Someone visiting one of Cindy Westfall's open houses a few years back swiped the seller's piggy bank. It was sitting on the dresser in the bedroom one minute, and then it was gone.
The Portland, Oregon, agent posted on the real estate website ActiveRain that, in eight years of holding open houses, "it was the first time I got a call from the seller saying something was missing."
Yes, the "five-finger discount" is alive and well in Realty Land. Face it: People like to touch and examine things at open houses. They like to open closets and drawers. Most of the time, it's innocent enough. But every once in a while, something goes missing.
Sometimes it's just one person who can't resist pocketing something and walking out. But sometimes, the thieves work in pairs: One keeps the agent occupied while the other roams from room to room, snatching whatever valuables he or she can find.
A few years ago, someone actually made off with a real estate agent's shoes. He had opted to remove them for the open house, rather than wear the floor-protecting blue booties that were available to prospective buyers. Michelle Carr-Crowe of Keller Williams in Cupertino, California, relates the story on ActiveRain: "It was not likely a mistake, as (the agent's) shoes were nearly new, inside and dry, whereas the 'trade-in' pair were old, well-worn and outside."
So, what are sellers -- and agents -- to do to protect themselves?
For starters, don't leave stuff lying around. That includes cash, checkbooks, credit cards, laptops or drugs, prescription or otherwise. It also means jewelry, watches and anything else thieves can shove in their pockets before making a clean getaway.
Also, take down any framed military discharge certificates. They sometimes include not only your name, but also your Social Security number. And log off the computer in your home office so people can't nose around and snatch your personal info.
Six years ago, a man in Silver Spring, Maryland, was arrested for stealing women's underwear from open houses. He was finally nabbed by an agent, who caught him rummaging through the owner's dresser. Turns out, the guy had dozens of women's undergarments from previous thefts.
Of course, while people tour your home, you can't carry the contents of your dresser with you. But where possible, you should keep valuables on your person, lock them up or remove them from your house altogether -- if not until the house is sold, then at least during an open house or showing.
Emmary Simpson of Long Realty in Tucson said she had an iPod lifted from a filing cabinet when she listed her house. After that, she removed everything of value, including expensive silver, and kept it at her parents' house. She also purchased a locking filing cabinet for items she needed to keep handy.
There are other precautions you can take, too. For example, make sure your bills and personal papers are out of sight. Don't just shove them in a drawer; organize them, box them up and put them away.
Guns and ammunition also need to be locked up and put away, if not removed from the house entirely. They tend to make would-be buyers nervous -- "If you need a weapon, is the neighborhood dangerous?" -- so remove them to another safe, locked location during the open house.
For you and your agent's personal protection, remove knife blocks from the kitchen counter. Every couple of years, an agent is attacked during an open house; don't provide would-be attackers with easily accessible weapons.
Also, make sure your open house is held by two agents. That way, one can welcome visitors and the other can walk with them as they tour.
That step would probably have stopped the couple who stole some $35,000 in jewelry from open houses in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. The husband went to "look around" while the wife and kids occupied the agent. Or the two women in the New York area who made off with $73,000 in loot using the same tactic.
Another idea: Use "nanny cams" or other surveillance devices to keep watch on people as they move through your house. Or maybe just announce to visitors that cameras and microphones are hidden in every room.
Make sure your agent asks visitors for their driver's licenses and license plate numbers, and have the agent snap a picture of them and their IDs. Somewhat off-putting, perhaps, but the agent can say something like, "In this day and age, you can't be too careful."
Honest folks will understand, and the bad guys will move on to the next mark.