Real Estate Email Best Practices

Filing Email
Filing Email. iStockPhoto

If you're like me, you use your email inbox as a to-do list, and you try to keep it clean.  Or, you may be on the other end with a bulging inbox all of the time.  You need to be aware of the importance of email in today's business world, and how you may be called upon to produce emails from years in the past.

The Government Does Have Email Rules.:

In federal court actions, emails can and likely will be required to be delivered in pre-trial discovery.

Since a great number of a real estate brokerage's activities are in some way governed by federal rules, such as EPA and Fair Housing, you cannot ignore the fact that you could end up in a federal court action and be required to produce email records.

Don't be a "Virtual Shredder!":

It would be a very uncomfortable situation to face a federal judge who suspects that you or your agent might have intentionally deleted emails that pertained to the transaction.

Don't believe that the excuse "My backup system over-wrote the files" will get you off the hook. The nature of most backup systems is to finally erase the oldest data after set periods or a certain number of backups.

You Need a Written Policy:

Protect yourself and the brokerage by development of a written email retention policy that clearly sets forth the procedures for filing of emails related to transactions. Be sure to specify that this includes ALL emails, incoming and outgoing.

As with your procedures manual and any documents of this type, have all new agents sign that they've read, understand, and will abide by these email procedures. Periodically document meetings where you reiterate these procedures and instruct on how to meet the requirements.

Printed is Good - Digital is Better:

You can just specify that each and every email be printed and placed in the transaction file. IF that's done religiously, the worst case is having to copy a couple of hundred pages for presentation to the court.

A better approach would be to also archive the emails in some digital format, whether that be on an external hard drive, CD or DVD. With the low cost of CD's and DVD's, transferring the files and placing the disc in the transaction file is an excellent procedure.

A side benefit is that call from the client wanting a copy of their HUD statement. It's easy to just pop the disc in and email it.

Archiving Agent Emails:

Though Outlook is the dominant email solution out there, you've got agents using Eudora, free online systems and others. With varying levels of knowledge and all these systems, getting the emails into a long-term recoverable format and location requires some planning.

One method would be to have all transaction emails forwarded or copied to a transaction email address. With SmithToJones@YourDomain.com, the agent can forward incoming and "Cc/Bcc" outgoing emails to that transaction address. Now they're in one location where the brokerage can take appropriate archiving action.

Digital File Format of Real Estate Email is Important:

Don't show up in court with a CD of emails in a format that can't be read. With software changes and operating systems changing frequently, archive emails in a widely-accepted format that should be around at a later date.

By far, the most widely-adopted format is Adobe Acrobat .pdf (stands for "portable document format"). Adobe new versions have always been able to read older version files, so you shouldn't be left with a useless archive in the future.

I use Gmail for business and combined with Evernote and a PDF file I have all transaction emails in a single document after closing.

How to do Everything Else Right and Still Lose Your Business:

As real estate brokers and company owners with agents, we have responsibility for how they conduct their activities.

It really doesn't matter if we only select the best and most meticulous agents either. Everyone makes mistakes. Don't let a mistake cost you large fines, or even your business, because your brokerage can't produce emails related to a transaction.

Methods and procedures to handle email archives aren't expensive, and it won't take a huge effort to develop and manage the procedures necessary to getting this important function under control.