The recent murder of Arkansas real estate agent Beverly Carter while showing a vacant, bank-owned property highlights the dangers of exhibiting houses to strangers -- not just to realty pros, but to homeowners themselves.
As crime victims go, agents don't hold a candle to taxi drivers, who suffer the highest rate of homicides of any particular occupation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But every so often, the headlines scream out about a real estate agent who is murdered, raped, robbed or beaten while showing a house for sale.
Some years back, Seattle agent Michael Emert was slain. And now Carter, an agent with Crye-Leike Realtors in Little Rock, is gone.
Many realty firms and their trade groups have made safety a top concern, but rarely do agents pass along safety tips to their clients. As a result, sellers often go forth totally oblivious to the dangers that lurk.
That's not to say you shouldn't hold an open house or allow someone to view your for-sale 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 your place for a future burglary. And occasionally, they have worse things in mind.
Here are some precautions sellers should take to protect themselves and their property:
-- First and foremost, trust your instincts. Your intuition is your most powerful crime-fighting weapon. If something or someone makes you uncomfortable, be extra alert and extremely careful.
-- If a prospective buyer or unknown agent shows up at your door unannounced, have them call your agent to schedule an appointment. Don't open your door to strangers. No exceptions!
Call your agent. That's why you have one. One of the first things your agent should tell you is, "Always let me show your house for you."
-- If you fail to heed that warning, at the very least, you should never, ever let a stranger into your home when you are alone. There is safety in numbers.
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.
-- Identify your visitors. Agents often insist that everyone sign a guest registry to show their 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.
Since anyone can sign in under whatever name he wants, 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. Next, get their addresses, phone numbers and license plate and driver's license numbers. And while you are writing them down, also jot down a brief description of the visitor and her automobile.
Before you let anyone inside, call someone and pass along the security data you have collected. Be certain 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 too easy for someone to print up fake business cards, so call the agent's office to make sure the agent is who he says he is. Never let an agent directly into your house. Instead, make them 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 give you 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. Lock up your prescription drugs, too.
Never leave money, mail, bank statements, credit cards or your 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.
-- 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 out quickly, 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, such as: 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 prospective buyers ask you to show them around, let your visitors enter each room first so you can't be attacked from behind. Don't turn your back on them or lead them around. In other words, direct them as opposed to letting them 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.
Overly cautious? Probably so. But it's better to be safe than sorry.