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Remaking the realtor Computers, tailored software and cell phones have moved Realtors beyond the era of the pen, box of index cards and a typewriter.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Pat Hiban started working as a Realtor 11 years ago, he would arrive at the office each morning with a huge briefcase that was overflowing with papers and crammed full of books. "I could barely close it," the associate broker with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia recalled. He wore out three briefcases in the next five years.

These days, he walks into the office empty-handed but organized. The inside of his car is free of sticky-note reminders of things to do. Everything he needs to remember is stored in a computer, not on a scrap of paper or in his head.

"Technology has really cleaned up my time," he said.

He and his office staff of five work as a team using five computers that are networked together. Databases provide easy access to phone numbers and store records of all conversations and activity relevant to each home sale and purchase. With specialized real estate software, he can create plans for pending sales that deliver reminders of what needs to be done each day before settlement to the appropriate staff members. If someone wants him to call them in a year, he can enter that request into the computer and he'll get a reminder on the correct date.

In the near future, he expects to buy a laptop computer because he does so much of his work outside the office. In the meantime, he uses his cellular phone to stay in touch with his staff at the office and can have them look up any information he needs on the computer.

"I think this is the smart way to go," Hiban said. "We try to be as paper-free as we can. If everything is on paper, it's a mess."

The world of real estate has come a long way from the days when agents kept handwritten listings on index cards, filed them in cardboard boxes or drawers and tried to match buyers with sellers through memory.

They specialized in just a few neighborhoods such as Towson and Timonium, but with the wealth of information and technology today, Realtors can knowledgeably help buyers and sellers in large territories that may overlap several counties.

A computer handles the complicated financial calculations about mortgages that once were done by hand, presenting buyers with an average of 15 options for a loan.

And, when it's time to fill in the blanks on a contract, there's no longer a need to write all the details with a pen. Computers can produce contracts that are more accurate and reliable, real estate professionals say.

"We're on the cutting edge of changing the way real estate is practiced," said Ramsey "Bill" Flynn, an executive with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA. "And we're using technology to do it."

Increasing numbers of Realtors and realty firms are going high-tech, trading in their typewriters, Rolodexes, file cabinets and copy machines for desk and laptop computers, printers, scanners, fax machines, modems, real estate software packages, cell phones and pagers.

In a recent national survey of real estate professionals conducted by Price Waterhouse, it was learned that:

* 84 percent used a Pentium-based computer.

* 83 percent used cellular telephones.

* 66 percent used a laptop computer

* 34 percent have used a digital camera or plan to purchase one.

* 23 percent used a personal digital assistant (computer note pad).

Essentially, the thousands of dollars that Realtors and brokers are investing in technology are paying off by enabling them to work with greater speed, efficiency and accuracy.

"It was hard to get people excited about technology at first," said Donald E. Grempler, an executive in Baltimore real estate for 35 years. "But once they saw how much it would do for them, it became a very exciting thing. And it's made a world of difference in providing a lot more service to the buyer and seller."

An agent can now use a laptop and a portable printer to produce a market analysis, determine closing costs and show net profit at a certain price while sitting at a seller's kitchen table.

He can look at a listing of a house while parked in his car at the curb with a potential buyer and determine immediately how much the monthly mortgage payment would be, including taxes and insurance.

Financial data about a buyer can be entered into a computer to prequalify him for a loan and produce a printout that gives details of many available mortgage options so that a client can consider all of them.

Some firms have computer programs that help Realtors with contracts, automatically inserting interest rates, required addendums and disclosures and updating the documents with the latest legal changes.

"Things are changing so rapidly that a Realtor has to constantly be taking classes in technology," said Bob Norrell, a Realtor with Long & Foster.

Realtors are increasingly finding the Internet to be an effective means of advertising their services and their listings through Web pages. Contracts can be e-mailed and settlements can be accomplished via express mail or fax if necessary.

The Internet also enables Realtors to provide customers with more information than ever before about everything from schools and mortgages to taxes and property records.

"It used to be that you got in your car with your customer and drove them around to look at houses until they dropped," said Flynn, who has been in the business for 43 years. "Now we can put the customer in front of his computer and let him look at houses at home. He can eliminate a lot of the options and narrow the search. It puts the customer in control."

Some Realtors say they are getting work they never would have gotten before from out-of-state and even international clients who found their names on the Internet.

"I'm working with a man from Nigeria who had done Internet searches and kept seeing my name," said John Kessler, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. "We correspond by e-mail and I pull listings and send them to him. He wanted someone who could work comfortably in the Internet environment."

Kessler has been involved with real estate since the early 1960s, when desktop computers were far in the future. His mother, Doris Kessler, would pay him to sort her handwritten, multiple list index cards.

"We also used to have to figure our closing costs and prequalify a buyer by hand, using our math skills," Doris Kessler said. "What technology has done is make it easier as far as getting the information you need more accurately and quickly. What you save is time, and time is money."

Now 42, John and his mother, who is 78, work as a team and use computers to store their information instead of boxes. He said their business has grown and he believes that there is a direct correlation between access to technology and increased earnings.

"My mother's a smart woman," said John, who became a Realtor in 1985. "She recognized 10 years ago that computers were coming and we needed to get on board. The ability to use computers is more of an attitude than an age factor, I've decided."

Flore-Marie Hervert, a 61-year-old Realtor with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA, has been in the business 20 years. Three years ago she decided to learn to use computers. Now she has a laptop, modem, fax machine and printer in the corner of her living room.

"So many times I almost threw it under a truck," she said. "At first I was totally devastated by computers. I didn't think I could do it.

"But now I love it," she continued. "It's absolutely amazing. Technology is making my life a lot easier. And I can serve my sellers and buyers in ways that I could not do before."

She's never out of touch, thanks to her pager. And if someone calls late in the evening about a house, she can use her laptop computer to access the listing in minutes, make a printout and fax it to the person or call him back with details about the home.

"In the past I would have had to go into the office at night," she said.

And if she shows a property to a customer who decides later that night that he wants the house, she can prepare a contract offer on her laptop computer at home and meet him in the morning for signatures.

"I used to spend a lot more time on the road and be a lot more tired," she said. "Technology has reduced my workload and the physical energy that I expend. It has given me freedom and I can spend a lot more time at home. My time usage is much more efficient."

While many agents choose to do most of their work from the office, technology has enabled others to base their businesses at home. They come into the office only for staff meetings, floor duty, answering the phones and other necessary chores.

"I have more control of my time than I used to," said Edd Green, also a Realtor with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA. He does a lot of work at home with the help of his computer, scanner, printer and fax machine.

Michael Reitz, a Realtor with Long & Foster, saidthe old standard of 60 days from contract to settlement has been shortened thanks to technology.

"Realtors have to work faster today," he said. "You can settle a loan in 14 days if there are no contingencies. Technology is the wave of the future."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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