Michelle Smith was a Certified Notary Signing Agent in Taylorsville, Kentucky, with eight years in the mortgage arena, four as a loan officer and four as a notary. She started her career in California and recently moved to Kentucky. Michelle is an excellent example of a notary who’s building a successful and profitable business and doing it right. She is currently a loan officer and no longer accepting signing but offered some good tips.

Michelle Smith
Former Certified Notary Signing Agent
for Kentucky Signings

Q: When did you start your notary business?
A: I first started in California in 2002. I started my business back up again in Kentucky in February of this year, after taking some time off to get my family settled in here first.

Q: Why did you decide to become a notary?
A: The idea came to me slowly, while I worked as a loan officer. Back then, there were no signing agents, and using mobile notaries to witness loan signings was a fairly new thing. Every time I closed a loan in a new area, I’d have to call around to find a notary in the area. (Notary directories didn’t exist, so we had to rely on yellow pages and Mail Box Etc stores!) I’d explain the process of signing loan docs, how to explain APR, how much we would pay them, etc over the phone. It was kind of fun, because most notaries had never heard of such a thing so they were pretty excited to learn they could make $75-100 just by taking a pack of papers to someone and getting them signed! Then, I’d go over each document before it was overnighted to the notary, flagging or highlighting every single signature line or notary block to make sure nothing was missed. Because I’d spend so much time on the phone with “my notaries,” I got to know some of them pretty well and watched their brand new businesses grow quickly, many of them quitting their “regular” jobs and hiring on employees to take on even more signings! They had so much fun, visiting each borrower’s home in person and they’d tell me all kinds of great stories. I envied their freedom and the time they were able to spend with their families. I wanted another child, so I thought if I became a notary it would allow me to be a stay-at-home mom during the day and still make a few extra bucks at night. I fully expected to return to my “real job” as a loan officer someday. Once I tasted freedom, there was no going back.

Q: What was your first signing experience?
A: A loan officer I used to work with showed up on my doorstep at 10 a.m. one morning, with docs in hand, and asked me to go to Victorville for a 1 p.m. signing (two hours away from me)! I had been up all night with my colicky child, taken the phone off the hook and was still in my pajamas trying to take a nap! I had JUST gotten my notary commission and supplies and had not planned on starting for at least a few more weeks! No matter how much I protested, he insisted that I was the only one who could handle this. He’d even arranged for his wife (whom I knew well) to come over and baby sit! The signing itself was smooth and uneventful, and I sure enjoyed the 4-hour drive there and back all by myself! It was the first time I’d had more than 5 minutes to myself since becoming a stay-at-home mom. I was hooked!

Q: Is your business full time or part time?
A: I was part-time for many years, only working nights and weekends, so that I could enjoy my kids while they were still young. When I started back up in Kentucky this year, I decided to go full-time.

Q: How many hours a week do you work?
A: A lot! Others mistakenly assume that the only time we “work” is when we are out on signings. I spend a lot of time online, signing up with new companies, emailing, networking with other notaries, updating my directory listings, reading up on state laws, etc. I’d say I spend at least 50 hours a week working at this.

Q: Do you work with signing companies?
A: Absolutely! Signing companies offer a convenience to lenders and title/escrow officers who don’t have time to search through notary directories and make 10 calls to find just one notary! I’ve also found that they can be incredibly loyal once you’ve proven yourself!

Q: What percentage of your business is loan signings, legal, medical, other?
A: Here in Kentucky, all of my business is loan signings. In California, I’d say 80% was loan signings. I lived in a very large Homeowner’s Association where people spent long hours commuting to and from work. I advertised my mobile notary services in our HOA newsletter, so I often received a lot of general notary work (and loan signings) from people who just didn’t have the time to get back in the car at the end of the day and find a notary.

Q: If you don’t mind sharing, what do you average for a loan signing?
A: I average between $125-150.

Q: Do you have a minimum fee?
A: Yes, I have a minimum of $75 for overnight docs. There are a few companies, from which I accept $50, but the packages are small and overnighted directly to the borrowers, requiring very little of my time.

Q: How have changes in the industry or economy affected you?
A: I’ve been pretty lucky with regards to the recent slow-down that everyone else is experiencing. There are fewer notaries here in Kentucky, so I’ve actually experienced an increase in business since moving here. There are weeks here and there when it’s slow, but I use that time to sign up with new companies, touch base with clients I haven’t heard from in a while, network, etc. I also enjoy the extra time with my family, knowing that the phone will ring again and I won’t have this extra time later.

Q: So you’re not discouraged by the recent market slump?
A: No. As a loan officer, I once vented to my boss about how the phone calls had dried up and I didn’t have many loans in my pipeline. He said, “I’ve been in the mortgage industry for 20 years and the one thing I know is that it’s a roller-coaster business. The good times don’t last and neither do the bad. Those that stick it out through the hard times are here when it gets good and the rest miss the boat.” I think that’s good advice for anyone in the notary, mortgage or real estate industry to follow. If you save and budget for the slow times, you’re able to ride them out.

Q: Do you have a business plan?
A: Yes, but I keep it simple. I think it’s important for anyone starting a new business to know your target market, your expenses, and budget accordingly. I know exactly what my costs are, from the cost per page on edocs to the cost of new tires on my car.

Q: What percentage of your net income do you spend on advertising?
A: I spend about 20% of my income on advertising. I use most of my advertising budget to purchase premium listings on notary directories.

Q: Where do you advertise and market your notary service?
A: I advertise on almost every directory I can find. I’ve listened to your ‘more needles in the Internet haystack” advice and it has served me well. I’m listed on GoGetNotary.com, UNNA.net, 123Notary.com, NotaryRotary.com, NotaryDepot.com, SigningAgent.com, and many others. I also take full advantage of any freebie sites to advertise (or link to) my website.

Q: Do you network with other notaries?
A:Yes. I use the notary forums often. In the beginning, I didn’t network at all with other notaries because I was afraid of someone stealing my clients and ideas, undercutting my pricing, thinking I didn’t know enough, etc. I thought if I stayed under the radar, I’d be more successful, so I’d peruse the message boards to stay on top of things, but rarely post anything. When I moved to Kentucky, I realized what a mistake that was! No one, outside of my gravy-train lender, knew who I was or what kind of experience I brought to the table. I had to start all over again!

Ive been much better about networking since I moved to Kentucky and it’s been very rewarding! I’ve found several notaries who refer work to me, and vice versa. Now, if I encounter something new, I have a place to turn for help. I also believe in the pay-it-forward philosophy so I am always wiling to help other notaries. Being self-employed doesn’t have to mean that you’re in business all by yourself.

Q: What professional organizations do you belong to?
A: I belong to the National Notary Association, The Signing Registry and the United Notary Association of America (formerly the Midwest Notary Association). I recently volunteered to be the Kentucky State Representative for the United Notary Association because I really like how they’re working to raise the bar in this profession. There are too many notaries making mistakes and performing illegal acts out there. It brings down the value of an age-old profession that was once highly-respected. The UNAA is seeking to change that by forming individual state chapters, which will provide a more local resource for notaries, both new and veteran. Most organizations are based in California or Florida, so notaries outside those states are often provided with incorrect information. Kentucky is especially lacking in training, classes, or assistance to notary signing agents. Our laws are far behind the times and there hasn’t been anyone to push for changes in the smaller states until now. It’s an exciting venture for notaries everywhere as it will truly help to standardize the industry in many ways, and help give this profession the respect and attention it deserves.

Q: What advice would you give a notary starting today?
A: First off: study, study, study! There’s a wealth of information found in your state laws, handbooks and on many websites. (Pull your own loan docs out and study those, too.) If you’ve never been involved in the mortgage industry before, I would also suggest a mentor and reputable training classes. Practice mock signings on your friends and family. Make sure you know what it costs you to do business so that you do not under price yourself. (Don’t forget the hidden costs, such as higher electricity and phone bills, tires, oil changes or any extra wear and tear on your vehicle, etc.)

Once you feel you are ready, you have to market yourself! Understand that you can’t simply list yourself on a few directories and wait for the signings to fall into your lap! You have to go out and get business. If you are not out doing signings, spend that time marketing and signing up with as many companies as you can.

Q: What advice would you give experienced notaries who wants to grow their business?
A: Again, it’s all about marketing, networking, and providing your clients with the best services. Join organizations and networks that help you to promote yourself as well as our industry in general. No matter how much experience you have, never fall into a pattern of thinking that you know it all. There will always be new loan programs, new documents, new ways to market, new equipment, new client requirements, etc, so continue to educate yourself on these and network with other notaries to find out what works.

Q: What was your most unusual/memorable signing experience?
A: A few years ago, I had a car accident on my way to a signing. Someone ran a light and slammed into my passenger side, nearly totaling my car. I was just bruised, thank goodness, but I was very shaken up! While I was waiting for the accident scene to get cleared up a friend drove by. She noticed I was in my business clothes and asked if I was on my way to a signing. She took care of getting everything out of my car, drove me all the way to my signing and sat in the car while I went in to complete the signing. They say everything happens for a reason, and this is one of those times that make you believe it! The borrower turned out to be very scary, had a gun just a few feet away from us and kept hinting at me that I could stay if I wanted. I was able to truthfully tell him that I had a friend waiting in the car and so he quickly changed his tune! He may have been completely harmless—who knows?—but I learned to schedule some signings in public places from that experience.

Q: What books are tops on your recommended reading list?
A: I recently bought Laura Vestanens e-book <“Marketing Your Non-Loan Signing Services”. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to expand their mobile notary business as I am!

Thanks, Michelle. You’ve provided lots of great tips and food for thought for notaries everywhere.

Michelle is no longer doing signings and has returned to her earlier career as a loan officer.