Implement the right IT solution for Estate Agents

The IT requirements of Estate Agents

All estate agents have to adhere to the regulations laid down by a regulatory scheme approved by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and all have to abide by the GDPR as enforced by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

Once all that is out of the way, estate agents will want to get on with the business of selling and letting property by attracting vendors, matching properties with applicants, liaising with solicitors, surveyors and everyone else involved in progressing sales and maintaining properties etc.

When time is stretched none of this is easy. The technology should be there to help and so it is vital that the correct system is implemented to ensure that all involved can perform their jobs without interruption.

What are some of the considerations for IT in an Estate Agency office?

It is important to consider where you and your staff are going to be working. As an estate agent you are likely to have premises on the High Street.  Will you need to work from home occasionally (at the time of writing this most people are working from home do to the Covid-19 pandemic).  If you do have premises, do you have more than one? If so, how are multiple sites going to communicate and share information effectively and securely?

What types of job roles do you need to support? Do you have a dedicated finance department, office manager, negotiators, secretaries and partners? What types of functions do each undertake?

It is likely that you are going to need infrastructure that can support a property management application (such as Dezrez ), online banking applications, digital dictation systems, Office applications, photocopying and scanning requirements, Rightmove, Zoopla and others.

With multiple sites or homeworking to consider, how are clients going to call and get through to the correct person and how are your staff going to have access to the information they need? Do you have a single phone number for the entire organisation or one for each site? Can calls be easily transferred from one site to another?

How can you continue to make and receive calls to make sales and complete and exchange on properties when it is not possible to visit the office?

Do Estate Agents need a server?

This very much depends on the size of the business and particularly the applications that you choose to run your business.  You are likely not going to succeed in the property market unless you run a property management application.

Due to the volume of data that is going to be kept and called upon this is going to be run in a database such as Microsoft SQL.  Many application providers will layout their requirements when you are considering using their product.  It could be that the application is installed on your own equipment on-premises or in a remote desktop environment and therefore the SQL server will need to be on your own server or they may have an entirely web based solution in which case the SQL server will be online and you will never need to consider its existence.

You may have a secretary to type letters and upload property information and so you may dictate the material for typing later.  There are cloud and on-premises versions of digital dictation solutions.

There will be some documents that need to be stored, particularly if you have a lettings side to your business and so you may need a server here but again cloud solutions exist that negate the need for your own server.

When is comes to cost, the difference is clear, if you buy your own equipment and run it on site you have a larger up front cost and likely lower ongoing costs and if you move to the cloud then you have lower up front costs but bigger ongoing charges. To assist you in making a decision it’s important to consider the positives and negatives of both.

The positives and negatives of on-premises IT for Estate Agents

With on-premises solutions you own the equipment and for some people that makes them feel more secure in that the equipment is theirs and no one can take it away from them. Of course that does mean that you need to find the cash for purchasing servers, software (such as Windows Server 2019), UPS (battery backup), back up software and antivirus solutions etc. but this does mean that you do not need to rent it from someone else.

If you own a server then it most likely means that what you have bought is what will stay with you until you replace it, so if you buy Windows Server 2019 now then Windows Server 2019 is what you will still have in five years’ time unless you purchase the new versions.  That principle applies to all of the hardware and software that you purchase.

You will need to consider where to store a server and ideally it won’t just be under a desk somewhere. It should ideally be situated where it will not be knocked, splashed or damaged in some other way and it should really be in a temperature controlled environment and locked away to protect it from theft or tampering.

It is important to specify the correct hardware. This will be where your most important information, as a business, is stored and so it is vital that it is available at all times and quickly. If the hardware and software cannot see you through a disaster (such as a disk failure, power supply failure, power outage, fire etc.) then you could be without access to critical information and services for, at best, a few minutes and at worst never again.

Hardware should be specified to be fault tolerant (e.g. multiple disks storing multiple copies of your data), ensure data is backed up and be built of the right components (processors, memory, storage etc.) to allow applications to retrieve the information you need at high speed. The server operating systems and software should be professionally installed and configured to ensure that the system is stable and secure and it should be maintained with regular updates, monitoring and reboots.

It sounds like a lot to manage and it can be if it is not properly planned but if well thought through an on-premises system can be reliable and secure for many years.

One significant advantage that on premises has over a cloud solution is that unless you have a fail-over Internet connection then with a hosted environment during an Internet outage you will lose access to all of your system during the outage.  With a server onsite you may lose access to email and Internet but you will most likely still have access to your case management, files, printing, dictation etc.

Cloud and hosted pros and cons for Estate Agents

It is just as necessary to have backups, good hardware, fail-over, monitoring, updates etc. when you are in the cloud but the significant difference is that it is managed by the hosting provider.  With a system maintained in a cloud environment you can also take advantage or their significant infrastructure.  Fail-over can be taken that much further with not just fail-over to additional components within a server but entire second servers, generators and even entire fail-over data centres.

You do not own the hardware or software and so with the right provider it is upgraded and updated at regular intervals so even if Windows Server 2019 is installed now, chances are that you will be upgraded to Windows Server 2021 (if and when it’s released).

Should you need more storage you do not buy new disks you simply ask the cloud provider to give you more storage and then pay the extra monthly charges. There are no charges for parts or installation because it is not your equipment and instead you pay to rent it.

Whilst it is possible to support multiple sites using on-premises solutions, cloud solutions are perfect for multi-site organisations. Each site simply connects to the cloud environment over the Internet, so even if you move office, once you have an Internet connection in place you simply connect your computers in the new location and you are good to go.

Email for Estate Agents

With cloud or on-premises you will want to be able to access your mailbox (email, contacts, calendars) using Outlook when at your desktop in the Office, on a laptop when out of the office, on your mobile when on the go and perhaps via web mail or Outlook Web Access (OWA) as a last resort when you don’t have access to your own devices. To allow you to do this you will want to have a Microsoft Exchange mailbox. That can be in your own on-premises Exchange Server or on a Hosted Exchange server. The pros and cons of both are pretty much the same as outlined previously for general cloud and on-premises solutions.

POP3, IMAP and other technologies for sending and receiving email are old technologies now and should be avoided. A Microsoft Exchange mailbox allows secure exchange of authentication details when you login, syncing of mailbox data in almost real time between devices, such as Android and IOS mobile, laptops and desktops and the full use of clients software like Microsoft Outlook which allows functionality such as Out of Office messages, rules, meeting invitations and room and resource booking.

One serious consideration when using email through any provider is that there is no guarantee of encryption to the recipient and therefore you should assume that it is not encrypted in transit.

Office software for negotiators and secretaries

Microsoft Office (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) are still the preferred choice for Estate Agents.

Even if you have an on-premises server you can opt for a subscription/cloud version of Office software giving you a bit of a hybrid solution, called Office 365. This is a subscription to use the Office applications but depending on the package you may also find that it includes web versions of the applications, online storage (OneDrive), shared storage (SharePoint), instant messaging, video conferencing and phone system (Teams).

It is important to get good advice about licensing as only certain licenses are entitled to be used in particular situations (e.g. Enterprise licenses are required to use Office 365 in a remote desktop environment). It is still possible to buy licenses (perpetual licensing) so that you own the software. This means that you do not get the latest version but of course you do not have monthly costs.

One thing to bear in mind here is that even though you own the software you will most likely not want to keep it more than three to five years or you will find yourself unable to easily share documents with other users who have later versions of the software so it may still be as cost effective to subscribe.

You will want to carefully consider how you implement Office 365 as there can be GDPR implications since data can end up being stored and routed outside of the EU in certain situations. When deciding you may wish to take in to account that Office 365 can be subscribed annually or monthly on a per user basis whereas perpetual Office licenses are pay for upfront for each device on which it will be installed.

Dictation solutions for Estate Agents

Many firms still rely heavily on their secretaries and in order to efficiently get forms completed, emails transcribed and letters sent it has long been necessary to use dictation solutions.

Some firms are still using analogue dictation equipment (tapes) but most are now using digital dictation equipment such as Bighand, Philips or Olympus. Bighand supply software only and support Philips and Olympus hardware whereas Philips and Olympus supply both the hardware and software. Bighand is a standalone cloud application which means you can use this with on-premises infrastructure or in a cloud (remote desktop services) environment. Philips provide software that can be installed on standalone machines, remote desktop servers and also have a solution that is entirely cloud based allowing you to use their hardware or even a mobile app.

Property management applications for Estate Agents

It is not within the scope of this blog to discuss the pros and cons of each Property Management System but we can certainly give a few pointers.

As with everything else in this article there are on-premises and hosted solutions and as mentioned before many of the pros and cons apply here (e.g. hosted solutions are likely to have lower upfront costs but more ongoing costs). Since this is the hub of all that you do, from applicant management to sales progression it is essential that you select the right solution.

It is highly recommended that you invite several providers to demonstrate their product to you and ideally run a trial so that you can kick the tyres.

Property Management Systems are databases and in a Estate Agencies are likely to be under intense pressure so avoid anything that is not based on SQL as a database provider.

Obviously the features offered are paramount but it is key that the supplier can assist with a good installation, provide a reasonable specification of hardware and software required and can show that they can provide vital help-desk assistance when you need it.

File storage for Estate Agents

Many of your files will be stored within your case management system but not everything will be. For those files you will need to consider where to store them.

With an on-premises environment this will probably be a file server.

In a cloud environment it could be a cloud drive (e.g. OneDrive or SharePoint) or in a cloud desktop environment it could be a file server (just provided on cloud hardware).

It will be necessary to be able to create separate drives (on a file server) or sites (in a cloud solution) for different departments where you really would not want data getting mixed up (e.g. payroll data and client data) and it will be essential to apply good permissions so that only the right people can access appropriate files.

Backup and disaster recovery for Estate Agents

Wherever your data is stored you will want to ensure a good backup is in place.  This is to protect you in the event of any disaster.  It could be necessary to recover data due to user error, accidental deletion, software bugs, fire, flood, hardware failure or many other unforeseen situations.

It is essential that you choose a service or software that will allow you to recover entire systems, drives, individual files, single emails or SQL databases.  Some solutions offer self service solutions so if you accidentally delete a file you can recover it yourself without having to contact the help-desk.

In a cloud environment you are unlikely to have control over what backup system is used but in an on-premises situation there are many to choose from.  Choosing a trusted provider is key and to name a couple there are Acronis and Veeam but many more too.

The right product is going to be one that supports the software that you are using so if you run Microsoft Exchange then is will need to be aware of Exchange and if you run SQL it will need to support SQL.  Without an application aware backup you may have to to restore an entire system to recover a single email or database or may find that you are not able to recover at all.

You will want to consider if you have a local or online backup or perhaps both.  Remember that a local backup will provide quicker recovery times but may not cover you in a situation where the local backup is destroyed in the same disaster that obliterated the original data, such as a fire.

Telecoms and phone systems

Email and instant messaging have been extremely important over recent years but some people still want or need to be able to pick up the phone and speak with someone.

There are VOIP solutions such as a Skype but nothing is as easy as picking up a handset and dialling a number and you need your customers to be able to contact in the least restrictive way.

If you are looking for a phone system then you need to be aware that conventional phone lines (analogue, ISDN etc.) are being phased out so an investment in systems based on these technologies is likely to be short lived.  So what’s the alternative?  Well VOIP (voice over IP).  Basically Internet phones.  You may be thinking that I just said nothing is as easy as picking up and dialling and Internet phones don’t do that, do they?  Well they do now.  There are many VOIP solutions which connect to the public switch telephone network (PSTN).

Microsoft Teams is a perfect example.  Teams is an application that is part of many Office 365 subscriptions.  Once subscribed you can download and install Teams on your desktop, laptop or mobile device.  Teams is also built in to many conventional telephone handsets.  This means that you can make and receive calls to and from normal phone numbers from your mobile, computer or desk phone and your office number will be the only number that is seen.

You can be on the train, at home or in the office and the recipient of your call will have no idea of exactly where you are (subject to background noise).

Teams has the added benefit of handling meetings with multiple attendees, video conferencing, desktop sharing, instant messaging, file sharing and much more.  You can even blur your background when in a video call so that no one need know that you are surrounded by toys in your children’s bedroom.

It operates just like a normal phone system allowing you to retrieve voicemail, transfer calls, be a member of a ringing group and so on.

It is ideal for multi-site organisations as one number can be used for all participants even though they may be at sites managed by different telephone exchanges or possibly in different countries!  Calls between users within the same Office 365 organisation do not even incur call charges.

Photocopying, printing and scanning

Well everything is paperless today, right?  No need for photocopying and scanning.  Best leave it there then.

Well not all paper has gone yet.  You still need to scan that passport for anti-money laundering purposes and you have to print the details to display in the window.

It’s important that you get a reliable, fast machine that can give you good value for money and give you all the functionality that you need.  To name a few good brands you should consider Konica Minolta, Develop and Ricoh.

The two most likely ways that you will scan is to a folder on your computer or server or directly to a mailbox.

Scanning to a mailbox has the advantage that you can immediately forward it on to whoever needs it or save the attachment to your local computer but you must consider that email has size limits and if you are scanning that 500 page bundle in a reasonable resolution then it might not get passed the 20MB email file size limit.  Also consider that you may not be entirely sure of the route that your message from the scanner may take and so confidentiality is a concern.

Sending your scan to a folder resolves some of these issues but you will want balance that with convenience.  If you scan to a folder via Windows file sharing or FTP it will be possible (although not a given) that it can be setup to transfer data securely to a secure location on your network.  It also does not have the file size restrictions that email has.  The only problem is that setup in this way you are likely to end up with a scanned file called something like “KON1234GD3452” and it will need to be found and rename whereas when you receive an email you can immediately save it with the name you want or forward it with a useful subject.

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