There’s always something to howl about

Real estate transactions without producing a single sheet of paper with Microsoft OneNote and PDF Annotator

I’ve fallen off the face of the world for a long time, but I’m back and I’m here to provide a follow-up to my discovery of Microsoft OneNote and tablet PC’s. In short, I’ve been able to complete my last 3 transactions …from first meeting the client through to closing ….generating less than 10 sheets of paper myself ….total (2 transactions had zero paper that I  produced and the third had about 6 sheets). It has simplified/revolutionized how I organize my client data and all the information that’s gathered in the course of a transcation, my notes, my tasks, prospecting, …you name it! I’ve been able to reclaim a good portion of some desk space since I’ve been able to do away with almost all my printed client files. When I go out for a showing, all I bring is my tablet pc and my keycard. The benefits go on and on.  It has by far surpassed my expectations from only a few months ago.

All my information about all my transactions are at my finger tips. Lender contact, escrow, title, cooperating agent, etc. No more waiting till I get back to the office to dig through files or worse yet, pull out the boxes of closed transactions from 6 months ago to find something. I have it all right in front of me and I have to thank OneNote for most of it. I have yet to see any other agent carry one of these things around and I just think … they just haven’t seen the light yet! 🙂 Last week Stewart Title emailed me saying they were going to start going all electronic and had this huge write up on the benefits. It was nice to see an industry that generates a TON of paper going in this direction. It’s just gonna keep going!
Here is the setup that I’ve settled on…this is by no means an advertisement for these products (as they all have little issues or quirks).

Data management – Microsoft OneNote. OneNote stores all the listings I would have printed on paper before, all the handwritten notes I take of each house, all the contact info I gather per transaction, copy of property info from county website, and a slew of other info. For sellers, I keep advertising logs, showing logs, contact info, and a few other things. I’ve got vendors/contractor info stored, my marketing ideas that I think of and jot down, good articles I find on the web or blog posts, …it’s almost limitless of what you can store and how you organize it. Anything that you can print on your computer, you can print it directly into OneNote. For actual files, like excel files I generate, CMA’s, etc. ..I store them on the computer in folders. You can link them into OneNote but for me it’s just as easy to click on the desktop and pull up the full file there.

Digital Documents – I use a combination of PDF Annotator and deskPDF. Adobe PDF is way more expensive than need be. PDF Annotator can allow you to type or handwrite onto any PDF file. deskPDF allows you to create a PDF file from practically anything you can print (excel doc, word, publisher, etc.). I have all the blank contract forms in PDF and open them with PDF Annotator to fill out the forms and sign. In order to provide the client with a copy, I simply email them on the spot (the clients I’ve used this with have all been techie types so they actually wanted me to email them everything rather give them paper copies).

Tablet PC – Lenovo X61 (formerly IBM) was the tablet pc I chose. It’s got it’s problems (though I don’t know if it’s Lenovo or if it’s Microsoft Vista…I think it’s a little of both) but the other options for tablet PC’s didn’t review that much better if at all. This computer has a finger print reader so logging in to your computer while in tablet mode is a lot easier (don’t have to open the computer up to type in your password) and a digitizer pen with superb writing recognition.

Issues that one should consider before joining the digital revolution:
1) Tablet PC’s are not yet mainstream (Dell is supposed to have launched one by now, but it’s looking more like Q1-2008 sometime) and all the available models have some sort of issue with them. If you’re not somewhat computer savvy (like if you don’t know how to install updated drivers) some of the issues may make you throw your computer out the window. Also, they’re way more expensive than your typical laptop.
2) You have to have a reliable and consistent data backup system in place. If you put all your eggs in one basket and that basket gets dropped, broken or worse yet…stolen, you will be …to put it bluntly….screwed. Just know that technology will always eventually fail. You just have to be prepared. To do this, I’ve setup my tablet pc to sync with my desktop computer. All the stuff outside of OneNote are in a set of folders that I have automatically sync with my desktop whenever my laptop is on the internet. The service I use is another Microsoft service called Foldershare. It’s still in beta but it works pretty darn well and fast. OneNote has it’s own built in sync system so whenever my tablet is on my home network (ie, when I get home) it will sync all the stuff I added into OneNote with my desktop. Likewise, if I’m doing work on the desktop, all the info will get sync’d to the tablet. On top of that, my desktop computer is backed up daily onto an external hard drive. If I really wanted to get serious, I’d have a raid setup backing up my data, but I feel pretty confident that at least one of the three sets of data I keep (tablet, desktop, external hard drive) will be in tact should I lose one.
3) Tablets run on battery. Batteries run out. It’s pretty useless having all your data at your finger tips if you can’t turn the darn thing on. Learning from experience, I now have a power inverter in my car and a second power cord for my tablet…just for use while on the road.
4) lastly, ..prepare to re-think how you organize everything…and you’ll be happy about it! 🙂

**Note** There’s a difference between convertible tablets and a true tablet. Convertible tablets’ screens can flip up and rotate so it becomes and functions like a normal laptop. True tablets are only tablets. I have the convertible. When putting a document together or writing an email, …I can’t handwrite that (not enough patience). When I’m out and about and I need to take notes , it’s tablet mode all the way!

Some good links on tablet computers:

Tablet PC Review
Gotta Be Mobile

Welcome …. to the real world …I mean… the digital revolution.


26 Comments so far

  1. Dru Bloomfield November 25th, 2007 3:41 am


    I’ve had my tablet for a couple years and, I agree, it’s indispensible. Being able to write a contract and have it signed anywhere is something my clients appreciate. I can email a copy to them immediately via a local wireless connection or my broadband card, and they do not have the paper clutter either.

    One Note is one of those tools that I feel like I’ve only tapped about 5%. Being able to take notes in long hand and then converting to digital is very cool, plus I use the Snip tool regularly. You’ve definitely taken it to the next level and shared some great ideas for better utilization, plus painted a picture for the where the future is going!

  2. Missy Caulk November 25th, 2007 4:32 am

    I’ve had my tablet (Motion Computer) since Oct 2005, I log on to zip forms, write a contract, print to journal writer so they can sign, then email the copy to them and it arrives before they are home. I also send to my office and assistant if it is a listing.
    I love it, at home I use a desktop but for in the field it is fantastic.

  3. Mike Taylor November 25th, 2007 6:06 am

    Good stuff James. I have been toying with the idea of getting a tablet for sometime now. At this point I still don’t know if it is worth the price difference over a conventional laptop. I do many of the things you are talking about with a regular laptop.
    I do love the idea of signing a contract right on the spot with no paper. I was thinking about getting a signature pad to do that though. Another thing I love and my clients do too is electronic signatures.

  4. Lane Bailey November 25th, 2007 8:57 am

    I have been working on this very thing. I am going to survey a few of the closing firms in the area to make sure they aren’t going to have any issues with the resulting contracts.

    I also know that I only am getting a small percentage of the utility of my technology… and I need to really change that.

    Thanks for validating what I am working on.

  5. Ryan Brown November 25th, 2007 9:52 am

    Great tips on PDF editing saving trees. I just bought a Lenovo x61t last week and I love it. I was tempted to wait for the rumored Dell or Apple tablets however the Lenovo’s are well received. The forums on are a great source of user feedback.

    Also, great info on your OneNote system. Regarding backups, another free MS option: MS SyncToy syncs folders between PC’s on a network.

  6. James Hsu November 25th, 2007 11:16 am

    I forgot to mention one thing I do…Lane’s post reminded me of it. I include as an addendum in every contract that both parties agree to accept email transmission of contracts as the same as fax. Our standard paperwork has something in the purchase and sale that allows for fax but email has to be agreed upon in writing. I don’t mention anything of an digitally signing stuff because the nomenclature has been used a lot and it means different things here….It used to imply that by typing your name out or typing your initials, you are “digitally signing” the document, …but this is totally different, you’re putting a pen (albeit an inkless pen) to electronic paper. I don’t mention it to save confusion and if someone signed it in ink and then i faxed it…isn’t it digitized anyway?

    Ryan – Looking over SyncToy, it appears to be nearly the same as FolderShare ..they’re both by MS …except Foldershare is prepping to be a service rather than power toy …and power toy’s last update was in 2006 while foldershare is actively being worked on right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they shared the same underpinnings.

  7. Jeff Brown November 25th, 2007 11:35 am

    James — Thanks for the perfectly timed post.

    My little two horse outfit has been looking seriously at going paperless. It’s especially important to us, as we do business in many different states, and clients all over the map. You can see how your system would be magnificent.

    So what’s the fly in the ointment?

    We’re Mac through and through. The only crashes we know of are on the streets with cars. 🙂

    Are we outa luck here?

  8. Galen November 25th, 2007 11:56 am

    Great look into the mind of a paperless agent from the future. Thanks James.

  9. Brad Coy November 25th, 2007 1:02 pm

    James, thanks for a comprehensive look at going paperless. I have been dinking around with my company’s escrow and listing coordination for a while now. I’m really enjoying the portability of having the information as close as my blackberry at all times and having searchable documents kills the idea of “finding” important contacts and info. on closed files.

  10. Christoph Schweiger November 25th, 2007 4:28 pm

    Great stuff James! I could not imagine being without my Toshiba Portege, PDF Annotator, Zipform (online version), Docusign and TrustFax.

  11. James Hsu November 25th, 2007 5:38 pm

    The adoption of tablets/convertible tablets has been much slower than manufacturers would like. I think the problem is the average laptop user doesn’t see the significance of the tablet features. Granted, if I’m sitting at a desk, I’m in laptop mode 95% of the time. When I’m away from the office, I’m in tablet mode 99% of the time.

    The average laptop user doesn’t really do or have a need to use a computer on the go ..thus diminishing the functionality of a tablet. Where are tablets popular? On the forums I see a lot of students looking into tablets and if these were around when I was in college, I would have gotten one in a heart beat. My son’s allergist’s office uses them, my wife’s doctor’s office uses them, and my son’s pediatrician’s office just went digital as well. Seems like the medical industry is soaking it up. Any industry that has a lot of paperwork, records, info to track could benefit from this technology ..especially if the users are moving around a lot. So…I’m a bit amazed the mortgage and real estate industry hasn’t jumped on this years ago.

    With that said, …my best guess is that Mac users will be waiting around for a tablet for a while. Apple’s product lineup seems to be geared toward mainstream and the demand for tablets just isn’t mainstream yet. If you google “Mac Tablet” you’ll find some stuff that indicates Steve Jobs is not interested in making a tablet Mac (though there’s a company that will modify a macbook into a mac tablet called modbook).

  12. Jeff Brown November 25th, 2007 6:05 pm

    James — I don’t need a tablet if all you need it for is the field. We don’t show property, rarely have clients in our office, and have no need to attend closings.

    My question was more directed at the software. Is it available for Mac users? I assume the Acrobat stuff is.

  13. Ryan Brown November 25th, 2007 6:18 pm

    Another area of adoption: Engineering schools are starting to require tablet PC’s for incoming freshman:

  14. Chuck Kissee November 26th, 2007 8:23 am


    Great review on the use of tablet PC’s. There are a couple points to consider.
    1. Legal standing of the signatures/documents
    2. A Complete end-to-end solution

    If your documents can be re-opened and edited including cut and paste of signatures you (or your clients) could be open to legal challenge. It’s true that many jurisdictions have approved the method you speak of for obtaining signatures but approval does not mean they will support you in court.

    You mentioned having to back up your own data. Many companies want that data to reside on their own servers since, in your case Brokers, are the ones responsible for the documents. A complete solution typically involves keeping up to date forms on a central site for download by users and providing digital file cabinets where you save the executed forms. This provides chain of custody tracking and one location for document access by all interested parties which you permission. With a little programming your clients could visit your website and see every document from initial offer, to counter offers, to mortgage docs, escrow docs and title all stored and backed up for you on secure and redundant servers.

    The complete solution for legal/secure signature capture contract and document management and data storage written for tablet PC’s is called DocQ-Smart(R). It will keep you from having to go to the office. It is fully functional with scanning, printing (if you want)faxing (in-bound and out-bound), emailing and you can save the docs to a thumb drive to give to your clients if you like. One package that incorporates all the neat microsoft tablet features so you don’t have to jump inand out of different applications.

    Check our site for information.

  15. James Hsu November 26th, 2007 8:48 pm

    thanks for the info. I have thought about the legality and the potential challenges and about the central data store. My broker does require copies of everything and they get it via email. what they decide to do with it, (store it electronically or print it out and file it) is up to them. What I’m trying to do is conserve the resources that I personally use. Legally, I haven’t worried too much about it. I’m working for the best interests of my clients and have no need to be malicious with the electronic signatures. Clients also get a copy of everything so I would have some serious questions to answer if I produced a document with my client’s signature that the client doesn’t have a copy of.

    Jeff….as for OneNote on the Mac, .. doesn’t look like there is currently. I just sent an email to my MS friend to see if I can find out anything about why that is.

  16. Jeff Brown November 26th, 2007 9:24 pm

    Thanks so much, James.

  17. Dave November 26th, 2007 9:51 pm


    Have you had any challenges to the legality of your electronic contracts? What has been your broker’s take on electronic signatures and the validity of the contracts? I’m trying to get my broker to approve docusign (so I can go completely paperless), but I’m getting nowhere and there doesn’t seem to be any caselaw about electronic signatures yet. Any thoughts?

  18. Chuck Kissee November 26th, 2007 10:26 pm


    When you sign your name on paper, does it look anything like the docusign signature? And since a docusign signature is an electronic representation you must find out if it can be cut an pasted. If so you won’t pass the legal test. Not yet at least. Prudential Real Estate uses DocQ-Smart software. Why not have your broker look in to that solution.?

  19. Galen November 26th, 2007 11:37 pm

    Salesy vendor alert!

  20. James Hsu November 27th, 2007 12:49 am

    no legal challenges… yet. My office just prints it onto paper and you can’t tell the difference between that and if you signed a hard copy and then faxed it or even photocopied it.

    Dave, regarding the dangers of cutting and pasting electronic signatures, …you can do the same scissors and photocopying. Not to diminish the dangers that electronic signatures pose for unscrupulous agents, but it just hasn’t been an issue yet. Guaranteed as tablet pc’s catch on in our industry and more and more people begin using it, someone will abuse it and then there will be a law about it. How is your solution different than Vreo? In my contracts, if both parties acknowledge and accept that one side is signing documents electronically and that the other party will accept them, then…I’m not seeing the issue. The only problem arrises if my clients claim they didn’t sign something that has their signature on it. That’s why I give them (as we’re supposed to anyway) a copy of everything.

    Anyone a contract lawyer wish to chime in?

    also, I’m told by my MS contacts that SyncToy and Foldershare are different even in their underpinnings. Foldershare is more flexible and feature rich and lets you sync over the internet as it’s part of the Windows live service.  SyncToy was more meant for computer to computer …like how you’d try to sync your PDA to your desktop…but instead for PC to PC.  (so it was clarified for me).

  21. Dave Blockhus November 27th, 2007 10:01 am

    Thanks for the response. I’ll keep plugging away. I think its a case where my company wants to cover their #@$es. I’ll let you know if I’m able to make any progrees, but I appreciate your info.

  22. David Stejkowski November 27th, 2007 2:33 pm

    In my commercial real estate law practice, I am becoming more and more paperless with time, especially with the due diligence part of a deal. For almost five now, most all the title commitments, Schedule B documents, (draft) surveys and certainly all drafts of documents have been coming as word processor documents, tifs, gifs, PDFs, etc. I have not gotten to a tablet PC yet but I may someday.

    As for the final execution copy of a contract or legal document, I tend to agree with Chuck. I know there are digital signature statutes out there and all, but for me I still like to have the piece of paper for the file in case something ever does go awry. Besides, although I think there is a movement afoot to have electronically recorded documents, most county recorders are often going to want to see signed and notarized originals of documents such as mortgages and deeds…I would also not let my client do the cut and paste electronic signature, as you might have an issue as to who did the cutting and pasting. I know you can do it with copuies, but that is what originals are for — to prove it wasn’t a paper/scissors job.

    Also, while I am not a litigator, I remember just enough about the best evidence rule to be wary of not having a signed original paper copy.

    These days we usually send even execution copies by PDF and then the clients can send scanned signature pages scan that can be inserted into the original by the party preparing the document. (It is not that hard to check for tampering, and I have never been burned by someone trying to substitute one PDF file for another; opposing counsel is not going to risk a law license by sandbagging.) And I always keep scanned copies of the final documents on my hard drive, which is backed up nightly.

    Because of speed, convenience and the like, one possible compromise that I use frequently (and that James suggests) is to include language to the effect that a fax or a PDF document will the same effect as an original, but I also include a provision that the parties will exchange original paper signatures, either later or promptly upon request of the other party.

  23. Kevin Boer November 28th, 2007 8:07 pm

    Two words: Winforms. Docusign.

    I love my Tablet PC, but for reasons completely unrelated to managing transaction paper flow.

    With Winforms and Docusign, my clients don’t themselves need a tablet.

  24. […] James Hsu’s recent Bloodhound article on (nearly) paperless transactions using a Tablet PC, PDF Annotator, and Microsoft OneNote showed an ingenious self-cobbled-together solution to a vexing problem in real estate:  how to stop killing so many damn trees every time we sell a home!  Purchase contracts and disclosure documents get longer each year, usually driven by the industry’s need to protect itself from lawsuits from people seemingly too stupid to be buying homes in the first place (”Mr. Jones, did you not notice that the new home you were buying was on a golf course?  Why then were you surprised when a golf ball came sailing through your window?”  Voila — new disclosure:  the Errant Golf Ball Disclosure.) […]

  25. Blair December 5th, 2007 8:58 pm

    My wife is a Realtor, and I’ve just set her up with Onenote (I’ve been using it for 3 years) Your license for Onenote allows you to install it on 2 PCs (see Microsoft’s Chris Pratley’s blog on this –, so another approach to backup is to also install on the Desktop, and then create your Notebook(s) on the desktop. Then, open the Notebooks over the network from the tablet. Now, you have a copy on the tablet that Onenote will automatically sync with the Notebook version on the desktop anytime your tablet is connected to the network – no need for Foldershare/Synctoy solutions (at least for what’s in Onenote) And again, if you make changes in Onenote on the Desktop, those are synced to the tablet.

  26. James Hsu December 10th, 2007 11:46 pm

    You are absolutely correct with regards to OneNote’s built in sync….and that’s exactly how I have it setup. I actually read the license agreement and saw that I can setup Office on a desktop and my own portable computer. So I have my desktop as the main holder’s of the notebooks and the tablet sync’s to the desktop. I use foldershare for all other files outside of OneNote (like publisher files for flyers, or some spreadsheets I put together, photos of a house, etc.