Experts' tips on how to choose property software

Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004


You want a car. But which car? Ford or Peugot? Two-door or 4x4? Green or red? They all get you from A to B but there’s a world of difference between a Ferrari and a white van.  The same applies to software, says Paul Halford of valuation specialists Kel Computing. People often don’t work out what they want, so they end up with a flashy sports job rather than something to get them to the shops. Or an economy model that quickly shows its limitations.

   Buyers are not entirely to blame. ‘Information is chaotic,’ says  Stephen Bolton,  MD of Wealth Management Software, who has seen firms struggle to make the right choices since pioneering Estateman 20 years ago. ‘There is no Which software guide and, to make matters worse, most suppliers do not publish price lists.’  So how should customers cope?

Remit Business Consulting – Andrew Waller/Mark Jones

Do you need any software?  Some suppliers provide a package of hardware and software. You can run applications on their servers in a data centre. It may cost several thousands a year but saves on upfront costs and maintenance of equipment and software.  This could be an agent. Cushman & Wakefield Healey & Baker runs Yardi for some clients. Smaller firms can ask suppliers like Fraser Williams, Trace or Wealth Management.

  But check how much access you have to data. And look at how fees are charged.  An annual charge? Upgrade costs? Fee per user or based on data flow? Some firms have few staff but manage massive portfolios.   Always use a lawyer experienced in IT. They will spot potential pitfalls such as who owns the data, what happens if it is lost or corrupted and how you get it back at the end of contract.

Kel Computing – Paul Halford

.  It easy to be dazzled by the packaging or succumb to the best salesman then find the software  is hard to handle.  Ask yourself if you need all the functions. It should be ‘pick up and run’, otherwise you waste valuable time.

  Go in with five key things you want to achieve. And remember this is about improving your business – doing what the client wants and matching the competition -  not technical point-scoring.  But don’t be too strict. One of the most exciting things in this business is showing a single thing we can do and a week later the client is back asking for more, as we have unlocked unthought-of possibilities.

  Make sure the software can export data.  Many have complex and expensive report writing systems yet  secretaries, clients and lawyers may want to work in Excel or Word. This is why PISCES-based  programs are growing in importance. You can export data to IPD and surveyors can get on with their  job rather than spending time preparing documents

Wealth Management – Stephen Bolton

Any portfolio of more than 20 individual properties or tenancies  warrants software, as this eliminates the repetitiveness of card systems  But  one of the biggest advantages is the diary, which triggers important dates such as rent reviews, lease expiry and insurance renewal.

  Be clear about your requirements.  Programs can be more geared towards investors in some cases and owner occupiers in others, or to property management rather than maintenance. Most provide the same function for tens of thousands of properties or only a handful,  but will vary from around £10,000 to £500,000, so set a budget.

 Shop around property journals, trade shows, exhibitions and web sites. Shortlist approximately four.  Most suppliers will visit, although going to their office will show a system set up  - and give a feel for the company. An overview demonstration of no more than two hours will give the ‘feel’ of the product. Pick two for detailed investigation. Ask to put ten of your properties through their system.  Request a half-day training session for a hands on trial.  Having chosen, put the system into a ‘test bay’ for approximately one month prior to going live.

   Most suppliers provide training. This can be more comfortable at clients’ offices but suppliers’ centres are more geared up for this and people are not disturbed by work calls.  It normally takes up to six months to become familiar with a system.  The  supplier should remain in contact to make sure this goes smoothly.

 Raindrop Information Systems  - Steve Vatidis

Look at the supplier’s size, reliability and quality of service. Weigh these together with the software’s capabilities, ease of use, return on investment and functional fit. Don’t just look at the features offered. See how they fit needs.  It may be worth using a consultant  to investigate your business and test whether a system meets objectives - and fits existing IT . The system with the most bells and whistles is not necessarily the right one. Look at how easy and flexible it is to use.

 Give the supplier a clear description of the way your firm works, including a list of facilities required and aspects of the operation which are unique or more complicated than usual.   Assess the support and backup, level of choice and the return on investment. Implementation of any system is a long-term partnership, so choose a reliable supplier with good references and track record. 

   The supplier should be based in the UK with a local support facility, but a strong international presence to benefit from innovations around the world.  One user waited 12-18 months to get something as simple as ‘late interest’ programmed because the US-based supplier had to do development at home.

Circle  - Claudia Wieninger  

Look for a supplier with in-house market expertise  so you can rest assured that practitioners are involved in development and support. Is the company independent? Does it specialise in the type of software you require?

  Ensure it has a significant support department and qualified personnel. Insist on a fully-supported free trial to test the level of service. The best companies have user groups. Find out who is on them to gauge market penetration. Contact existing clients for an unbiased view and ask others with similar requirements which products they use.Are there different levels of training according to experience? Can customised courses be arranged?

  Think ahead: will the product be able to serve needs in two, three or five years? Check for regular upgrades as your requirements change. If you are planning on expanding abroad, find out if global support, sales and training are available.