Real Estate law firm has been conducting mobile closings for 14 years. A global pandemic has given their model, as well as emerging closing technologies fresh, much-needed attention
From picking up pricey, frothy coffees to having a milkshake delivered by servers on roller skates, the concept of car-window transactions has been historically relegated to fast-food franchises and kitschy highway burger stands. Banks eventually caught on, and then pharmacies.
Unfortunately, due to the onset of a terribly fast-spreading virus that is claiming things more valuable than our incomes, real estate is the next big industry sector to leverage the convenience of the drive-thru deal, now known as “curbside closings.”
While digitized documentation is common industrywide, real estate transactions traditionally slow down come closing.
Between the sheer volume of pulp product it takes to buy a house to the often vexing nature of each document’s purpose, historically, both consumers and professionals have found it easier to embrace the pain of pen and paper, page by agonizing page.
But that seems to be changing.
There might (probably will) be delays…
Adding pressure to the idea of closing on a home now is the debate over real estate as an essential business. Most of the country has agreed that it is, but that doesn’t always help worried buyers and sellers.
Digital closings (and virtual real estate in general) can cut through the debate, allowing escrows underway to be finalized and offering buoyancy to a nationally critical line of work.
Understandably though, closing dates and post-close relocations may need to be pushed out a few weeks or longer, requiring some additional cooperation among buyers and sellers.
Venkatesh Ganapathy, CEO of online moving platform MoveEasy, said in an email to Inman that his company has seen evidence of moves being delayed.
“We are still seeing a lot of activity, but based on the change of address filings, we can see a number of moves being delayed to around mid May and, in some cases, to late May,” Ganapathy said.
At the same time, Ganapathy said he’s also seeing an increase in customer growth because of the collective downtime in the industry, which could suggest that more agents and their clients are shifting to adopt web-based, tradition-breaking real estate processes.
Cook & James is a Roswell, Georgia, real estate law firm that has conducted “come-to-you” closings for well over a decade, starting them as a way to differentiate in 2006.
Heather James and Kara Cook, the firm’s co-founding partners, didn’t know it would also end up preparing them for a virus-driven economic lockdown.
“We were kind of set up to pivot to provide curbside closings, and we’ve been doing hybrid e-closings for two years already,” James said.
At drive-in closings, the company puts up signage to indicate where each party should park. Some people are comfortable with their windows all the way down while others ask for paperwork through narrow gaps.
Call it the latex-glove treatment…
The pair’s firm can ultimately do closings anywhere.
“Instead of just sitting at someone’s dining room table, we can do a porch closing, and [we’ve] even done one in someone’s garage,” Cook said. “We can drop the documents at your front door and do a video call to watch you sign.”
Cook & James staff wear masks and gloves, and they provide them to clients if requested. They offer clipboards and pens that don’t have to be given back once the packages are completed.
“A lot of people see their car as an extension of their home or themselves. It’s kind of like their safe place,” James said.
The lawyers think their curbside business will increase for the time being, and they’re trying to make it “fun” while respecting the overarching tragedy of the situation.
“We have a tent out there, and we’re trying do a good job and make people comfortable,” Cook said. “Some people want to get out of their car, so we have chairs for them.”
“We’re looking for ways to make it more appealing and more inviting,” James said. “At first, no one was taking us up on it, but it’s definitely catching on.”
Cook agrees, but acknowledges that real estate law and the related industries, can be slow to embrace change.
Cook believes that ultimately, it would be ideal if people never had to leave their homes for a closing, pandemic or not.
Things are changing every day, she said, and the firm will continue to explore how they can best serve homebuyers and sellers.
“[The industry was] probably going to go in this direction anyway,” she said. “But now we’re doing it faster because of COVID.” But having the right tools is key.
EClosePlus, a digital, paperless closing solution for lenders, settlement agents and borrowers, is doing its part to push the process forward, at least on the loan front, which is no pile of paperwork to sneeze into your elbow at.
Because mortgages are secured typically a few days before closing, eClosePlus offers aspiring curbside closers a primer of what it’s like to sign critical legal documents outside of an office.
“So much of the process is already digital, they’re signing sales contracts via DocuSign, and when they apply for their initial loan, most of the time that’s online,” said Eric Gilbert, CTO of eClosePlus. “It’s a very natural process.”
Gilbert said that the digital loan process doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of days it requires to close on a property, but it does greatly cut the hours needed for the actual closing.
The rapid uptick in adoption of remote online notarization, or RON, as well as “window-separated signing,” is also making arm’s-length homebuying easier.
Jamie Desjardin-Rummel, broker-associate at Benefit Realty in Franklin, Wisconsin, has been a part of curbside closings and told Inman in an email that after some early hesitation, clients are open to it.
“I have had a few sellers who have gotten upset about not being physically inside at closing, but when it is explained that they are not missing anything because the buyer isn’t inside either, they tend to calm down,” she said. “As a whole, I think everyone is adapting very well to what we are currently dealing with.”