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Tie Your Technology Together

Think you need to buy every new tech gadget and software program that comes on the market? Take some tips from the FAR Technology Helpline technicians as they show one broker-associate how to make the most of what she’s got.

Kathy Denworth
Kathy Denworth isn’t afraid to try new things. She’s been in real estate for only four years, yet she’s often one of the first people in her office to try new tech gadgets and software. But then she gets so busy that she forgets where or how to use them—or why she bought the technology in the first place.

“I have ScanSoft, [Pat Zaby’s] Respond, a Visioneer scanner, my name as a Web site, a Treo 650 handheld device, and I recently bought a backup system,” says the broker-associate with Century 21 Prestige Realty Group in Islamorada. “I’ve been reading up on technology, and I get bits and pieces on how to use all of [it] together. But I believe my ‘stuff’ does more than I understand. Can you do a ‘put it together’ for all of us real estate pros in the same boat? I’ll be the guinea pig!”

Bring in the Expert
Denworth consulted with the technicians who staff the Florida Association of Realtors® (FAR) Technology Helpline. Before they get started, she’s instructed to go to Planet Realtor® and log in to the Tech Helpline. Once she’s logged in, a technician initiates a harmless process called “screen sharing,” whereby he can access her computer remotely via the Internet. “I’m glad you’ve got a broadband connection because that’s the best place to put your money,” says the FAR technician, adding that only members with broadband access can take advantage of the Helpline’s screen-sharing capabilities. “Now, let’s see what’s going on.” Like an invisible person, he takes control of her mouse, sweeps the cursor across her desktop and begins to take a peek into the inner workings of her PC. Here’s what he has to say:

1. Maximize Outlook
Denworth uses Microsoft Outlook for e-mail and for keeping track of her schedule. Her favorite part of Outlook, though, is the ability to sync the program with her Treo 650.

“Are you instantly signing people into Outlook’s contact management?” asks the FAR technician, doubting that she’s getting the most out of the program. Denworth says she has an autoresponder on her Web site, www.KathyDenworth.com, so that visitors who fill out one of her online forms or requests for more information are immediately sent an e-mail response. She also uses Pat Zaby’s Seminars & Systems Respond program, which works with Outlook, to help her keep track of contacts. The FAR Helpline technician suggests that she also use Outlook’s categories—a field that lets users find, sort or group items across multiple folders. “You’ve got more than one contacts folder,” he says. “But that keeps them separate so you can never combine people. For example, if you have [separate] folders for plumbers and buyers, what happens when plumbers become buyers? If you take advantage of categories, you can combine them.”

2. Uninstall Needless Software
Next, the FAR technician opens Denworth’s Control Panel and clicks on “Add/Remove Programs” to see how many programs are installed on her computer. “You certainly have some extra software, and it looks like you’ve installed one program three times,” he says. Together, he and Denworth scrutinize every piece of software on her hard drive to determine which programs she doesn’t use. They discover two pop-up blockers, but she needs only one to keep pop-up ads at bay when she’s online, so the FAR Technician deletes one.

“You’ll need to go down the list of programs on a regular basis and uninstall unused items to free up hardware space,” he says.

3. Clean Up, Defrag System
To keep her PC running smoothly, Denworth should perform a disk cleanup every few months. “Windows XP comes with a disk cleanup tool that will help her free up space on her hard drive by finding useless files and giving her the option of deleting them,” explains the FAR technician. She can do this by finding My Computer and right clicking on the disk in which she wants to free up space, then clicking “Properties,” the “General” tab and then “Disk Cleanup.”
 
Files that can be deleted safely (without harming other documents or programs) include temporary Internet files, downloaded program files, “Recycle Bin” contents, temporary files and optional components. Once Denworth deletes insignificant items from her computer, she’ll need to eliminate fragmentation in all her file systems. Known as defragging (or defragmentation), this process frees up disk space by reorganizing the contents so that they’re close together (contiguous) and in order. When all the pieces of a file fit together, the hard drive doesn’t have to work as hard. When a computer is heavily fragmented, it slows down because the system is trying to put the puzzle back together.

Windows XP comes with a built-in defragmenter called Disk Defragmenter. “The more you edit existing documents, the more you’ll need to defrag,” says the FAR technician. “Disk cleanup should be run every couple of weeks, and defragmentation should be done every few months—after cleanup.”

4. Take Advantage of Freeware
“There are [lots of] goodies free for downloading from the Internet,” says the FAR technician. For example, Denworth takes digital photographs of her listings and uses them on the MLS and in promotional fliers and brochures, so he recommends that she try a free photo-editing program called Irfanview. “For freeware [free for general, noncommercial use], it’s a good photo editor and it lets you put captions and even the copyright symbol right on the photograph,” he says. “It’s available at Irfanview.com.”

Denworth encounters quite a few people who don’t understand the real estate market, so she’d like to teach a seminar on the subject. “About 70 percent of our [clients and customers] don’t live here in the Keys, though, so I’d like to do it online,” she says.

The FAR technician suggests that Denworth give Microsoft’s Netmeeting software a try. The program’s audio/video conferencing feature will let her hold face-to-face virtual meetings with prospects from all over the world from her own PC, and will also give her the ability to send and receive text messages in real time, share multiple computer programs and even send and share files during the conference. And, best of all, she can get the program free at Microsoft.com, and set up her meetings via Outlook. “Let’s say you’re having a meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday,” says the FAR technician, while opening Denworth’s Outlook program. “Just right click, and you can do a new meeting request and address it to any number of people. It comes up with the tabs you need for sending [the information].  So, just pick a time when you hope everybody is available, and they’ll e-mail you [back] and let you know. If somebody wants to meet a half hour later, double click on the meeting, change the time and resend it.”

5. Wipe Out Adware, Spyware
About 25 percent of calls to the FAR Technology Helpline are from members whose sluggish computer systems are likely the victim of a sly spyware program.  Spyware is software designed to monitor a consumer’s Internet habits. Adware is software that generates advertising pop-ups by hijacking a computer’s Web browser over to the sponsor’s site. There are plenty of antispyware and antiadware programs that offer to scan a consumer’s computer for free. But then they deviously redirect the browser to a page where the consumer must first enter a credit card number before the nuisance programs can be eliminated from the computer. And some programs can cost up to $40 or $50. But, according to the FAR technician, no one should ever pay to get rid of spyware or adware because there are effective programs that do the job free. “The programs that charge you might get rid of spyware, but they always put some spyware on your PC first,” says the FAR technician. “I believe that Ad-Aware, which is free, will take out any malware it finds on your PC. There are many antispyware programs available via the Internet, but Denworth can download Ad-Aware for free at Downloads.com (see product info). “The free software is totally manual—you can’t set up anything automatic, but running it every couple of weeks for maintenance should take care of things,” says the FAR technician.

6. Use Association Freebies
Denworth has tried managing her real estate transactions online with FAR’s TransactionDesk service but found it overwhelming. To get the most out of the service, the FAR technician says, she should start importing all the data from a transaction into the system as soon as she gets a listing.
Like FAR’s other forms products, TransactionDesk gives users the ability to manage real estate transactions online from any computer that has a Web browser with the free Adobe Reader installed. Users can securely manage their transactions, contracts and forms. The program doesn’t require any software installation prior to use. With TransactionDesk, Denworth can also access all FAR and FAR/BAR contracts and forms for the transaction, or she can add her company’s own forms and contracts.

“I don’t know if the class is readily available [through] your local Board/Association, but if not, FAR has a CD with the entire ‘Life of a Transaction’ course on it and it’s available at the Realtor store on Planet Realtor.”

This column, designed to provide advice from industry experts to real estate professionals who need help with technology, business or promotional issues, won the Bronze Award in the 2006 Best Column category from the Florida Magazine Association.