computer file organizationIf you haven’t figured it out yet – “organization” (i.e. – one’s ability to keep things in order) is an extremely important aspect of any real estate business.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an investor, agent, broker, property manager, or speculator – your ability to:

  • Maintain control of your data
  • Keep your information in one place (without mixing everything up)
  • Employ a logical flow of information
  • Find what you’re looking for in a seamless fashion

…will have a massive impact on your level of effectiveness in this business.

This isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us. It took me about 6 months of fumbling around with different organization methods before I finally landed on the basic setup that I use today.

As the video above explains, I use a free Dropbox Account that is synced between a few different computers that I use on a regular basis (one of which is my iPhone).

Dropbox is an amazing tool that you need to be using if you aren’t already. Without this free resource at my disposal, I would seriously feel like I’m operating in the stone age (and for all intents and purposes, I would be).

The ability to retrieve information on your iPhone or Droid at the drop of a hat (and all for FREE, I might add) is a HUGE convenience that you ought to be taking advantage of.

How I Organize My Files

As of today – these are the 8 folders (each of which contains a massive amount of data) that constitute my entire life.

Folder Organization

Within the folder entitled “Landmark”, is the bulk of my real estate business (that is – all of the ongoing “buying and selling” activity). The folders inside my primary real estate business look like this:

Folder Organization3

There are a lot of different ways that you can keep your real estate business in order (depending on what exactly you do), but when I was getting started in my business – my biggest problem was that I was getting overwhelmed with the volume of offers I was sending out. As a way to keep myself sane, I decided to create a new folder called “Purchasing Activity” to keep track of all the offers I had sent out. I decided to set it up like this:

Purchasing Activity > State > County > Seller Name > Documentation

And here’s a better visual representation of how it looks…

Folder Organization1

Similarly, on the selling end – once properties started moving and I had to keep track of all my listings, pictures, contracts, title work and more, I decided organized my files like this:

Selling Activity > State > County > Buyer Name > Documentation

And here’s a visual representation of how this part looks…

Folder Organization2

As you can see – it’s not rocket science, but it did (surprisingly) take a lot of mental energy to nail down an organizational system that would be consistent, logical and easy for me to follow. I could have tried organizing my properties by parcel number, address, or some other bizarre method – but these other ways just didn’t seem to click – which is why I landed on the structure shown above.

How To Go Paperless

As you’ve probably guessed, the idea of being “paperless” is a pretty central component of my filing system.

When I first started thinking about how to do this, it seemed like this would be a MAJOR pain to implement. After giving it a shot, I was surprised to find that it took about the same amount of time (or less) as my old paper system. All I had to do was run the hard documents through a scanner and drop them into the appropriate folders and over time, it actually turned out to be a MUCH easier way to keep things in order. Probably the biggest plus, was that it gave me instant access to pretty much anything I could think of.

If you’re pondering whether or not it’s worth the trouble to take your business paperless – I’m telling you right now, it’s worth the trouble.

That being said, there are a couple of reasonable investments I would recommend to make this process significantly easier over the long haul.

1. All-In-One Scanner/Printer/Copier/Fax Machine

41a-a09p3cLThis was huge for me. I’ll admit, I deliberated for quite a while over whether or not to spend $600+ on a machine that would (in theory) solve all of my problems in one shot – but after biting the bullet, I was VERY glad I did.

I bought the Brother MFC-8890DW. It’s a wireless system that does a very high quality job of scanning, copying, faxing, printing and more. Unfortunately, there are a lot of “name brand” printers out there that are total garbage. If you’re not sure what kind of unit to get, I can definitely vouch for this one – it’s a solid option.

2. A Large Monitor OR Two Side-By-Side Monitors

You can certainly survive with most “run-of-the-mill” computer monitors, but without a larger surface (one that allows you to pull up multiple documents on one screen), a paperless system will be a lot more cumbersome than it needs to be. To be honest…   it’s not even a bad idea to get two or even three monitors if you can swing it (especially if documentation is a major part of your business) but I’d say at the very least, you should have at least one 24 inch monitor on hand (this is what I have, and it suits me just fine).

It doesn’t need to be anything crazy or expensive – something like this or this should suffice.

3. Adobe Standard (or better)

41REJQjH3aLThis is more of a luxury item, but if you’re serious about going paperless – it is very helpful to have some software that will allow you to edit pdf documents without having to print them off and re-scan them. Adobe Standard will give you the flexibility to edit, delete, add, insert, rotate, highlight, and recognize text (among many other things) on the pages you scan into your system.

I’ve got this exact software on my computer and I use it all the time. It’s not terribly cheap (by my standards, anyway) – but if you have some extra funds at your disposal, this isn’t a bad tool to have in your toolbox.

Figure Out What Works For You

Like I said before, there is no definitive “right” or “wrong” way to do this. This is just my way of keeping my business documentation in order. This is a system that had made sense to me and has worked quite well for the past 5+ years.

As you’re thinking this through, feel free to apply any of these ideas to your system – and if you think you’ve got a better way of organizing your files, let me know! I’m always curious to hear about new ways of improving my system as well.

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About the author

Seth Williams is a land investor and residential income property owner, with hundreds of closed transactions and nearly a decade of experience in the commercial real estate banking industry. He is also the Founder of REtipster.com - a real estate investing blog that offers real world guidance for part-time real estate investors.

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  1. Kyle Zaylor says:

    Great article, Seth! It’s so true with keeping everything organized.

    I laughed a bit when I read #2 (dual monitors). I can’t function without my two monitors!

    -Kyle

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks Kyle! It’s an ongoing battle for some of us, but an important one nonetheless.

      I’m still working on my 2nd monitor – but I hope to have it soon!

  2. Ian Kuchman says:

    Spot on article. This is EXACTLY what I’m doing with all of my filings. It’s so funny seeing other people operate with archaic filing systems. I literally cannot work with someone who doesn’t know how to scan a document.

    I hope your readers get some value from this article 🙂

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks Ian, I’m glad this post resonated with you too! I appreciate your feedback.

  3. Sharon Vornholt says:

    Great post and video Seth. One question; can you get by on the free version of Dropbox for all those files?

    Thanks
    Sharon

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Hi Sharon – good question! I was actually able to get a few extra GB of space because I shared dropbox with a few people (and as a result, I was credited with some more space) – but yes, I am able to keep everything in the free account that I have. I try to keep out the huge stuff like video files and large pictures… it’s not too difficult.

  4. John Kile says:

    Great content, Seth. Using Cloud based systems makes so much sense, not only for easy access from multiple platforms, but also just as a means of backing up data. I personally have been using Evernote and have been happy with it, but not overly ecstatic. It’s great for taking notes and linking to other notes, but lacks the ability to go beyond one folder (or notebook). After looking at your system, I realized that I might be able to get the best of both worlds and merge the two – i.e., Evernote will be for notes and webclips and Dropbox for folders and files. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Hi John, thanks for sharing! I’m glad you liked the post. I’ve been hearing about Evernote for years now but I don’t have much experience with it. I’m guessing both systems probably have their pros and cons (as you eluded to). I’ll have to look into it more one of these days.

  5. Fulton says:

    O.K., Seth – your next project: Defining Best Google Tools for Real Estate Practitioners, A Helpful Overview & Guide to Help Sort, Integrate, and Use All Of Google’s Tools in your Real Estate Business.

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks for the idea Fulton – I’ll see what I can do about that. 🙂

  6. Tonya says:

    Good morning Seth,
    I too use Dropbox to organize my rental , real real estate and craigslist documents. Another great tool to utilize is Genius Scan. This is an application for your smart phone that allows the user to take a photo of a document and convert it to a pdf document.
    This was particularly helpful when negotiating offers while on the run. I now use it for everything from rental applications to sending in rebates.
    Hope that helps!

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks for sharing Tonya. I’ve used Genius Scan on a number of occasions and I agree, it’s awesome (and that fact that it’s free is even better)!

  7. Jake Hartett says:

    Thanks Seth,
    I always like to look for open source alternatives to expensive software. I have never used an Acrobat alternative but I have had great experiences with other open source software like OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. The GUI is usually a couple years behind but they have full functionality. They can be found at alternativeto.net and sourceforge.net.

    Thanks.

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Great to know, thanks for the tip Jake!

  8. Clifford Hoover says:

    Hi. I need to download the Drop Box it may work for me too.

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Go ahead and download it Clifford! There’s a link right above.

  9. Qasiym Glover says:

    Great article! This is a great way to simplify the business and have everything you need with you on the go! Thanks Seth!!

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks Qasiym – I’m glad you got something out of it!

  10. Roman Northcut says:

    Hi Seth
    Love this article. Organization is so key to an efficient business and you have done well. How do you organize your mailing lists as the process unfolds. Some records become “Sent offer”, “Agreement signed”, etc. How do you keep track of who to send follow up letters and offers to, as well as keeping your metrics and conversion rates?
    Thanks!!!

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Hi Roman – I have a folder in my dropbox account, which contains different sub-folders for each state & county where I’ve sent out direct mail campaigns (and each folder contains the list I used and the postcard I sent). I don’t sent out any follow up offers after the initial campaign, and I don’t sent out blind offers either – so I have a different set of folders for the actual paperwork related to each deal in process (which is described above).

      1. Roman says:

        Great Info, Thanks Seth!

        1. Seth Williams says:

          Thanks Roman!

  11. Tim says:

    Seth,
    I think you are my long-lost brother! I have struggled with the organization of multiple businesses for years, this can be the one single most frustrating challenging mind filling agonizing pain a business owner can go through.

    I wish I saw your suggestion for the brother printer last Thursday but I just recently purchased my first laser HP 252, extremely happy. Also check out for fid I wish I saw your suggestion for the brother printer last Thursday but I just recently purchased my first laser HP 252, extremely happy. Also check out for fijitsu is 500 scanner, for the price of about a car payment is the highest rated most invaluable tool I have. I work 90% of the road temperature in my office so I have an office identical in my car is in my house.

    I hope I get to talk sometime to you. I appreciate your articles and realize I’m not the only one that struggles in this department 🙂

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks Tim! I wish you all the best with that new HP printer!

      Organization is definitely a challenge for some of us (myself included) – but with a little bit of structure, you can definitely make it work. Best of luck to you!

  12. Doug says:

    Seth;

    Thanks for the info. Yes I was wondering how you stay on top of the paperwork.
    Also, I was wondering if you use or recommend any accounting software like quickbooks or freshbooks or something else to help with your books. Thx.

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Hi Doug, I currently use QuickBooks – but if I was starting from scratch, I’d probably start with something like Freshbooks or Xero.

  13. Marilyn says:

    Thank you for the article. As usual you have lots of great information to share. I have a suggestion for a future topic (that is if you haven’t already discussed it)… that is I need help with all my email accounts….. some on yahoo… some on gmail and then a couple linked to my websites. I have streamlined a few to forward to my gmail account but still not happy with the set-up. Just an idea. You are a great teacher and motivator. Thank you for all your hard work. – Marilyn S.

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Thanks Marilyn! I appreciate the kind words. That’s a great idea for a future topic (and I have a similar issue, so I can relate). I’ll see what I can do to address that in an upcoming blog post!

  14. maria sanchez says:

    thank you for this post. To get organized is one of the most important things not only in Real State activity, but in all life.

    thanks again

    1. Seth Williams says:

      I agree Maria! Thanks for reading. 🙂

  15. Neal Fulton says:

    I agree. Organization is KEY. I’ve been using google drive across several PC’s & macs with success for years. I believe Dropbox is similiar to google drive. Thank you for your on going suggestions & expertise!

  16. Clayton Mitchell says:

    Seth, I think the Dropbox recommendation is great; however, you still have to have a hard copy filing system for those official documents from the state/county such as warranty deeds/titles. Do you just scan the top/signature pages to Dropbox or what is your system?

    1. Seth Williams says:

      Actually, once a deed is recorded at the county, there isn’t much of a reason to keep a hard copy of it (what’s recorded in the county’s files is ultimately what matters, because they only record originals in the first place). As long as they’ve got it, and I’ve got a pdf myself – I can store it digitally in dropbox for my files… no need to hang on to hard copies.

  17. Linda Shaw says:

    Great information! Our agency has its own Dropbox type system, which is helpful. I don’t know how we operated for generations before such things! LOL On the Acrobat, I agree that it is very helpful. I also use some of the other Adobe products so I have a monthly subscription to Creative Cloud which allows me to use the latest and greatest software with no additional charges for upgrades, etc. May be a good option for those who don’t want to, or can’t afford the high price of a single use software. For me, it is AWESOME and is always the latest. They also have monthly subscription options for a single product (like Acrobat), but if you can use more than one it makes more sense to use the full version at a similar price. They offer discounts too for college students, teachers, etc. Plus if you use for your work it can be tax deductible (check with your tax accountant for specifics in your area). 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing Linda! I used to subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud (back when I had a student discount, years ago). If you actually use all the tools they make available, it’s definitely a solid value proposition.

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