On July 25, 2000, the first paperless real estate transaction took place in Broward County in Florida. That transaction involved a home purchase and financing and took less than five minutes to record. Immediately, recorded documents were returned to the settlement agent via email and images of the documents were available on the county’s website.

Two decades later and despite the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many real estate transactions are still being conducted the old-fashioned, high-contact way. Home buyers, sellers and real estate agents meet at the settlement attorney’s office at the same time, provide government-issued photo identification and sign legally binding documents under oath before a notary public. The notary then signs those documents and affixes a seal on dozens of separate legal documents. The live notarization requirement has, until recently, prevented end-to-end digital transactions, but that rule is rapidly evolving.

The coronavirus has forced county recording clerks, mortgage lenders and the title insurance industry to expedite rules to permit remote online notarization (RON) closings under strict guidelines. RON closings no longer require the signer and the notary to be in the same room — they could be anywhere on the planet. Home buyers, sellers, lenders, real estate agents and settlement attorneys no longer need to gather in the same room. Buyers and sellers can take more time to review and sign settlement documents. Another benefit is that the actual closing document signing is recorded using encrypted, tamper-evident, audio and video technology. This record will then be stored and retrievable in electronic format for at least seven years.

As of mid-June, 26 states allow RON closings, including Virginia. The District and Maryland allow RON closings on a temporary, emergency basis. According to Diane Tomb, chief executive of the American Land Title Association (ALTA), nearly 30 percent of title and settlement companies are offering some type of digital closing to meet social distancing requirements. This is up from 17 percent of companies offering digital closings in 2019.

In March, the Senate and House introduced bills to authorize all U.S. notaries to perform RON. The bills would require that RON notaries use tamper-evident technologies, prevent fraud by using multifactor authentication for identity proofing, and make and retain audiovisual recordings of the transaction. It would allow signers outside the United States, such as military personnel, to securely notarize documents. It would also permit states to customize their own statutes and to recognize RON between states. The National Association of Realtors, the Mortgage Bankers Association and ALTA all support the bills. “Protecting consumers remains the title insurance industry’s top priority,” Tomb said.

Despite this regulatory groundswell, unless all parties agree, closings cannot be conducted using RON. To help lenders make decisions about allowing RON, the Mortgage Industry Standards Maintenance Organization created standards to certify technology providers that use consistent and best practices to secure confidential data. “Expanding the availability of RON is a priority” for the standards organization, said its president, Mike Fratantoni.

The National Notary Association identifies seven technology providers who are servicing the burgeoning RON industry. RON laws require tamper-evident technology, meaning that the settlement is recorded by an encrypted audiovisual record, where the notary and the signers can see, hear and communicate with each other in real time.

A notary’s main role is to identify the signers. With RON, signers must correctly answer computer-based questions about their life, credit or financial history. Signers scan credentials, and the technology provider analyzes if a credential is counterfeit, altered or expired. The notary must view the signer’s credential on camera and compare the information and image on that credential to the signer’s visual appearance, just as a face-to-face notary would examine a signer’s physical driver’s license.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy more than 40 percent of residential mortgage loans, have modified their single-family seller guidelines to permit RON closings in 43 states. Freddie Mac has specific temporary regulations regarding RON for closing documents, powers of attorney and electronic promissory notes.

Harvey S. Jacobs is a real estate lawyer with Jacobs & Associates Attorneys at Law LLC in Washington. He is an active real estate attorney, investor, landlord, lender and settlement attorney. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining your own legal counsel. Contact him at jacobs@jacobs-associates.com, www.jacobs-associates.com, ask@thehouselawyer.com, or call 301-417-4144.

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