After ushering in the New Year, most of us are determined to keep at least a few of our well-intentioned resolutions. And usually one of them is to be more effective and successful in business. To do so it is imperative to have the right software to attract more customers, conduct business faster and still cater to the needs of existing clients and brokers. But how does one determine what additional software to purchase? And how does one decide if their software is lagging behind others and whether it should be upgraded or replaced altogether?

The most important question to ask is whether a new software program will work with existing applications, according to Steven Weinstock, certified commercial investment member (CCIM) of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute of Chicago and investment specialist with the Friedman Real Estate Group of Farmington Hills, Mich.

"When I buy a program, I ask myself if I can make use of my existing information," Weinstock says.

Many companies now are jumping on the integration bandwagon, which is providing lots of choices. But specific industries and offices have varying needs. Depending on the size of the company and amount of money allotted for software purchases, hiring a consultant may not be a bad idea. Also, changing software is never easy, according to Weinstock, but patience and adequate training will make the transition easier.

"No matter what you change to, it will be a difficult process. The end result is what is important. If you do make the decision [to change to another software program or add a program], do it during a slow month and provide a lot of support and training," Weinstock advises.

As a starting point for conducting software research, National Real Estate Investor interviewed many software companies and vendors used by REITs, commercial brokers, appraisers and others in the industry. Weinstock recommends that anyone seeking advice on software should network with peers, read reviews and seek expert advice. (See section on resources.)

All software executives interviewed for this article said that new versions of their software were created tocater to "user needs and requests." With that in mind, it might not be a bad idea to check with your software account representative about updaated software versions and your network's compatability. Also important is to make sure that the software companies being considered have good customer service and support.

And as mentioned, software must work well with existing programs, and it must also be easy to use and make better use of your time.

Rent Roll Inc., now RealPage Inc., claims to manage time more efficiently for the multifamily property manager, according to Natalie Tefft-Feldman, director of marketing for the company.

"We are the leader within the multi-family industry. Through consolidations and acquisitions we went from a $4 million company in 1995 to a $28 million company today. We are also the leading providers of HUD supplier software," Tefft-Feldman says.

Soon, Rent Roll will be releasing version 2 of Rent Roll 2000 and associated DOS suites. In November it released InSite Property Management, a Windows-based version 1.0.

One asset for the company is that all DOS and Windows products operate on a range of standard platforms, including Windows 95 and Windows NT. Another asset is that its 2000 series is exactly what the name implies - Year 2000 compliant by recognizing years in four digits rather than the last two.

Rent Roll 2000 is a complete property management and accounts receivable system for multifamily properties, InSite Property Management provides property management, accounts receivable and expense control for multifamily properties.

Another company that offers lots of training, consultation and support, is ProCalc, an Old Westbury, N.Y.-based lease analysis software company. ProCalc Plus, based on Excel sheet and Visual Basic templates, is a highly sophisticated tool that Alan Bushell, president and founder of ProCalc, refers to as "the Rolls Royce of lease analysis."

Since so many people have in-house lease analysis programs, Bushell says that he generates most of his sales from company presentations and training. But oddly enough, he says that he spends most of his time training real estate professionals about the basic concepts that his software is used to analyze.

For instance, Bushell says that he regularly tutors professionals on present value, annuitization, annuitized rental rates, time value calculations, comparing lease vs. lease, lease vs. buy, buy vs. buy and pre-tax vs. post-tax depreciation, calculating tax benefits, and analyzing gross and net deals. While ProCalc Plus can create reports on all of these subjects, Bushell says that professionals now realize that in order to be competitive, they must grasp what it all means.

And he believes his software can help with this process. Others must believe this as well because, says Weinstock, many members of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute use ProCalc.

While ProCalc is popular within the industry, Weinstock notices that three others stand out as well - PlanEase, Argus and Pro-Ject.

Weinstock has noticed many trends in the industry as it relates to software. And one of them, spurred by the Internet, is open access to more information.

Trend toward the Internet "One of the biggest trends that we are seeing is that more and more [companies] are moving toward the intranet - a Website seen only by a company, its employees and chosen participants," Weinstock says. "Our clients want to access information anytime they want it and our brokers want it [information] anytime," Weinstock says. "This trend will create more Web-based software for the real estate industry."

Obviously, many software companies agree with Weinstock about the importance of the Internet to post information.

Dyna Software & Consulting Inc., Argus Software and Rent Roll, for example, all say they will be releasing Web-based products in the future. An executive with Dyna, (www.dynasoftware.com) a leading provider of Windows-based software for real estate investment analysis, says a new version of Dyna for Windows would soon be released and is easily converted into HTML format for publishing on the Internet. According to Lewis Foshee, vice president of marketing for the company, Dyna for Windows 9.0 has many enhanced features, the most "noteworthy" is the option to use Microsoft SQL server.

The extra strength of the SQL server helps to shorten the time frame for most work, says this Dyna executive.

With more information being posted on the World Wide Web, access to foreign clients has never been easier, which is why Dyna, like other companies, is designing international features. For instance, measurements can now be converted from any international calculation to a common unit of measure. Foreign currency conversion also is available with version 9.0.

Foshee says that Dyna's biggest asset is that its software is designed with Microsoft products - products used and recognized around the globe. And according to Weinstock, users like to keep what's familiar. But more importantly, software that is easily integrated with other widely used products becomes more valuable to a desktop and therefore, easier to market."Integration between programs is critical," Weinstock emphasizes.

And in order to be more competitive, some smaller firms have created products that make existing, popular applications more effective. ACG Professionals (www.acgpro.com) of Atlanta is a perfect example.

Todd Zeldin, president and founder of this 6-year-old software and consulting company, is considered an expert in the industry. Leveraging his expertise with Pro-Ject, Zeldin creates products to make the discounted cash- flow application software program by SS&C Technologies, more effective. When Zeldin wrote his MBA thesis at the University of California at Berkeley on Pro-Ject in 1989, it had a majority of the market share. Today Pro-Ject is shared with Argus and Dyna, which is why CF Value by ACG can take information calculated in Argus, Pro-Ject and Dyna and import it into spreadsheets for "improved presentation." Zeldin says that he was able to capitalize on the fact that all three popular software programs have difficulty transferring data into a commonly used report that is displayed well.

"The problem is that they keep missing the boat. Report writers and people who use data want the information in Excel. Our tools create beautiful reports," Zeldin says.

Capitalizing on integration Capitalizing on the need for integration and the weaknesses in other products, ACG has created many tools in the past six years. LDS One is ACG's lease administration tool that links with all accounting programs in the market as well as all Microsoft products. And since it is created with Microsoft products, its interface is very recognizable and easy to use with the familiar tool bar. And by creating tools from other components, ACG can keep costs down all the while developing tools that integrate with the most popular software programs. He calls the concept "custom off-the-shelf solutions."

Customized solutions are Zeldin's niche, and also he creates specialized tools on demand.

Another company that has capitalized on providing better services for users of popular software is Real-Projections Inc., with its WinStack software.

Ted Stearns, president of Real-Projections Inc. (www.winstack.com) says he created WinStack to provide a graphical tool to illustrate leasing information for tenants and managers. The program imports tenant data from popular lease-by-lease systems, such as Pro-Ject, Argus, Dyna or Office/2. It can also import data from property management programs, such as Management Reports Inc.and Timberline, according to Stearn. And users can use any database/spreadsheet application that can export ASCII data, such as Excel and Lotus-123.

The new version of WinStack is being released this month, and Stearns says the 32-bit version has the capabilities of working with Windows 98. WinStack 1999 version will also be easier to use remotely because it can be adapted to any size screen and also will have e-mail capability that Stearn predicts will be very popular. They will be able to bring the WinStack document into PowerPoint "or any other graphics package such as Corel Draw."

And while Web software is important, WinStack proves that integration and familiarity is just as critical. Products that work with all Windows-based applications are extremely valuable as Dyna, ACG and Real-Projections attest to.

Argus Financial Software (www.argussoftware.com) a leader in the real estate software industry, is stepping up to the Windows plate. A new version of Lease by Lease, Argus' commercial property portfolio and cash-flow analysis software, will be released during the first quarter of 1999, according to Gregory Pohtilla, Argus sales and marketing manager.

Although the company boasts its the "industry standard for analysis, valuation, due diligence, asset management and budgeting," there is always room for improvement, and these improvements have been implemented based on user's requests, Pohtilla says.

And following the integration train, Argus is ensuring that its products can work with many platforms and client server databases. The software allows users to analyze and forecast cash flows from commercial real estate ventures including office, retail, industrial, apartment, hotel, motel and other commercial properties, such as airports, sports arenas and golf courses. And version 8.5 allows for more to be done at a faster pace.

Customization is important Customization also is important to Argus, and version 8.5 has the ability to customize menus and labels as well as set standards across many categories, such as property types.

And due to an increased international demand, Argus is creating an international version. For instance, Pohtilla says large companies such as LaSalle Partners, who already use Argus, need international features to support purchases of property around the globe.

"The program will calculate and project rents and expenses the way that leases are (calculated) down in those countries. Various calculations, such as value added tax and collection and reimbursements, are different in other countries," he says. And the Argus executive also explains the importance of the "rollup feature."

"The ability to rollup multiple currencies into a single currency portfolio will be very helpful to a lot of people," Pohtilla stresses.

For example, in England, rent often is collected on standard quarterly days instead of monthly, as in the United States. And language is not a problem since the program reads characters as labels. Argus is starting with French, as the only language the program can convert, but may add additional languages in the future.

And, as an extra perk, Argus has created alliances with affiliate companies to "enhance interfaces with property management and accounting programs." Some of these companies include MRI, JD Edwards, CTI, AMSI, Yardi and Timberline and Skyline.

Internet access Another option for certain services is going to the Internet rather than purchasing the software. According to experts, some sites are giving small companies the ability to compete with larger ones by having access to expensive design, mapping software and space on the Web, without purchasing these items outright or having to store them on desktops. According to Tefft-Feldman of Rent Roll, more and more companies are going to create sites that will allow users to pay a fee per service downloaded or for space acquired.

"Small firms can't hire MIS departments. Buying storage base from a vendor is becoming more popular. You don't have to worry about buying more hardware to store (software) on. Mindspring (www.mindspring.com)and GeoCities (www.geocities.com), they do this. The future is going to be an interesting ride," she says.

In a recent PikeNet Dispatch, an e-mail newsletter that can be found at www.pikenet.com, Peter Pike reviewed Landauer Associates' new online research service, R-E-Search, located at www.r-e-search.com. The site features three major components: Research Gazette, Metro Analyst and Report Builder.

The Report Builder enables users to customize reports by selecting specific datapoints, datatrends and text elements. Report parameters also can be saved, so data doesn't have to be reentered at a later date.

Standard Reports start at $50, Custom Reports at $125 and Metro Profiles at $300, with annual subscriptions starting at $750. The Landauer site provides the option of not purchasing mapping software. The Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute also will provide similar services to members and nonmembers on its Website, www.ccim.com, according to Weinstock.

Mapping services will be available in the future on the CCIM site, helping the smaller real estate practitioners who may only want to use a mapping service twice a month, which could cost only $20 a time online as opposed to $1,000 to $2,000 to buy the software, Weinstock says.

Possible downfalls But there can be downfalls with just using online mapping services, and one is not having the software on a laptop that is easy to use and can go with you offsite. Being able to offer clients graphics-based or text-based mapping information services in 25 minutes, is always a boost, according to Weinstock.

Management Reports Inc. (MRI) of Cleveland has supported real estate property and asset managers in this country for 28 years. And according to Ron McComas, vice president of marketing for MRI, 1999 will only get better with a suite of new services.

Discussing MRI for Windows, the MRI flagship product, McComas says that it would soon receive a boost from the SQL server 7.0 platform by Microsoft.

MRI also is working to expand its Internet capability with MRI for Windows. McComas says it would now allow "more robust processing."

"Everyone is saying they are Webenabled, but the use of the Web is pretty restrictive (in Real Estate). We are phasing our Internet capabilities in to be more consistent with Internet tools," he says.

McComas says the "biggest" announcement for 1999 will be the use of "thin-client technology,"which would allow MRI to compete with midrange platforms such as the AS 400 and Sun Microsystems. Thin client is an environment where only the user interface resides at the remote site. All database management is performed centrally.

There is a plethora of software to choose from in every realm of real estate. Deciding which software to use is a big decision, and experts say, a decision that should be made according to your needs and according to what you use on a daily basis.

Internet has become an integral component to business and day-to-day life. Not surprisingly, most software companies are adapting versions of their software in HTML format as more companies are posting information on the World Wide Web.

While the Internet speeds up access to information to brokers and clients and reduces printing costs - it also aids in research and networking. One can now converse with peers and keep up with trends in the industry without getting on a plane to attend a conference.

According to Steven D. Weinstock, certified commercial investment member (CCIM) of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute and investment specialist with the Friedman Real Estate Group of Farmington Hills, Mich., certain Internet sites are a must for real estate practitioners. Peter Pike's www.pikenet.com and The Real Estate Cyber State Society, manned by John M. Peckham III at www.recyber.com are two.

Both sites are a perfect place to research software packages and companies and to post questions to peers. On www.recyber.com, Weinstock says interviews are often conducted with movers and shakers within the industry. There are also many ways to network and the opportunity to ask real estate "gurus" for advice.

And on the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute Web site for its certified members, www.ccim.com, one can find links to many sites to conduct research on software, find articles on real estate topics, and much more. According to Weinstock, not all aspects of the site are only available to its members; the public at large can benefit from some. Hundreds of links to software companies and resources, for instance, can be found on the CCIM site, as well as articles from the CCIM Journal. Another place to aid with software research is "The Complete Real Estate Software Catalog" located at: http://www.z-law.com/software.html. And obviously, one can go to the various home pages of software companies to learn about their products, but experts suggest networking with peers first.

The following is a list of the companies mentioned in this article that have Websites

ACG Professionals - www.acgpro.com

Argus Software - www.argus.com

Dyna Software & Consulting - www.dyna.com

Management Reports Inc. - www.mrisystem.com

Real-Projections Inc. - www.winstack.com

Rent Roll Inc. (RealPage Inc.) - www.rentroll.com

SS&C Technologies - www.ssctech.com

Timberline Software - www.timberline.com

Yardi Systems Inc. - www.yardi.com

Of course all of NREI's technology features can be accessed at www.nreionline.com