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Don't become a crime victim when you show your home to potential buyers

Remove valuables before you hold an open house, and never let someone who arrives without an appointment into your home, especially when you're alone.

April 24, 2011|By Lew Sichelman
  • Steve Wickham of Coldwell Banker places a sign in front of a home for sale in Eugene, Ore., in August 2006. Realty firms and trade organizations have made their agents safety a top concern.
Steve Wickham of Coldwell Banker places a sign in front of a home for sale… (Ty Wright, Bloomberg News )

Reporting from Washington — As crime victims go, real estate agents don't compare to taxi drivers, who suffer the highest rate of homicide of any occupation, according to government statistics.

But every so often an agent is killed, robbed or beaten while showing a house for sale. So realty 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 may go about the business of putting their homes on the market oblivious to the dangers.

Andrew Wooten, a crime prevention expert in Jacksonville, Fla., who counts numerous realty boards and real estate firms as clients, maintains that "agents do a good job" of communicating the potential dangers to their clients.

Yet during a Web seminar this month sponsored by the National Assn. of Realtors, Wooten started off by saying that "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 a 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 the place for a future burglary. And occasionally they have worse things in mind. So here are some precautions sellers should take to protect themselves and their property:

•First and foremost, Wooten said, trust your instincts. The safety expert calls this your "checkup from the neck up," and stresses that 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," said Wooten, who wrote "The Real Estate Guide to Safety" and is president of SAFE Inc. "Call your agent. That's why you have one."

•Never let a stranger into your home when you are alone.

Agents are advised not to show houses alone, and neither should you. 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 said.

•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.

At the very least, you should keep a visitors log. Ask for a driver's license or other photo ID and make sure the picture matches the face of the person in front of you. Get the visitor's address, phone number and license plate and driver's license numbers. Also jot down a brief physical description of the visitor and his or her automobile.

Before you let anyone inside, call someone and give that person the security data you have collected. And be certain that you do this within earshot of your visitor. That way, the visitor will know you are taking precautions.

This might seem cumbersome, but security experts say you can never be too prudent. And anyone who finds this request unreasonable 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 person is who he says he is. Never let an agent directly into your house. Instead, make that person 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. No matter who they say they are, ask them to make an appointment at a more reasonable time. If someone says he can view your house only at this particular moment, don't believe him.

•Before letting anyone in, turn on all the lights and open all the blinds, shades and curtains. 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.

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. Wooten suggests that you make a list of things that need to be locked away and following it every time there is a showing.

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