The Hidden Dangers in Selling Homes

Last week, a 24-year-old real estate agent in Canada died after meeting a potential client in a brand new luxury home. Police are investigating it as a homicide; the agent reportedly had concerns about the client, who said she needed to purchase a high-end home that day.

According to the Globe and Mail, that crime is sadly not the first involving a real estate industry member. A Winnipeg-area real estate agent was sexually assaulted by a man who said he was looking for a home in December; in 2002, an agent in Calgary was tied up and robbed while showing a home; and an agent was stabbed to death in 1985 during an open house in British Colombia.

Real estate-related crime certainly isn’t limited to Canada. In November, The New York Times reported an increase in robberies that occurred during open houses. A team of thieves stole a Tiffany clock, jewelry, a fur coat and a bottle of champagne.

Luckily no one was hurt in those robberies. However, they illustrate the importance of being careful–even with clients who were referred or with people you’ve spoken to but don’t know well.

What can agents, property managers, brokers–all industry members who will spend one-on-one time outside of the office with clients–do to protect themselves? A few industry tips:

  • Arrange a first meeting in an office or coffee shop. Toronto Real Estate Board president Maureen O’Neill doesn’t meet clients in empty homes for the first time, according to the Globe and Mail–if a client refuses, it may be an indication something is up.
  • Check their records. suggests asking customers for work, home and cell numbers and an address–then verifying one or more.
  • Assess danger upon arriving. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) suggests you take a couple of seconds when you get to the home for a showing to make sure everything appears to be safe. Ask yourself: Is there any strange activity in the area you can see? Are you parked in a well-lit location? Can another vehicle block you in the driveway?
  • Have an exit route. Suzanne Senst, a real estate agent based in west Toronto, told the Globe and Mail she always has a clear path to the door and doesn’t accompany clients into basements.
  • Make open houses a little less open. The NAR suggests making all visitors sign a registration book at open houses–no exceptions. Checking IDs against names will help discourage criminals from entering.
  • Have coworkers check in with you. Make sure your team knows where you are by giving them property addresses and appointment times. The NAR suggests calling a friend or colleague before your client is scheduled to arrive and asking them to call you in 15 minutes. suggests establishing a code word or phrase to alert the caller to contact the police if necessary.
  • Be careful not to share personal information. Don’t talk about where you live, where you spend your free time, where your children go to school or where other family members work. Being friendly doesn’t have to involve getting personal, NAR says.

Being informed is important–that can mean carefully observing your surroundings and your potential client; it can also mean knowing common criminal schemes. Realty Times has a list of agent-related crimes on its site that can show you how some past attacks occurred–and hopefully prevent you from getting into a similar situation.

Educate yourself and inform your office about the potential dangers–and safety mechanisms–that exist when showing a home. NAR released a number of helpful handouts during its September safety week that can be downloaded, customized and distributed to real estate teams, including a list of 53 tips that are perfect for e-mails or newsletters.

And, as in any new situation in which you are alone, stay alert. Do your research. Trust your instincts. In this tough market, agents are willing to go above and beyond to make a sale–but no commission is worth risking your life.