Case Study: Real Estate Transaction Storage with Evernote [Video]

A diverse and active response to my question "Where do you store your digital transaction files?" in the Evernote for Real Estate Facebook group prompted me to have this conversation with Dean Ouellette, author of Evernote for Real Estate, and an active REALTOR who relies on Evernote to manage and store his transaction files. In our 40 minute conversation, Dean and I discuss his workflow for managing transactions with Evernote. To better understand Dean's Evernote-centric real estate transaction process, watch the recorded video or browse the transcript below. I've also provided links to the additional software that make up Dean's productivity environment. What is clear is that there is no "right" way to craft a digital real estate workflow. But, Dean has a system that works for him and is a great case study for agents working to go paperless.

Do you have additional questions or do things differently in your workflow? Let me know in the comments and I'll address it in a future post or discussion. This is rich topic!

Resources Roster

Follow are the resources that Dean mentioned during our discussion that are part of his workflow.

Conversation Transcription

[Stacey] Hi there, I’m Stacey Harmon from Harmon Enterprises and I am glad to have you join us today on this conversation with realtor Dean Ouellette. If you’ve been looking for us, thank you for your patience, we’ve finally worked out our technical issues, and are thrilled to have this discussion. This is really just a discussion about real estate agents and how they’re managing their digital transaction files. Where are they storing them? It started with a really simple question based on a observation I’ve had with a lot of my consulting clients. Many are asking me, “Okay, as I move more digital and go towards a paperless transaction, what’s my workflow, and where exactly should I be storing these files? Should it be on Dropbox, Evernote… where is it best and what is the right answer? I posted a simple question on the Evernote for Real Estate Facebook group thinking there would be a high percentage of agents who were doing a digital transaction there, and the answers were numerous and scattered; there was no consistency to it. It prompted an interest on my part about talking to agents who are using different solutions and finding out what the pros and cons are for them, where Evernote plays a part in the real estate transaction in the workflow, because as much as I am a massive fan of Evernote, it may not be the right spot for every single agent. But then, it may be for some agents! 
So what I wanted to do was start by talking to Dean, who is one of the agents who responded to the question with the fact that he does his transactions and manages them totally in Evernote. I love talking to Dean anyway because he is a kindred spirit in terms of Evernote love, and has written a book, “Evernote for Real Estate.” So he certainly practices what he preaches and I thought we would start by understanding a little bit more about how Dean is using Evernote for his transaction management (in particular his transaction storage), so that we could present some of the pros and cons and help agents have a discussion and plan their digital workflows for maximum efficiency and productivity in their business. So, welcome Dean, thank you for spending some time with me to tell me a little bit about your system. 

Could you just set the stage about where you are, how you run your business, and how many transactions you’re doing a year?

[Dean] Sure, I am in Chandler, Arizona which is just to the south east of the Phoenix metro area. I’ve been a real estate agent now for about six years now, and doing about 36-40 transactions a year. Just about 3 a month. 

[Stacey] Okay, tell us all a little bit about the structure of your team, is it just you, who are you working with or collaborating with during the transaction?

[Dean] Yeah, I have another agent that does work with me on the team and we also have a part time transaction manager assistant. 

[Stacey] Are you the agent? Or are you the broker?

[Dean] I am an agent, I work for a brokerage called Gentry Realty, which is a smaller brokerage that’s growing. They’re probably up to about 250 agents, we have three offices in the Phoenix area, and my office probably has about 50 people in it. 

[Stacey] Okay, so I’m asking these questions because I want to set the stage because I have a theory that the answers to these questions somewhat impact the organization and digital workflow solution that realtors select for their own personal function. So thank you for entertaining them! So could you tell us about how technical is the actual brokerage in terms of their requirements? Do they require paper transactions? Digital transactions? Is there any technology behind that that as an agent you have compliance to follow?

[Dean] We are pretty much completely paperless when it comes to our transactions in our brokerage. There are still a couple of agents who will come in to the front desk and turns in a paper copy and the receptionist up front scans them in. We use a program called SureClose, which is how the brokerage maintains their tracking and their storage. That’s something our assistant does. Our assistant will take our documents from Evernote and upload them into SureClose for us.

[Stacey] So that’s part of your digital workflow is the organizing at the end of everything you make sure your broker has a copy of all that you have, but you have you have your own, separate team solution using Evernote?  

[Dean] Right, so SureClose is something that they have used since the day I joined the brokerage. I think I’ve been into SureClose once since I’ve been here… I’m not a big fan of it. I have my system and I like to use my system, that’s why I have an assistant and I had one before that that was just doing it per transaction who took care of all that for me.

[Stacey] Are you ever collaborating with your clients? Or are they not necessarily part of the digital part of your transaction?

[Dean] Well, it depends on the client. For some of the clients, when I first start showing them houses, I’ll set up an Evernote notebook for them. When we’re getting ready to show houses, I’ll put the PDF’s and a little write up of information about the properties that we’re gonna go see and share that with them. That way they can view it, they can open up the PDF from there. I’m very, very much paperless. I try not to bring any paper with me. They always get an e-mail copy of the PDF or the Evernote version of the PDF so they can see what we’re seeing. I tell them that if they want to print out the planos to see the information about the property they can do so, but I’m providing it to them digitally. And 9 out of 10, probably 9.5 out of 10 will never print it out they just show up with their phone or their iPad in hand.

[Stacey] Okay, great. On a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being totally digital, where would you put you and your business on the paperless spectrum? 

[Dean] Probably high 90’s. I’m horrible with paper. One of the reasons I started using Evernote was that I have this problem where I’ll put a piece of paper on my desk and by the end of the week that piece of paper was 20 pieces of paper. Paper was like little rabbits to me, somehow they bred on my desk. They made a mess. I’m horrible, horrible at organizing; with Evernote, I just drop it in there and it doesn’t matter where it goes because I can find anything so easily. 

[Stacey] Before we get into your Evernote solution, tell us what type of hardware you use. Are you Mac, PC, what are your devices?

[Dean] I’m a MacBook Pro, I have a Nexus tablet and a mini iPad, and about a year ago I switched over to the iPhone. 

[Stacey] Also, I’m interested to hear a little bit more about the other systems that you use that I assume you integrate with Evernote. Could you tell us what are your e-mail and calendar applications of choice?

[Dean] So I use Google apps to run all of my e-mail and my calendar. On my iPad, I’ll use Tempo for my calendar. But everything is run through my Google Apps account. 

[Stacey] Do you have a CRM that’s part of your workflow?

[Dean] Yeah about six months ago I moved over to Tribus, which is Eric Stegemann's new CRM. At first, i’ll be honest it was a little rough. He was developing version three of this and I was one of the beta testers. But right now it’s fantastic, it is a great solution, it has such great abilities and I’m really happy about it. 

[Stacey] In terms of transaction management, digital signatures, and your transaction storage, how do you define the softwares you use to fulfill those needs?

[Dean] I use EasySign a lot on my iPad, and one of the reasons is that it integrates so well with Evernote. I can sign something right on there, have my client sign something, and it will upload straight into Evernote. I use DocuSign pretty much on every transaction. Not pretty much, I use it on every transaction. My clients love it, I love it, it’s easy to use, it just works. And it integrates pretty well. I can go onto my iPad and DocuSign and pull up a contract straight out of Evernote and have somebody sign it; it’s really nice.

[Stacey] And your storage is all being done in Evernote? 

[Dean] Yeah, as far as my business stuff, all of my storage goes straight to Evernote. Pretty much my personal stuff, too. I mean, I have a Google Drive account, which I use for some things. I’m a youth running coach, too, so I do all my training plans and stuff there because it has the spreadsheets built into it. But for other storage, everything is in Evernote. The reason I use ONE platform is because it comes back to the same problem: I have a Dropbox Account, and the Dropbox account has a lot of stuff in it, but I don’t use it anymore. I used to have to remember, is it in Dropbox? Or is it in Evernote…? Where was it? I just had to pick one platform, and put it right there so I know where to go. 

[Stacey] So Evernote became your hub, and you built a solution around that?

[Dean] It did. And it didn’t happen the first time… I first signed up for Evernote in 2009, because it was the hip new thing, everyone was doing it, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I didn’t get into it. I tried to like it, but I didn’t see how I was going to make it work. Then I went back, probably a year later, played with it a little bit more, again it didn’t click, and then 2011 I just needed something that was going to work, and I just went in there and made it work. 

[Stacey] By the way, you were a huge inspiration to me. I learned a ton, you really fueled my Evernote usage with your book. Some of the details you covered in there were like light bulb moments for me. Note-linking in particular. So I think the real estate industry should thank you for writing that book, it was very, very useful. I want to clarify one thing, are you using a Dot Loop or a digital transaction room from DocuSign? Are of those types of systems part of your process? 

[Dean] No, not at all. We upload everything in the end to SureClose. But I don’t use anything outside of Evernote to track my contracts. Whenever I get contracts, e-mails, anything, it goes right to my client’s notebook.

[Stacey] In terms of the software solutions you just ran through, your Google Apps, Tribus, CRM, DocuSign, all of that, is there any particular reason… are those selected because they all work together? Or because they’re the best vertical solution for what they’re trying to accomplish? Where do you draw the line, and how do you, kind of, pick and choose what’s going to be part of your system?
[Dean] It has to work for me. And it has to be fairly simple to use. If it’s not simple to use, it has to be easy support on how to get it to work for me. Which was the case with Tribus - you know, Tribus was so complex, it could do so much that it wasn’t easy for me to figure out. But their support was fantastic. It helped me get up and running with that. Everything else, if it works with Evernote, that’s great, but it only has to work with Evernote if it has to do with a transaction or storage. So Tribus, which I use for my CRM, I use it for keeping touch with my clients; it doesn’t have to work with Evernote. I’m not storing my transactions there. There’s no need for me to store my transactions in Evernote, in SureClose, and somewhere else… if I don’t need it, I don’t need it. So that didn’t have to work with Evernote. Now, other things, like my electronic signatures and storage stuff had to work with Evernote. If I’m getting it from my iPad, to Evernote, I don’t wanna have to have my iPad, and then e-mail it to myself, and send it to Evernote, that sort of thing. It had to be seemless.
[Stacey] One of the questions I often hear from agents that maybe you can give us some perspective on your thought process, between the CRM function and Evernote, how are you deciding where to draw the line between what they do? Because a lot of CRM’s and Evernote will overlap in some of their functionality. So what do you see is the divider line and how did you choose which parts of the process you’re going to be using? Some people, for example, and maybe you can share a little bit more about this as well, some people actually do their lead management - you know in the Untethered with Evernote book, we talk through a lead management process with a template process. Sounds like you’re relying more on Tribus and your CRM for that and maybe the e-mail marketing. Is that correct?
[Dean] That’s correct. I tried to use Evernote for lead management. It can be used. But it is a you-have-to-make-it-work, very hands on system. With a good CRM, that is what it’s designed for. Evernote is not designed to be a lead management system. You can make it work, but that’s not what it’s for. Evernote is to store things and find things and access things no matter where you are. So to me, it was an easy split/divide between those two, like I said, with Tribus, I could do all of my document storage there, that sort of stuff, too. But I like to have the access of having everything easy, no matter where I am to find, through Evernote. I’m storing all of my personal stuff in Evernote. I have, you know, 6,000 notes in Evernote. It’s really easy to find what I need. The ability to read pdf’s or read inside pdf’s. it just works so well for finding things. But when it comes to lead management, in client touches, which is a very important piece of our business, then you need a good CRM that is designed for that and works for that, and that’s why I make the distinction.
[Stacey] That’s very helpful. So tell me now, walk us a little bit through your process: does a lead start in your CRM and at some point you decide to create a notebook for them in Evernote? What’s that trigger? What does that look like for you?
[Dean] So a client doesn’t get a notebook until we have some sort of meeting. I do a lot with Internet leads. If I get an internet lead, it goes into my CRM, it goes on a drip campaign, it gets a follow up-type system. Once they say, okay, I wanna look at houses, we have that first meeting, or I think I want you to come list my house, we have that first meeting… as soon as that first meeting happens, that’s when they’ll get a notebook. Until then, there’s no reason to create the notebook because, you know, half the time, that first meeting doesn’t happen.
[Stacey] When you create that notebook, what types of things are you putting in it?
[Dean] So I have a sheet that has some general information about a transaction. Which is basically what I call a template. So it’s just a sheet I made one time, save it to a notebook call it “Template” then copy and paste it. But once I have that first meeting with them, all of my notes for my client go in there as far as this is what they’re looking for, all of our e-mail communications go in there. I’ve never been sued, but I do know agents, my former partner, was involved in a legal dispute, where she was kind of involved in the transaction but not the main agent. And this happened three or four years later, and she couldn’t remember everything that happened. We do so many transactions, it’s hard to remember everything that happened. Now, when I have an e-mail from a client, I use PowerBot which is a plug-in for G-mail. Once I have a conversation, I can take that whole thread and just send it to a client’s notebook with one click. It’s really easy to do. That way, all of my communications are kept. If there ever comes a time, two/three years from now, where I have to relive a transaction, it’s usually done through e-mail, so I can relive that transaction and figure out exactly what happened. Any pdf or anything, any houses that we go see there’s a copy there, contracts, everything goes into it.
[Stacey] One of the features I would assume is functional for you in this is that Evernote will actually time and date stamp as well as geocode stamp any note that you create in the system. So I know the e-mails are dated, but that probably provides you some additional contact should you have any details, in terms of timing, which is really important in a real estate transaction. So do you find function out of that?
[Dean] I haven’t. I haven’t needed it. I’m sure that is something that if I needed it it would be nice to have. And you know I know it’s there but it’s not something that I think about when I’m doing it. I just think about getting the information there where I can find it later.
[Stacey] Tell me why you choose to put those types of notes and history in Evernote versus right into the CRM, and the reason I ask the question is that I do talk to agents who have… I’ve heard it mostly in response to… well I’m sure there’s several, like Top Producer, Tribus… that allow you to take detailed notes about communications and the back and forth and the ongoing relationships. So why, for you, do you choose Evernote over the CRM?
[Dean] It’s where I spend my time. Evernote is always open on my desktop, and I spend a lot of time in there. Again, having everything in one location just works for me. Now it may not work for everyone, everyone has… every agent that I talk to about Evernote ends up using it in a different way. Not everyone is going to use it as much as me, some people use it more than me. It’s just your comfort level, where you spend you time, where you want to keep your information.
[Stacey] Do you create just one notebook per client? Or do you ever create multiple notebooks for them?
[Dean] Okay, a good example here is actually my parents… my parents have purchased two investment condos in Phoenix (they live in New Mexico right now), and for each of those transactions I have a separate notebook for them. I do property management for them, that’s a third notebook I have for them. They’re now looking to by their forever house here, that’s a fourth notebook for them. But for most clients it’s just going to be one notebook.
[Stacey] So what you’re saying is your process is that you use one notebook per transaction?
[Dean] Per transaction, that’s correct. One of the things we’re going to run into, and I didn’t really think about this when I first started, is after a while you get that 250 notebook limit. And what I do now, is about every six months I look at the closed transactions that I have and the ones that are a couple months old… I’ll go in there, highlight all of the notes, I’ll tag them, with a tag that has the client’s name- and you can do that all in one step- and then I’ll just archive them. And then I’ll delete that notebook. So I have usually about 150-200 notebooks, but for the older ones, once they’re closed, a few months later that’s what I’ll do, I’ll tag them, I’ll throw them into my general, “catch all” notebook, and just delete that notebook name.
[Stacey] So “general notebook” by year? Like a 2013 archive, 2014 archive? Or just closed transactions?

[Dean] It’s literally called “Catch All.” That’s the notebook name. And everything just ends up in there. And I don’t need that because, again, when you’re looking for something quickly in Evernote I can search by the tag name and just find it; it’s all right there. I don’t need to look at everything in 2013, I’ve never had that need to do so. If I ever had that need to do so, something I would add to my workflow, but I’ve been doing this 6 years and I haven’t needed it so far…
[Stacey] So really it’s just like providing a legal back up for you… it’s a digital store cabinet, you’ve got everything organized by tags for the archived items, in your catch all notebook; you pull everything if you need to, which you probably haven’t needed to, but in the case of say, a lawsuit, or something along those lines, you’d have that there.
[Dean] So the times, that I do need to… I have a client that calls me up eight months later and says “Hey, we have to use our home warranty that we got at closing and I don’t know how to get ahold of them.” So I can just search that client’s name and “home warranty” that old republic number is gonna come right up and I can give them their ID number or whatever it is and I can give them that information. That’s a time that I go in there and really use it.
[Stacey] And you can do that from your phone, or from any device, so you’re good to go.
[Dean] Right.
[Stacey] Are you ever sharing those notebooks with your clients? Or do they get shared with your transaction coordinator? What is your sharing process?
[Dean] Yes with the transaction coordinator, I used to share them with clients, but I no longer do. The only thing I’ll really share with my clients is I’ll share a note with them. Let’s say we’re going to go look at houses, I’ll pull the five pdf’s of houses we’re going to look at, and put little notes in there. I’ll share that note with them. I don’t really share the notebook with them. Part of the reason is that I’ll have all their e-mails in there, in one location, and it’s not like I don’t want them to see it.
[Stacey] You have your research notes on the client and some personal insights as well?
[Dean] Right, that’s correct.
[Stacey] Okay, I was going to tell you too, your system for archiving makes perfect sense. It’s a very good solution. It illustrates the opportunities between notebooks and stacks and tags. But you can also upgrade to Evernote Business, which will give you an increase in notebooks. That is a limitation that impacts the workflow decision, but the upgrade to premium also gets around that as well and that’s more how I’ve handled it, instead of with tags. It’s $10/user/month as opposed to $5/user/month so I find it affordable for the value it gives me.

Tell me, what do you love about your system? But, before you answer that, how do you handle version control with storing your notes in Evernote? Since contracts go through multiple signatures…DocuSign probably helps alleviate that but, could you talk a little bit about that… your version control.
[Dean] So I don’t really delete anything out of there. I usually don’t put a contract in there until it’s fully executed. So let’s say I’m representing the buyer, I have my client sign it, send over the offer to a cross agent, I usually won’t put it in there until it’s executed.
[Stacey] Where does it live until that time?
[Dean] So the way it would work in this situation is I set it up via DocuSign, and I cc my assistant. So she’ll get a copy of it as soon as it’s signed. That way she has a copy of it to, and then I just forward it on to the cross agent, unless it becomes executed and then I’ll put it in that notebook. Before that, I just get it, forward it to the cross agent, and usually that’s a day or two at the most and then it’s done and gone.
[Stacey] Great, now on to my next question. What works for you with this system? Why have you gravitated towards this?
[Dean] Because everything is there in one location, I have easy access to it and it is so easy to find anything. The search functionality in Evernote, as you know, is amazing. I don’t teach many classes anymore on Evernote, but when I do I always go in there and I’ll search for, one that I know works is “reporter.” I search for that word and I have 20 notes with the word “reporter” in it. One of them is a handwritten note, you know, it just works for everything. I have all my receipts from my business go into a notebook “Taxes 2012,” “Taxes 2013…” all my receipts go right in there they’re all in one location, easy to find. Again, it comes down to me always getting sick of having to look for something. Did I have that information on a handwritten note? Did I have it on a post-it somewhere? Did I have it in an index card? Or a business card inside of my car? Where was that piece of information? If you stop thinking about it, take a picture of it, it takes two seconds to find it in Evernote, and you always know where it is. Those two seconds add up, but the amount of time it saves you.. Evernote is just fantastic for finding something.
[Stacey] Their search features are absolutely amazing. In fact, I’m going to do an entire Google Hangout just on advanced search techniques at some point because really once you understand that it’s so powerful. I agree that is a major advantage to the solution you have crafted. Do you have any challenges with your system? Is there anything that is a bit of a hiccup for you? Anything you wished worked a little different?
[Dean] The only thing that I think I have a challenge with at times is, I’m back to using Evernote for my to-do list, using the reminders, and I had gotten away from it for a little while, now I’m back to using it. The only time it gets kind of a separation is I have some to-do stuff in Tribus for a client… so if I need to follow up with a client on some houses that we’re seeing, that sort of stuff, that stuff is tracked in Tribus. Where all my other general to-do stuff is in Evernote… I’m still trying to find a happy way to do that and combine that all into one location, I just haven’t found a way to do that.
[Stacey] So it’s a clear line when you need to create a new notebook for someone, but you still have some functions that are being housed in the CRM versus Evernote. Or they could be placed in both places, it sounds like you’re having that problem. In the showing process? Is that where that’s happening?
[Dean] Yeah, in the follow up process. When I’m working with a client and I have my Tribus open, I put my next action item in there. I like to have that in there so that anyone I’m working with can see it. But I do all my other to-do stuff in Evernote, as a reminder, and I got a way from that for a while… I went to Reminders and I tried Wunderlist and some other stuff… and I just went back to Evernote in the last month because it’s where I am, again. It comes back to this is where I spend my time, so stop trying to force other things, it just works.
[Stacey] I got it, it sounds like it works great for you. Another question I get asked often and I’d love to hear your take on is what about data protection and security? What are your opinions on that in relation to the systems you’ve selected?
[Dean] Okay, so I have personal information about me, inside Evernote. Credit card or debit card information, bank account information, passwords, I have that inside of Evernote. Everyone always asks, well aren’t you worried about that stuff being exposed? It’s the world we live in now, you just have to accept that you need to go ahead and keep everything offline, and make everything more difficult, or you can take the rest. I mean, the way I look at it with Evernote is that this is a multi-billion dollar company. Part of the reason is we trust them. We have that trust factor with them and with Google that they have that information and they’re gonna take care of it. If it ever comes to a point where one of these companies doesn’t protect their information, people are going to stop using them and that multi billion dollar company is going to become a thing of the past. It’s just kind of a trust factor that I have.
[Stacey] What about back up and redundancy? What is your process for that, or do you think about it? Do you have a procedure or anything in place?
[Dean] So you have a copy of your note on your laptop,  you have a copy of it in the cloud, I don’t usually download the notebook to my mobile devices… This is a perfect example of this, we had a problem with this hangout earlier today because last week I took my MacbookPro, which is four years old, to Apple, and they had to wipe it clean. And they said, “Is there anything on here that you need to back up?” And I’m like “I don’t think so…” So they just wiped it clean and guess what, except for a few plug ins and stuff that I’ll have to download now, I didn’t miss a beat. Everything is there. I live completely in the cloud.
[Stacey] I get that totally, I think that is the wonder of the cloud, your devices just become windows to your data. And it takes your reliance on them away, which is one of the massive advantages to moving to the paperless and digital system that you have created for yourself. Any other thoughts that you think may be useful for people to understand about your workflow or system?
[Dean] One of the things is my real estate stack. You have to make things, when you’re looking at Evernote, to find. And you have to remember that when you have your client’s names in a stack it will force them into alphabetical order into that stack. There are things you can do like add a “B-“ before all of your buyers together of “S-“ to put all your sellers together, “PM” for property management… all that sort of thing to keep your information a little more organized. Again, it’s easy to find but it makes finding things so much easier.
[Stacey] Naming conventions are a big part of my Evernote system. I thought you did a really nice job of detailing that out in your book. Showing people some good tips on how to keep things in order and make it make sense.
[Dean] Right, and one of the examples is my receipts. If I upload one today, I would name it "14-07-08" and “$2.13 Marketing” or something like that, that way all the information is right there in the title, it’s easy to find, and it forces everything in order. So you know if you’re working with a CPA or something they can look in there right at the top at the dates and pull the new ones that have come in.
[Stacey] I totally agree with that. It’s a very important part of the overall process and system and making sure your team is following the same naming conventions is important as well.
[Dean] And you know, Evernote is not going to work for everyone the way it works for me. Some people just don’t like the way it looks or the way it acts, you just have to find something for you that’s just going to make your life easier. We have so much information in our lives right now, especially real estate agents, you have to be able to find things. Whether it’s Evernote or Google Drive or DropBox, you just have to find something that works for you and just start dumping everything in there. Stop relying on your memory to find where something is or where to find information.
[Stacey] That’s right, there are a lot of great tools out there. I agree with you that Evernote is one of the best. I really appreciate you taking the time to explain to us how you manage your transactions and files in there. Hopefully some people got some ideas and had some questions answered. Your book, Evernote for Real Estate goes into much more detail about some of these naming conventions and skills that you need to run your business. And my book Untethered with Evernote talks through a lot of the workflows that independent entrepreneurs, which real estate agents all are, need for receipts and other things that are complementary to the transactions. Two great resources for you. Thanks for your time today Dean.