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Abstracter & Title Agent Survey Focuses on Technology

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January/February 2002 - Volume 81 Number 1

by Mark A. Bilbrey and Richard W. McCarthy

This is the fifth annual survey in an American Land Title Association® series designed to describe operating statistics and other characteristics of abstracter and title agent members. The information developed in these surveys has been helpful in tracking operating results, in comparing one company with another, and in evaluating changes in the industry. All abstracter and title agent members of ALTA® are invited to participate in these surveys.

In addition to operating statistics, each survey focuses on a topical issue. The current survey introduces "The Title Business and Technology" as a topic and explores the number and variety of computers used by abstracters and agents, their access to and use of the Internet, and their routine use of computer software in the conduct of business.

Revenue is the primary demographic characteristic associated with all companies. As in previous years, all survey responses are reported by four categories of annual revenue. The percent of respondents in each revenue category in the current survey (based on gross revenue in 2000) and in the two previous surveys (based on 1998 and 1999 revenue) is:

Revenue 1998 1999 2000
Less than $500,000 51% 58% 60%
$500,000+ $999,999 21% 14% 17%
$1 million+ $3 million 18% 18% 14%
More than $3 million 7% 10% 10%
Not reported 3%

Survey results are also reported by number of orders received in the preceding calendar year. In each of five categories, the percent of companies in the current survey (based on orders received in 2000) and in the two previous surveys (based on orders received in 1998 and 1999) is:

Orders Received 1998 1999 2000
Fewer than 500 11% 18% 20%
500+ 1,099 20% 24% 23%
1,100+ 2,499 23% 20% 19%
2,500+ 4,999 13% 12% 12%
5,000 or more 11% 11% 9%
Not reported 21% 16% 17%

In the current survey, participants reported a median of five full time employees. A median of five full time employees was also reported in 2000, compared with a median of six full time employees in 1999. The percent of survey participants in each staff size category is:

Full Time Employees 1998 1999 2000
1+ 2 18% 20% 20%
3-5 23% 33% 34%
6+ 10 26% 17% 22%
11+ 25 21% 19% 15%
More than 25 9% 10% 9%
Not reported 3% 2% 1%

Full time employees range from an average of 4 in companies with revenue less than $500,000, to an average of 43 in companies reporting revenue greater than $3 million.

II. The Title Business and Technology

A.Organization of Personal Computers.

More than two-thirds of surveyed companies report their personal computers are networked to one or more servers. Companies with less than $500,000 revenue often have only one or two personal computers and 28% of these companies reported that all of their computers are stand-alone. Another 17% indicated their personal computers are networked peer-to-peer, without a central server.

One network serving all offices is the most common configuration, reported by 77% of companies with networks. Another 20% of survey participants reported multiple networks, either one network for each office or various combinations of networks serving multiple offices. See Table 1.

Servers leased or purchased from local or mail-order vendors are most common, with 31% of surveyed companies reporting that their primary server is a "no-name" brand or a lesser brand of computer. Among name brand computers, 17 % of respondents (including one-fourth of companies with revenue of $1 million or more) reported that their primary server is manufactured by Compaq. Another 13% of all surveyed companies reported their primary server is a Dell.

Most networks are operating under one or another version of Windows: 40% are running Windows NT; another 30% run under Windows 98/95. Six percent of respondents are running Novell NetWare. Approximately three percent each reported Windows 2000 and Unix.

Among better-known brands, 16% of respondents (including 35% of companies with more than $3 million revenue) reported that their primary personal computer is manufactured by Dell. Fifteen percent reported their personal computers are manufactured by Compaq, and 10% that their computers are manufactured by Gateway. Seven percent indicated their personal computers are primarily from Hewlett-Packard.

Like the servers, the most frequently reported "brand" of personal computer was a lesser-brand or a no-name clone, typically obtained via mail order or assembled by a local vendor. Forty-one percent of respondents reported a primary brand of personal computer that is not one of the leading market share brands. These smaller market share, but reliable brands, included such companies as Acer, Micron, Epson, and IBM.

Among the 353 companies that reported the total number of personal computers, including both desktop and laptop computers, there is an average of 17 computers per company. The average ranges from five computers in companies with less than $500,000 revenue to 82 computers in companies with more than $3 million revenue.

Almost two-thirds of those responding indicated that all of their personal computers are linked to the company’s network. Among those reporting that not all personal computers are linked to the network, stand-alone computers appear to be the exception rather than the norm.

B.Peripheral Equipment.

More than one-half of surveyed companies reported that all of their personal computers are equipped with a CD-ROM or DVD drive and speakers. Another 14% reported that more than one-half of their computers are equipped with these multi-media drives.

Almost all companies reported printers and fax machines. Among 347 companies, there is an average of six printers per company. Among 314 companies, there is an average of three fax machines. Most companies also have one or more photocopiers, with 283 companies reporting an average of three photocopiers. More than one-half of surveyed companies reported a scanner. Among 194 companies, there is an average of two scanners per company.

Relatively few companies reported a multifunction (fax/printer/copier) machine.

In a list that included personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones with e-mail, and two-way pagers, relatively few companies reported owning any equipment other than standard cell phones (that is, without e-mail capability or Internet access). Among the 211 companies reporting, there is an average of five standard cell phones, ranging from two cell phones among the smallest companies to 16 cell phones among the largest companies.

Sixty-four companies reported one or more personal digital assistants, with an average of four per company. PDAs are used for contact management and address keeping, for scheduling and calendars, and for personal organization and time management.

Fifty-three companies reported one-way pagers, with an average of three pagers per company. Forty-three companies reported cell phones with e-mail capability, with an average of four such cell phones per company. Thirteen companies reported cell phones with Internet access. Only eight companies reported either two-way pagers or two-way pagers with e-mail capability.

C. Using the Internet.

The largest number of surveyed companies, 42%, have regular dial-up telephone access to the Internet. Another 21% have access via DSL (a digital subscriber line). Although only 13% of all companies have access via a dedicated or shared T1 line, 65% of companies with more than $3 million in revenue have access via a T1 line. Another 6% of all companies have access via cable modem.

The local phone company and other local and regional Internet service providers are commonly used by surveyed companies. Relatively few companies use the more consumer-oriented MSN (7%) or AOL (4 %).

Forty-three percent of surveyed companies have a company Web site, including 17% that host a Web site in-house and 26% whose Web site is hosted by a service company. All but 11% of companies with more than $3 million in revenue reported a Web site.

Most company Web sites present information about the company and allow visitors to e-mail the company. More than one-half include links to related Web sites. Approximately one-third allow visitors to download information about the company and its services. Among other capabilities, 30 companies (8% of those surveyed) reported that their Web site allows customers to place orders. Miscellaneous capabilities include bells-and-whistles such as real estate-oriented calculators, a link to UPI wire service, and access to local news and weather.

The majority of surveyed companies (70%) reported that they use virus protection software. As protection against intrusions from the Internet, approximately one-half of companies deploy one or more firewalls, either resident on an internal server or provided by the web-hosting service company or by the Internet (access) service provider.

The majority of surveyed companies are using the Internet to obtain business or receive orders. Forty percent report they receive e-mailed orders or solicitations from banks and similar sources. Approximately one-third receive orders or requests via e-mail from real estate agents. Four percent, including 14% of the largest companies, receive orders via Intranet or VPNs (virtual private networks) run by their customers. Only three percent of companies, however, report they use the Internet to "bid" for business. Eleven percent of the largest companies report they bid for business over the Internet.

Thirteen percent of all companies participate in a referral network with other title professionals or real estate service providers, either via the Internet or telephone. Among larger companies, more than one-fourth participate in a referral network.

Almost one-half of all surveyed companies are using the Internet (or dial-up) to transmit or receive electronically completed legal forms. These forms are typically exchanged with networked service providers and customers. However, only six of the 167 companies exchanging forms electronically utilizes electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are not legal in the particular jurisdiction or the company’s customers insist on manual signatures.

D. Electronic Access to Public Records.

Although public records (the records to which the abstracter/title agent primarily needs access) are available electronically to less than 40% of survey participants, the great majority of orders received in 2000 were completed by companies with electronic access to public records. While 77% of companies with less than $500,000 revenue report they do not have electronic access to public records, only 22% of companies with $3 million or more revenue indicate the records they need are not available electronically.

The relationship between company size and electronic access to public records is even stronger when measured by number of orders received in 2000. Eighty percent of companies that received fewer than 500 orders do not have electronic access to the records they need. Eighty-three percent of companies that received 5,000 or more orders have electronic access to the records they need.

Smaller companies with electronic access to public records are handicapped (in relation to larger companies) in that the computer-based records available to them are often not available via dial-up access or through the Internet. In contrast, 90% of the largest companies have access to these electronic records from the convenience of their offices.

E. Automated Closing Systems.

Approximately three-fourths of surveyed companies have an automated closing system and 235 respondents named or described the software they use to automate closings. The most frequently mentioned systems included Soft Pro (54), AIM (33), SMS (13), First Data Systems (12), and Genesis (8).

Relatively fewer companies, 39%, have a computer-based workflow system such as document control and tracking software. However, almost two-thirds of the largest companies have these systems. Of the 146 companies that reported having a workflow system, 112 named the software they use for the purpose of document control. The most frequently mentioned applications used for this purpose included AIM (17), Soft Pro (16), and SMS (12).

F. Other Business Software.

In addition to specialized systems for maintaining title plants, automating closings, and tracking and controlling workflow, surveyed companies use a variety of off-the-shelf software for routine and common office tasks. Forty-seven percent, for example, use Microsoft’s Word and another 30% use WordPerfect. Forty-six percent use Microsoft Excel. For database applications, 26% use Microsoft Access and 20% use a variety of other software. Most companies do not use presentation software; Microsoft’s Powerpoint is used by the 15% that do use presentation software.

FaxServe is used by the relatively few companies (11%) that employ computer-based faxing. Another 10% use a variety of other applications for this purpose. The small number of companies that use contact management software use either ACT or Microsoft Outlook. One-half of all companies use Outlook for e-mail and one-fourth use Outlook for a calendar. Almost no companies use project management software.

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