COVID-19 Accelerates Digital Transformation in Title Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic, together with the lowest mortgage rates in history, are radically impacting housing demand. Existing home sales soared a record 24.7 percent in July as the average rate on the 30-year fixed-rate loan fell below 3 percent for the first time. Americans seeking more space have driven a buying frenzy. Consider a three-bedroom New Jersey home listed for $285,000 in July: The property had 97 showings, received 24 offers, and went under contract for 21 percent over asking price – all within 72-hour window, according to The New York Times.
The confluence of surging demand and rock-bottom interest rates has created unprecedented challenges for the title insurance industry. “Our industry is document-intensive, and a significant amount of paperwork flows through the transaction process,” said Prashant Kothari, Managing Director of String Real Estate Information Services. “The drive toward digital transformation is accelerating at hyper-speed, and companies must adapt to technology and become more efficient.”
When the coronavirus hit, fears of contagion fueled a rapid shift away from in-person closings. By July, 43 states had either passed new laws or emergency orders allowing remote online notarization (RON) for real estate transactions, according to the law firm Holland & Knight. As a result, more and more title agencies are integrating secure eClosing platforms into their business models.
“RON enables title companies to upload documents to a digital verification platform, where buyers and sellers can log on and review the information,” said Kathryn Magee, Assistant Vice President of Title Operations for String. When the transaction is ready to close, participants log on and meet with an online notary, who verifies their identities and electronically notarizes each document.
Some eClosings involve a process called Remote Ink Notarization (RIN). Participants connect with a notary through audio visual technology (typically a webcam) and physically sign documents, which are then overnighted to the notary and officially stamped and sealed. Some closings involve a hybrid of RON and RIN methods.
“The eClosing process is a better, faster customer experience that typically results in fewer errors, compared with physically signing dozens of documents in person,” said Joe Salmons, Vice President of Sales at String. “Digital platforms are rapidly gaining acceptance.”
In fact, a federal bill introduced in March by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND would authorize every U.S. notary to perform RON and establish minimum standards for compliance. “The Securing and Enabling Commerce Using Remote and Electronic Notarization Act of 2020” has broad bi-partisan support and is endorsed by the Mortgage Bankers Association, the American Land Title Association, and the National Association of Realtors. Currently, title agencies conducting a settlement for a RON transaction must comply with specific state statutes, which may forbid the use of Skype and Zoom, or require the sessions to be recorded and stored for a period of time.
Separately, the shutdown of county recorders’ offices remains an issue for the industry, though not as intense as the early days of the pandemic, noted Rob Dace, String Senior Account Executive. “At this point, most are open by appointment,” he said, adding that searches that previously took four hours now require three to four days. “The counties are all responding the best way they can, and we are able to execute title searches within a reasonable amount of time.”
Some offices alternate between open and closed days to allow for cleaning while others set up lines and limit the number of visitors to accommodate social distancing, Dace noted. The smallest jurisdictions allow one person to enter at a time and they are not allowed to touch anything; a clerk turns pages for them and makes copies.
Finally, title agencies must not only adapt to digital technology and governmental shutdowns, but better manage human resources amid rising volume. COVID-19 is posing unprecedented challenges to recruiting, on boarding and training new staff, especially as many offices remain closed, said Gokul Venkat, Director of Operations at String. “Everyone is stretched so thin from capacity standpoint – they don’t have enough human capital to manage all the business coming in the door,” said Venkat. “Even in a perfect market it’s hard to find qualified employees. Companies can plug into String’s 1,000-plus employees, who become part of their production workflow. We provide a faster, more cost-effective solution than recruiting, hiring and training a new employee, and offer customized solutions to support title agencies.”