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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mobile Applications That Enhance Communication and Deliver New Business

Of all the new and emerging technologies out there today, none have captured as much attention or generated as much widespread excitement as mobile applications. With over half of all cellular subscribers now using a smartphone, and 20 percent of the population owning an iPad or other tablet, it is no surprise that vendors in the title and settlement industry have begun to jump into the mobile arena. 

Currently, most of the title and settlement mobile applications fall into three categories:  property research, communication and data access, and vendor management. Since technology evolves rapidly, vendors are already creating innovative new applications outside these categories that bear watching.

The first subset of applications, property research tools, are ideal for real estate agents and mortgage lenders who do not operate out of a fixed office.

Several of the major title insurance underwriters offer these kinds of mobile tools. These include Title 1-2-3 from Fidelity, AgentFirst from First American and Property Profiles from Stewart’s PropertyInfo division. All of these applications are available on both iPhone and Android devices, with Fidelity and First American offering Blackberry versions as well.

These applications allow a user to search for a property using a variety of criteria, such as street address, parcel number, or owner name. Fidelity’s Title 1-2-3 application even has a feature that uses the GPS capabilities of the device to provide a list of properties in the user’s immediate area.

Once a property is accessed with one of these applications, the user can view characteristics such as ownership and tax information, legal description, a property map and comparable sales. All of the applications mentioned also allow the user to email a property profile from the mobile device.

While the property research mobile applications are mainly aimed at real estate agents and lenders, underwriters and software vendors have created another class of applications that appeal to all participants in a real estate transaction. These are the communication and data access tools.

Most of the offerings in this category were built to expand access to existing web-based portals. These applications allow some or all of the participants in a transaction to view order information from a smartphone or tablet, send information to other parties and receive real-time notifications when important events occur, such as the delivery of a title insurance commitment.

Three such mobile tools are RamQuest’s Closing Market Mobile, PropertyInfo’s SureClose and Old Republic’s OR Mobile application.

RamQuest introduced its Closing Market Mobile iPhone application in October 2010. It allows users of RamQuest’s Closing Market platform to search for and view order details, including buyers, sellers, property information, and the status of outstanding requests to third-parties, such as appraisers and title insurance underwriters.

Additionally, RamQuest’s application taps into some smartphone-specific capabilities by allowing the user  to call or e-mail contacts directly from the application, view documents using scrolling and “pinch-to-zoom,” and displaying a map of the property location.

According to RamQuest, the application also works on the iPad device. An Android version of Closing Market Mobile is under consideration.

PropertyInfo, a division of Stewart Title Company, released a similar application for the iPhone in May, 2010 that provides transaction access to users of its SureClose transaction management platform. A version for Android phones was subsequently released.

Feature-wise, the PropertyInfo application is similar to the RamQuest offering. It also allows users to view a list of files, drill into order details, and call or e-mail a contact from within the application.

Another underwriter, Old Republic, has also released an application called OR Mobile that allows similar order access and capabilities from an iPhone or iPad.

Perhaps the most compelling of the current batch of mobile applications are the vendor management tools. These applications allow professionals such as notaries and appraisers, whose jobs are mobile by nature, to receive and accept (or reject) bids and complete work entirely from a smartphone or tablet.

One such tool is an iPhone application from ISGN that allows its network of appraisers to receive, accept and process real-estate appraisals entirely from a mobile device. The application features a series of screens that allow appraisers to enter all necessary property details, including room-by-room descriptions and notes on the condition of the property. Appraisers can also take pictures directly from the application. Once the on-site appraisal is complete, the user has the option to send the appraisal information from the mobile device to a partner to complete any necessary paperwork.

Another company, National Loan Closers, is developing similar technology to match the needs of title agents with its nationwide network of notaries. The company plans to release a mobile application in late 2012 that will complement its existing Closingboard solution.

Using Closingboard, notaries can choose to be notified when opportunities to perform a closing arise. By setting notification criteria such as price, location and times available, notaries can find out about the exact closings they wish to pursue without being bombarded with unwanted requests.

The Closingboard application allows the notary to accept or reject the assignment, check in when they arrive at the closing location and mark the work as complete.

Since appraisers and notaries are mobile, tools that allow them to bring in and complete new business while they are on-the-go will certainly give them an advantage and help grow business.

While most of the title and settlement-related mobile applications fall into the previously-mentioned categories, vendors continue to invent ways to introduce smartphones and tablets into the daily workflow.

One such vendor is Ernst Publishing Company, which has developed a mobile application that calculates potential settlement costs. Ernst’s client companies can customize the application to use a combination of their own propriety cost calculations along with standard closing cost data that Ernst provides. Once customized, client companies can affix their own branding logos to the application and make it available to their customers.

Another innovative vendor is LandTech Data Corporation. Their new LandTech eSign application for the iPhone and iPad allows users to scan, receive and sign documents directly from a mobile device – eliminating the need for printing and faxing of paper documents.

Without a doubt, mobile applications are getting the most attention from the public of any new technologies. I expect that many more vendors will introduce compelling new mobile applications in the near future.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Designing Software to Minimize the Cost of Change

With all the legislative and technical changes that are impacting real estate settlement software, expensive and time-consuming changes are becoming increasingly necessary. With yet another revision of the HUD-1 form on the horizon, and new MISMO data requirements for lenders set to go into effect this year, this is a good time to look at ways you can make your software more easily adaptable to change.

For those who are not as familiar with the technical aspects of creating software, perhaps an analogy could help. Consider light bulbs. The federal government and some state legislatures are considering a ban on traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of energy-saving technologies such as compact fluorescent or LED bulbs.

Imagine if a ban on incandescent bulbs required you to hire an electrician and replace every light fixture in your home. That would be very costly, and pardon the expression, but a royal pain-in-the-arse, right? Thankfully, you can just swap one type of light bulb for another without any electrical work.

The reason you can easily switch from one light bulb technology to another is because light fixtures use a well-defined socket that will accept any bulb. All long as a light bulb fits the dimensions and electrical requirements of standard household fixtures, you do not need to be concerned with the underlying technology of the bulb (except for cost perhaps, but that is another discussion entirely).

There are similar concepts in software design: loose-coupling and interfaces.

Loose-coupling means designing software in such a way that distinct pieces of functionality can be readily swapped out with little or no need to modify other parts of the application.

Interfaces are the software mechanism that allows the easier and less-costly replacement of functionality. In the case of light bulbs, the socket is the interface. In software, an interface defines how one part of an application talks to another.

Ideally, settlement software should be designed so that the implementation of anything that is subject to change (such as the HUD-1 form) is a separate component (think light bulb). The portions of the software that gather the data for the HUD-1 form should have no knowledge of the physical formatting of the form, such as sections and line numbers. The order entry portion of the software should simply pass this data to the HUD preparation component using an interface (think light bulb socket) and let the HUD piece deal with how to present the data.

Designing software in this way minimizes the cost of changes by isolating the parts of the application that change. It is relatively easy to create a new software component that takes raw data, such as settlement information, and displays or prints it in a new format.

On the flip side, when details such as HUD sections and line numbers are referenced throughout an application, the amount of software code that needs to be changed grows dramatically. Application-wide, non-isolated changes are both costly and risky.

I highly recommend that anyone responsible for designing or building software read the book Design Patterns, Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides (the “gang of four”). If this book is not already required reading for computer science curriculums, it should be.

Application developers need to make sure they take the time to adequately design for change. End-users need assurance from their vendors or information technology providers that they are providing change-resilient software. Doing so will save tremendous amounts of money and aggravation.