New York State Land Title Association, Inc.

Title Tech

Q4 2020

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Title & Escrow Leaders Share Stories of Creativity, Flexibility and Resilience During COVID-19

By: Qualia

For many title & escrow professionals across the country, the federal announcement that title and escrow work is considered an “essential service” came with mixed feelings. “To be considered essential is a privilege,” Debbie Brooks of Prominent Title said to Qualia in a video chat interview last week. “It’s also a huge responsibility [to keep all parties safe] and something we take very seriously.”

During COVID-19, title & escrow businesses across the country have rapidly adjusted to a temporary new normal. This new normal feels much like a dystopian future with surgical masks and socially-distant closings. Yet many title & escrow businesses have also found ways to maintain high quality customer service and communication by leveraging technology and other creative solutions.

Qualia spoke with leaders from title & escrow businesses across the country over video chat to discuss how their teams have adapted to COVID-19. Sultana Haque, from StoneBridge Title in Florida; Ray Manuel from National Title Solutions in Illinois and Florida; Bethany Paden from Total Title LLC in Kentucky and Indiana; and Debbie Brooks from Prominent Title in several midwestern and southern states (OH, KY, TN, IN, FL and MI) each provided insight on how they’ve maintained business continuity while keeping their employees and clients safe.

Adjusting to a new normal: identifying top challenges during COVID-19

COVID-19 has surfaced a number of challenges for title & escrow businesses to overcome in order to continue closing real estate purchases and refinances. While most title & escrow businesses are experiencing the same core challenges, some difficulties and obstacles vary depending on the city or state of operation.

UNIVERSAL CHALLENGES

According to Qualia’s panel of users there are ultimately three main challenges they needed to overcome in order to conduct closings during COVID-19:

  1. There is no standard protocol for socially-distant closings. Businesses needed to creatively adapt their traditional closing protocols to meet new, vague standards for social distancing.
  2. Title & escrow staff are generally feeling anxious about their safety. While the panel expressed gratitude for their ability to remain in business, they also noted that the safety of their staff weighed heavily on their conscience.   
  3. Clients and vendors are feeling equally nervous and leery about their safety. Title & escrow businesses manage the closing experience, and thus carry the responsibility to ensure all transaction participants feel protected during the final closing process. 

REGIONAL CHALLENGES

In addition to the universal challenges all title & escrow businesses face during COVID-19, businesses in certain regions are facing additional obstacles that make closings more difficult.

  1. In some states, local government authorities are maintaining that closings cannot take place in-person. For example, according to Paden, her team at Total Title is unable to conduct loan-based closings fully-remotely in the state of Indiana because the governor issued this ruling and the state does not have remote online notarization (RON) legislation in place.
  2. In certain states and cities, RON eClosings are not legally allowed. In states where RON is allowed, not all lenders and underwriters are on board with the practice and some county recorder offices do not have the ability to e-record documents.
  3. In some counties, access to public records and information needed for title work is limited. Many county recorder offices have closed their doors or are operating with limited hours during COVID-19.

Finding solutions: creative workarounds and technology to enable closings during COVID-19

During COVID-19, title & escrow businesses have discovered new ways to conduct in-person closings while still maintaining safety for their employees, vendors, and clients. Qualia users have leveraged creative workarounds, Qualia Connect (a communication portal that brings all stakeholders of a transaction into one space), and Qualia eSign to greatly reduce in-person closing time.

CREATIVE WORKAROUNDS

Title & escrow businesses are discovering new ways to conduct closings in person while still maintaining client and employee safety. For example, National Title Solutions now conducts curbside closings. During a curbside closing, the signing agent visits a signer at their home or in their car in a parking lot. The signing agent maintains social distance by delivering the closing documents through a window and then calling the signer to explain the documents while witnessing them sign the documents through the window.

Brook’s team at Prominent Title also conducts parking lot closings in the majority of cases. However, when a signer wants to come into the office to sign, Prominent Title provides a sanitized closing room, fresh pens for signers, and minimal physical contact. Brook’s team also limits the number of people who can attend a closing to only the essential participants.

COMMUNICATION THROUGH QUALIA CONNECT

Socially-distant closings have not been the most natural transition for a traditionally service and community-oriented title industry. “Closings are always a joyous thing,” Paden noted about the sense of community closings typically bring, “[in light of COVID-19] we’ve had to be a lot more hands off with people which isn’t in our nature.”

In lieu of physical, face-to-face interaction, title & escrow businesses have taken extra measures to over-communicate with signers ahead of the closing and during the closing to help alleviate any anxiety about their safety during closing and to answer questions about documents and processes.

“We make sure the client knows what to expect, why we’ve changed things, and that we have their best interests at heart,” Paden said. “Keeping everyone informed and in the loop really impacts how they feel about a transaction in general.”

The panel of Qualia users universally noted Qualia Connect as a helpful tool to communicate with every member of the transaction and keep everyone up-to-date on the closing progress in real-time. “Our customers love the communication [within Connect] because it’s all in one place” Manuel noted. “On our end, it’s also easier [to send communication through Connect]. We don’t have to send out multiple emails to different parties.”

REDUCED IN-PERSON CLOSING TIME THROUGH QUALIA ESIGN

In addition to limiting physical interaction, title & escrow businesses have also found  ways to reduce the amount of time spent at the closing table (or in a vehicle for a curbside closing). While fully-remote closings are not always possible due to legislative blockers for RON, county recorder office capabilities, or underwriter and lender policies, e-signing title-side documents is possible.

Qualia’s panel of users noted the use of Qualia eSign to streamline closings during COVID-19. With eSign, Qualia users could offer a “hybrid product” by which a loan and mortgage would be wet signed and notarized in-person and all non-notarized documents could be signed electronically before the closing.

Brooks noted that this was about 30 documents in total that could be sent to signers ahead of the closing. “This is an enormous time saver,” she said of the hybrid eClosings. “And even folks with more trouble [using digital products] are very appreciative of the option to sign a limited number of documents in-person.” Through the use of Qualia eSign, Brooks and her team were able to reduce closing times from 30 minutes to 5 minutes.

Finding (more) solutions: RON eClosings

Some of Qualia’s user panel have executed RON eClosings during COVID-19. “We’re really big on RON,” Manuel said. Haque agreed noting that her team is using RON eClosings whenever possible to eliminate physical contact altogether.

Of course, RON eClosings are not always possible. This approach must take into account state RON legislation, the county recorder office’s ability to e-record, their lender’s adoption of eNotes, and their underwriter’s policies. (To read more about the challenges associated with RON implementation click here).

Despite the challenges associated with RON, some of Qualia’s panel of users believe these barriers will begin to dissolve, especially in light of COVID-19. “The need to limit social contact and use social distancing has brought to the forefront the importance of RON so people can transact from the comfort of their home and still remain safe,” Haque said.

Manuel agreed, noting that he is using COVID-19 as an opportunity to level-up his team’s ability to execute RON eClosings in the future. “We’re working with Qualia and our underwriters to get prepared.”

Looking ahead

Regardless of RON eClosing timelines, title & escrow businesses are seeing the advantages of hybrid and in-person digital closings during COVID-19. The need for social distancing sparked Prominent Title’s movement toward setting up hybrid eClosings. Brooks and her team plan to maintain the time-saving benefits of hybrid eClosings well beyond COVID-19.

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