it in Acrobat Reader on a desktop computer. Opening it on a mobile device such as an iPad will only work if you open it in PDF Expert. Any other PDF reader will just show you the blank form without all your added information and signatures. The reason for this is that essentially, you are not actually editing the PDF so much as adding a new layer on top of it that contains all your entered information. I wasn’t satisfied with this. I figure if you have a digital contract and there is the risk that it could be opened up in the wrong program and display blank, it’s not really good enough yet. There’s something not quite right about that, so I needed to find a solution to this new problem. Enter Save2PDF. This handy little app gives you a Print-to-PDF option that Mac users will be well familiar with. Any app on your iPad capable of printing will be able to print to a PDF file and be opened in Save2PDF. Now, before you get ahead of me, yes, I am suggesting that you’re going to print a PDF file to a PDF file. If this sounds ridiculous, understand that the end result is that this process effectively “flattens” your PDF file, making your additions, signatures, and such a permanent part of the PDF file itself, and as a side bonus it’s now viewable in any PDF reader on any platform.

So the last step in the puzzle is to email this contract to the listing agent, and send a copy to your client and possibly your office. Viola! You’ve just completed an Offer to Purchase without ever having a scrap of paper to deal with. Now sit back with a sense of smug self-satisfaction, or play Angry Birds, or something, while you wait to find out if your offer was accepted.

So, that was my Proof of Concept. You can find a sample Offer to Purchase that I completed here. This document originated on my iPad and was completed solely on my iPad. It’s important to note that I make no claims as to whether digitally signed documents would be acceptable in your area. I’m in the midst of looking into whether I can use them in my own area. The purpose of this exercise was to see if I could do it and to that end, it’s mission accomplished. I am not sure our industry is quite ready for this, and it brings up a lot of questions and issues that will have to be addressed. However, as I’ve demonstrated here, it is both possible and practical to handle our business digitally.

If you have any questions feel free to hit me up at about.me/joshnekrep.

Guest post courtesy of:

Josh Nekrep
REALTOR, Century21Carrie
204.963.SELL(7355)
www.JustAskJosh.ca

    There are 38 responses to this post! Join in...

  1. Chris George says:

    Thanks for putting your mind to this. I have been working on stuff like this for the past two years. The Colorado contract is at least 13 pages long! I think I’ll look into buying Acrobat PRO Forms to make the transition to fillable forms on my terms much easier.

  2. Tina McManus says:

    Of course, you can use Docusign or another electronic signature software.

  3. Jamaica says:

    Chris – if you are in Colorado you should check out CTM e-contracts. It is fabulous and is (as indicated by the name) a fully electronic contract in real time. When the buyer or seller signs the contract on their end it is immediately visible and available to you on your end.

  4. Angela says:

    Jamaica – I was going to tell Chris the same thing! CTM e-contracts makes this whole post obsolete. Sorry to hear its not available everywhere (yet)…

  5. Debbie McBee says:

    Chris: Google “free pdf filler”. You may find an acceptable format w/out purchasing a program. I use a free online version and save the filled pdfs to Dropbox.

    Tina: Yes! DocuSign … well worth the small monthly payment. Also great for “emailing” ginormous files to those agents who have difficulty opening a shared online file.

  6. The link to the completed pdf is missing a “p” for Josh’s last name.

  7. I just got an ipad and downloaded TakeNotes.
    This app lets you upload your contract and write on it… and type into it… and sign it… all in one easy peasy app. I works great You can load blank documents, or you could fill them in on Formulator (or other similar program) email them to youself, put them into TakeNotes and have your client sign and fill out on the ipad. It’s great.

  8. Chad Beasley says:

    I’ve been using a tablet pc with the Real Estate Dashboard software for about 3 years. It works great for having documents signed on the screen without touching a single piece of paper. They’ve integrated an electronic signature option into it also which is great. It will be a dream come true to get an easy solution like this with the smaller format of an ipad. I’m sold on paperless! It makes my life so much easier. My clients think it’s really cool too!

  9. Josh Nektrep says:

    Steven: Right you are about the broken link. I’ll drop a note to Suzanne and get it corrected.

    Thanks!

    Josh

  10. Mike Taylor says:

    I didn’t realize that getting a signature on an ipad was such an ordeal. The marketing makes it seem so easy I just assumed it would be a snap. I agree about docusign, I have it and love it and would never not have it in my arsenal. This makes me think even harder as to if I want to buy an ipad or not.

  11. Docusign + Docusign iPad App = Paperless. No biggie.

  12. Josh Nektrep says:

    @Mike: A simple signature on a doc is actually really, really easy. SignIt! (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sign-it-fill-sign-send-documents/id378295244?mt=8) does this very easily, and there are many other solutions. You could (theoretically) complete an entire contract in SignIt, but the problem is that it’s cumbersome and impractical. The problem was in dealing with fillable PDFs.

    And to those who mention Docusign, I am aware of that solution. Maybe it’s my pseudo-hacker roots, but I just don’t see this as being something requiring a monthly service fee. I appreciate that they’ve packaged various document sharing/delivery services in to justify a monthly fee, but at its core, we’re talking about working with a digital document and getting it signed. This doesn’t seem like something worthy of paying a monthly fee, even if it’s “only twenty bucks”.

    Those “only $20/month” services have a way of getting away on you. :)

    Thanks so much for all your comments. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following the comments on this site, and on Facebook.

  13. Steve Overton says:

    Josh,

    I would encourage you to check out the app SignMyPad.

    I wrote a blog about it on macsavvyagent.com

    http://macsavvyagent.com/a-real-estate-life-simplified-with-sign-my-pad/

    This app does everything you describe right out of the box without any of the work arounds.

  14. Steve Overton says:

    All forms are entered as pdf’s via e-mail or dropbox and then opened in SignMyPad.

  15. Josh Nektrep says:

    Steve, if I’m not mistaken, that app does not actually allow you to fill out a *form* (ie: Fillable PDF), but rather it allows you to drop text onto a PDF. Am I correct?

    If this is the case, it’s similar to SignIt!, which I did explore. However, this is an extremely cumbersome way to complete a lengthy contract.

    If it doesn’t work with fillable PDFs, I can’t see it being a viable option.

  16. In Calgary we are using CREA’s Webforms. All PDFs are encrypted and I have not found an app yet that will recognize these fillable fields and allow signatures.

    The workaround I’ve found is as follows:
    – fill the forms from a computer as usual
    – from the main page of Webforms, email the transaction kit to myself making sure to select “lock forms so data cannot be altered”
    – load link on iPad then open PDF in either Sign My Pad or Noterize

    Noterize allows you to sync to Dropbox but I prefer Sign My Pad for ease of use and the developers have recently stated they are bringing Dropbox capabilities soon.

    If we could remove Webforms’ encryption we could use any PDF app – as it is if I open a filled PDF in most (including Dropbox itself) iPad apps the fields show up empty.

    ReaddleDocs is a great way to manage attachments and cloud-stored documents, btw.

  17. Julia says:

    The issue that I run into trying to be paperless is re-shuffling pages. I’ll send a completed, signed contract to a listing agent and I get back the sig pages only. So I end up with a full contract with buyer’s sig only, along with a separate file with the last page with both sigs. I can forward both files to whomever needs it but it looks awkward and somewhat unprofessional. I haven’t found a program that easily lets me “unstack” and “restack” pdfs. Got any suggestions?

  18. Josh Nektrep says:

    Hey Jeff,

    I looked at using Webforms in all this, but the deal breaker for me was the requirement to complete the forms on a computer rather than on the iPad directly.

    It’s unfortunate that Webforms doesn’t load on the iPad. That would have certainly been the easier, more direct approach.

  19. Josh – while it annoys me that I can’t fill out Webforms PDFs on the iPad I don’t consider it a deal breaker because I don’t yet think I’m ready to do full listing/purchase contracts on the iPad. It’s not as easy to read while explaining to a client and I’ve had the iPad crash under the pressure of a multipage document and have to start over.

    For one or two page documents, I’ve already saved hours of time by being able to sign and send via email or ifax instead of running back to the office for scan/fax.

    I’m not at all tied to the iPad but am hoping ipad2 has the processing power to work with encrypted PDFs and Flash. Perhaps the new Android tablets or the BlackBerry Playbook will do what I need.

  20. Chris George says:

    Thanks Jamaica, I do use CTM.

    Julia, Have you checked out PDFill? this and there’s another free program that allows you to do “some” editing of pdf docs.

  21. Julia says:

    @Chris, I haven’t tried that one. Will check it out. Thanks for the tip.

  22. […] But although the iPad may be bringing great change to the way we list and sell Real Estate, could this also finally bring about a paperless Real Estate Office?  I read an interesting article by a tech savvy agent in the US, Josh Nekrep of the Century 21 network, who decided to actually run a trial to see if it was possible.  Bottom line is we a probably a way off, but it is possible.  You can read the full article here. […]

  23. Just wanted to thank you and Josh Nekrep for encouraging me to go back to PDF Expert. It didn’t work properly with CREA Webforms last month but was updated on February 4 and now allows us to fill out the forms, save to Dropbox and then continue editing fields and do signature annotation. It used to be unable to do this because of the encryption the documents use.

  24. Lina says:

    Thank you Josh for your post. There are so many different ways now to go paperless. I have been paperless for over 3 years. I started with Real Estate Dashboard on my tablet PC and have recently switched over the the iPad. I use Noterize currently in combination with Dropbox but am always looking for ways to improve. I like your suggestions for a fillable PDF. Thank again!

  25. Jay says:

    I just got an iPad, and have had success with pdf-notes and dropbox. Am I making this too easy? I didn’t run into the problems mentioned above, but I am still testing so may encounter issues. Thx for the article!

  26. Ryan Ward says:

    Try the TakeNotes app. I think it’s $3.99. I have uploaded all of my contracts into a new folder in Dropbox. I navigate to the document I need, open it in TakeNotes, my finger to create a field to type for address, date, etc…in the form fields and then I switch to pen mode and sign. Save it as a PDF and email it off. Done.

    The only problem is that it does not create a document that is 8.5 X 11 so it isn’t the cleanest finished product, but the best all-in-one I have found.

  27. John says:

    check this out, hope this is helpful
    http://www.gopaperless.com/

  28. Jacqulyn says:

    Zipforms is coming out with some new products (supposedly) that will allow electronic signatures. I’ll believe it when I see it though.

  29. Chris H says:

    PDF Expert will let you flatten the document when you email it from within the app. I have been using PDF Expert with dropbox for about 6 months now and it is amazing.

    I also just started using ZipForms mobile ($9 a year) to access my contracts to make changes then click on view and you get the option to open in PDF Expert to have your clients sign right there. Works great.

  30. Jacqulyn says:

    @Chris, really? $9 a year is a more than fair price. Any restrictions on it as far as software or hardware?

  31. Darcy Osborne says:

    I am still unclear how PDF expert ans save2 PDF work together? Can you explain more how to save the PDF file from PDF expert so any PDF reader will open it?

  32. It’s a great idea, and I’m using it for my Samsung Tab 10.1, which has yet to crash or cause me any issues using it this way.
    I need to point out one further problem though. In Canada (or at least in Ontario), electronic signatures are not allowed on an Agreement of Purchase and Sale. Every other form and document seem to be legally fine, but not the actual offer. OREA is in the process right now of lobbying to have this changed…until then, use it at your own risk!

  33. Alan Tikwart says:

    I would encourage you to take a look at Verbble – http://www.verbble.com . Verbble can work with your company to speech optimize all of your forms so that you can Talk, type or click into your forms, but more importantly then push those forms to the appropriate end point…company CRM, content management system, email, etc. Since Verbble is hosted in the cloud, you can use it on any device- Apple(iPhone, iPad), Android, Blackberry, Windows, etc. Here is a great demo of Verbble on the iPad integrated into Salesforce – http://www.verbble.com/tour/#ipad

  34. Has anyone out there gone totally paperless in the Las Vegas area? I’d like to get my team going in this direction. Looks like I have some work to do researching this out.

  35. Shawn Brown says:

    Like Darcy says 4 posts up, I also need some additional assistance in how to save the PDF Expert form (now completed) over the the Save2PDF program. Thank you.

  36. Shawn Brown says:

    I think I have it: In PDF Expert, at the top right, there is a box with an arrow coming out of it. Press that, and then ‘Open In…’. Choose Flattened Copy, then choose Save2PDF. That is how I transferred it over, to then be emailed to the appropriate recipient.

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  38. Josh Nekrep says:

    Just an update to this now 2+ year old post that still generates traffic to my website…

    The entire step of using Save2PDF is no longer necessary. Some time ago an update to PDF Expert negated that need by allowing for flattening of PDFs at the point of email. As a matter of habit, *every* document I now send out of PDF Expert is sent as a “Flattened Copy”. This ensures that anyone who received a document from you will receive an uneditable version of the document.

    Even 2 years later I continue to use PDF Expert to sign Listing Agreements and a variety of related documents, but my provincial law does not yet permit the electronic signing of Offers To Purchase documents, much to my continued dissatisfaction.

    I’m glad so many of you have found value in this article.

    Cheers,

    Josh

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