Realtors, sellers should adopt safety habits when showing homes

United Feature Syndicate Inc.

WASHINGTON — As crime victims go, real-estate agents don’t hold a candle to taxi drivers, who suffer the highest rate of homicide of any particular occupation, according to government statistics.

But every so often, the headlines blare about a real estate agent who is murdered, raped, robbed or beaten while showing a house for sale. It’s enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and it does — for realty professionals, whose companies and trade organizations have made their agents’ safety a top concern.

Rarely, though, do agents pass along safety tips to their clients. As a result, sellers go blithely about the business of putting their homes on the market, often totally oblivious to the dangers that lurk.

Andrew Wooten doesn’t agree with that. A crime-prevention expert who counts numerous realty boards and real estate firms as clients, Wooten maintains that “agents do a good job” communicating the potential dangers to their clients.

Yet, during a webinar earlier this month, sponsored by the National Association of Realtors, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Wooten started off by saying “safety often takes a back seat” when agents are rushing about to get ready for showings.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t hold an open house or allow someone to examine your property. But to be safe — and to keep from becoming the next victim — you should be aware of the risks.

Usually, miscreants are after whatever they can jam into their pockets as they roam from room to room. But sometimes they are there to case your place for a future burglary. And occasionally, they have worse things in mind. So here are some precautions every seller should take to protect themselves and their property:

• First and foremost, Wooten says, trust your instincts. The safety expert calls this your “check up from the neck up,” and stresses that your intuition is your most powerful crime-fighting weapon. So, if something or someone makes you uncomfortable, be extra alert and extremely careful.

• If a prospect or unknown agent shows up at your door unannounced, have him or her call your agent to schedule an appointment. No exceptions!

“Don’t open your door to strangers,” warns Wooten, who wrote the “Real Estate Guide to Safety” and is president of SAFE Inc. “Call your agent. That’s why you have one. One of the first things your agent should tell you is, ‘I’m your agent. I’ll show your house.'”

• If you fail to heed that warning, at the very least, you should never let a stranger into your home when you are alone.

Agents are advised not to show houses alone, and neither should you. If someone is insistent, ask a neighbor to come over while you show the visitor around. If no one is available to keep you company, tell the visitor to come back later or call your agent. It’s better to lose a sale than your life. “There is safety in numbers,” Wooten says.

• Identify your visitors. Agents often insist that everyone sign a guest registry to show their control and professionalism. They also screen their clients by putting them through a prequalification process before they ever put them in their cars. At the very least, you should keep a visitor’s log.

Because anyone can sign whatever name he wants, ask for a driver’s license or other photo ID and make sure that the picture matches the face of the person in front of you. Next, get his address, phone number and license plate and driver’s license numbers. And while you are writing those down, also jot down a brief physical description of the visitor and his automobile.

Before you let anyone inside, call someone and give him or her the security data you have collected. And be certain that you do this within earshot of your visitor. That way, he’ll know you are taking cautions to protect yourself and maybe he’ll move on.

This might seem like a cumbersome task, but security experts say you can never be too prudent And anyone who finds this request unreasonable in this day and age is probably not someone you want to invite into your home anyway.

• Identify unknown agents, too. It’s easy for someone to print up fake business cards, so call the agent’s office to make sure that the agent is who he says he is. Never let an agent directly into your house. Instead, make him open the lockbox your agent placed on your door to gain access. Non-agents won’t be able to.

• Don’t make an appointment with potential buyers unless they provide their names and phone numbers and you have called them back to verify the number.

• Beware of callers who knock on your door at strange hours, either late at night or early in the morning. Again, no matter who they say they are, ask them to make an appointment at a more reasonable time. If someone says he can only view your house at this particular moment, don’t believe him.

• Prior to letting anyone in, turn on all the lights and open all the blinds, shades and curtains. Dark rooms invite trouble, and homes are safer for showing when someone outside can see inside.

• In advance of an open house, remove your valuables, including jewelry, artwork and electronic equipment. You’re going to be packing them when you move anyway, so you might as well put them away for safekeeping now. Also, guns and other weapons should be locked up and separated from the keys and ammunition.

And never leave money, mail, bank statements, credit cards or keys lying around. Keep them on your person, not in a drawer. It’s too simple for a petty thief to open a drawer when no one is looking. Lock up your prescription drugs, too. Something that starts out as a simple robbery can sometimes escalate into a far more violent crime.

On this point, Wooten suggests developing a list of things that need to be locked away and following it every time there is a showing.

• Pay attention to the way prospects view your house. Professional burglars often linger in rooms, looking for items they can dispose of quickly. They also search for ways to get in and get out, scouting possible escape routes and checking for security devices. Couples up to no good often split up so one can case the joint while the other keeps you occupied.

• Be mindful of someone who is asking unusual questions that have nothing to do with the house. Are you married or single? Do you live alone? What times does your spouse leave for work and return? What time do the kids come home from school? Have you had much interest in your house? When do you plan to show it again?

All these queries could be an attempt to determine how long you’ll be alone or when the house will be empty. Never let potential buyers know your schedule.

• Some agents prefer to tour houses with their clients, while others allow them to wander from room to room on their own. If a prospect asks you to show him around, let your visitor enter the room first so you can’t be attacked from behind. Don’t turn your back on him or lead him around, Wooten advises. “Direct him as opposed to letting him follow you.”

Don’t allow yourself to be trapped in a corner or behind a desk or other piece of furniture. And never go into a walk-in closet, laundry room, basement or storage area with someone you don’t know. There’s no escaping those spots.

• If someone attempts to draw you into a lengthy conversation, steer him toward the front door. And plan your own escape route in case something goes wrong. “Figure out in advance how you are going to get out of trouble if trouble presents itself,” Wooten suggests.

Overly cautious? Probably so. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 30 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance-industry publications.

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