Real Estate Safety Stories: 'How I Stay Safe'

If you think you're not at risk, think again. These real estate professionals found themselves in uncomfortable situations and reveal what they do now to avoid risk.

September 1, 2010

Skip ahead to read these "How I Stay Safe" anecdotes:

Partner Up for Open Houses

“I never do open houses alone. Recently while doing an open house, I was locking up and a woman came to the door five minutes after closing time. She had parked in the street and walked down the long driveway. 

“I let her in, and she immediately looked at areas you would expect an alarm system to be. My partner was upstairs, and she was not aware of his presence. Her phone rang, she answered it in a foreign language, and immediately I heard the back door being rattled as it was double-locked. A man was attempting to enter. 

“My partner appeared at the top of the stairs and the woman must have told the man at the back door that I was not alone. The man ran to the car and moved it down the road. The woman exited through the garage. 

“I think making sure all doors are locked after each looker was what saved me from being robbed or worse — and definitely never doing open houses alone.” 

— Debra Cahill, RE/MAX Landmark, REALTORS®, Stoughton, Mass.

Make Up an Excuse to Leave

“I had a client a few years ago who was an older eccentric gentleman who wanted to buy another home as an investment. I would meet him at the various properties, instead of picking him up, at his request. After about three months, he finally wanted to write an offer and asked me to come to his home to handle the paperwork. 

“I did have some apprehensions and told my husband and a friend where I was going and gave them all the buyer’s information, name, address, phone number, and license plate information. 

“When I entered his home and sat down, my eyes immediately gravitated to the fireplace mantel. On the mantel were beautifully framed pictures of three female real estate agents that work in the area. 

“I realized that the pictures were cut from the local real estate guide magazine. I also knew the agents and would bet they were not related to him or interested in him. 

“I immediately said: ‘I just remembered I left an important form in the car with my husband; let me run out and get it and I'll be right back.’ “I ran and never looked back. I felt it was better to lose a weird client than my life.” 

— Eve Combs, Prudential Realty, San Francisco

Have a Secret Distress Code

“I was at an open house in a larger builder home. A man entered and invaded my personal space and immediately asked me if I was alone. Instead of freaking out, I said, ‘No, the builder ran to get us lunch and will be right back.’ 

“I told him to look around, and I would be available in that spot for questions when he was done. I immediately called the builder, who lived down the road. I told him, ‘Please don’t put tomatoes on my sandwich.’ He knew something was wrong because he wasn’t getting me a sandwich. 

“He said, ‘Do you need me to come over?’ I responded, ‘Right, no tomatoes.’ He came right over. 

“Always have a code word in place with someone you can count on and be sure beforehand that they know where you are. If you are uneasy about meeting strangers, have them come into the office and tell them it’s procedure, and that they need to bring a copy of their license so you can photocopy it for their file.”

— Rhonda DeHaan, Keller Williams Realty Leaders, Schererville, Ind. 

Be on the Lookout for Clues

“I live and work in a rural area of Cochise County in southeast Arizona 40 miles north of the Mexican border, and we've been in the news lately because of illegal immigration issues and related violence. I have listings that are off the grid and well out of sight and sound of neighbors. There is no cell service either. 

“Of late, I've been taking extra precautions when checking a vacant property alone because illegals occasionally break into the buildings to escape the heat, rain, or cold, or to look for food and water. Most of these folks are just looking for a ride north to jobs or family, but there are some drug smugglers in the mix. 

“I always check the gate to see if it is still closed or chained exactly as I left it last time. I look for tracks or any bits of new litter as I approach a residence. And after parking, I look at all the door and windows through binoculars to inspect for signs of a break-in before even getting out of the car. 

“I look for signs of cut phone or electrical wires, water running, or a hose that's been unscrewed from a hose bib when previously it had been attached. 

“I've also lately been bringing a dog as he is good at detecting the slightest whiff or whisper of anything odd, and will let me know if someone is around. 

“I leave the keys in my unlocked car so that if I'm surprised, I can try to persuade someone to just get in the car and go and leave me alone. “I have a concealed weapons permit but I don't carry a gun (in the belief that it makes me a much more interesting prospect for an up-close encounter), but I do have some grizzly bear spray.” 

— Helen Snyder, Everett J. Jones Real Estate Inc., Douglas, Ariz. 

Watch for Distractions at Open Houses

“Last year I was holding an open house on my listing, and four women walked in and said they were sisters and looking for a home for their mother. Two of them walked out to the yard while I stayed with the others. 

“The two in the yard then called me outside because they had a few questions. When we walked back in, the gals stayed a little longer talking and asking more questions about the house. 

“It wasn't until the next morning that I noticed my debit card and a few dollars missing. They managed to spend a few hundred dollars before I canceled the card. I found out later that these ladies had been making the rounds around Las Vegas doing the same to other agents while sitting on their open houses. 

“Needless to say, I now keep my wallet in the trunk of my car. It also helps to do open houses in twos, especially when the home is lived in and has things to steal. This economy is bringing out the worst in people.” 

— Linda Powers, Specialists Real Estate, Las Vegas

Have a Back-up Plan in Case of Squatters

“I’ve walked in on squatters before, and it is scary. Now I call a friend and give them the address I’m going to with instructions to call me 10 minutes after I’m due to be there. 

“If for some reason I don’t answer, my friend is instructed to call 911 and give them the address.” 

— Stephanie Janeshak, Tarbell, REALTORS®, Eastvale, Corona, Calif.

Don’t Assume a Referral Is Always Safe

“I had a friend in the same agency who called the office and left a message with my broker about a guy who wanted to buy a business and was only in the area for the day. He arrived earlier than planned, and I did not have time to call my friend back to get any more details. He just showed up — dressed extremely well and driving a nice car. 

“We were going to visit a business. As we left the office to our cars, he came over to my car and asked if I was coming back to the office. Stupidly, because I did not feel threatened, I said ‘Yes.’ The next thing I know, he's in my car. 

“Whenever I'm with a man alone, I always keep something sharp, like a pen or a set of keys, in my hand in case I have to defend myself. 

“Since I was driving, I felt I had the advantage. I made up my mind that we would not go far. I wanted to stay in the trafficked and busy areas. I kept thinking if he tries anything, I'll ram my car right into another car on his side. At least I could jump out and run. 

“We went to the business, and I got information and we continued back to the office. I told him of a business I knew that may be for sale. He seemed very serious and wanted to go. I had to contact the owners first and he had errands to do, so we agreed that we’d meet up later in the day. 

“Later in the day, we met at the business with the owners. He talked forever and then started to spit out figures to these people that to me seemed unreal. I suggested we leave because the owners had other appointments. So he went his way, and I went mine. 

“The next day on the news, I see his face all over the TV. He robbed and kidnapped the owner of a convenience store a few hours away while I had been setting up the appointment to visit the owners of the business. 

“I get a call from the police who want to interview me to find out how I met this person. I filled them in and they were happy that nothing happened to me or the business owners. 

“This happened over a year ago and I remember it to remind me to check things out better. I would have called my friend who gave me the referral if he hadn't shown up so quickly. Because it was a referral, I felt I was OK. But a lot of the referrals she gives me she has never met either, so I know now to be more careful. 

“When sales are slow we all tend to jump at a sale, especially when it is mostly cash or all cash. Be careful — we need to be smarter than them.” 

— Kathy Copp, The Hamptons RE, Hampton Falls, N.H.

Take Extra Precautions With REOs

“I would often find myself working in depressed neighborhoods when I was dealing with a lot of REO business. I'd always make it a point to tell a family member and another agent where I was going. 

“My electronic key, supplied by GE/Supra, does have a ‘panic’ button on it that will dial several numbers and play a recorded message saying that you need help. Once again, it's important that someone know where you are so they can send the help to you. 

“I also make it a point to park my car in the street vs. a driveway so that it is easily spotted. And I go during daylight hours vs. night. “If for some reason I find the property unsecure, I call the local police department to come check the building to make sure there's no one inside. 

“I trust my instincts; there is no better warning than the ‘uh-oh’ feeling in your gut. But most importantly, I think there is no substitute for common sense.” 

— Michael Casey, Coldwell Banker Premiere Real Estate, Berlin, Conn.

Trust Your Hunches

“About two years after I got my license, I got a great new listing in a sweet little town about 20 minutes from my office. The property was a vacant estate. 

“A man called for information on the property, and there just was something ‘off’ about his questions, particularly how insistent he was to meet me at the property. So I arranged to have him meet me at my office, introduced him to our office manager, and told him it was company policy for me to see ID of any unknown person. 

“He showed me a Massachusetts license with the address scratched out and the name not matching his, and made some excuse about the mismatch. 

“Needless to say, I went nowhere with this person, reported the incident to our local board, and sold the property a few weeks later to a legitimate prospect. 

“In a separate incident, about a year later, I met a long-term client at my office at 10 p.m. to write an offer on a property we had seen earlier in the day. The client left, and I carefully locked up behind him, phoned the listing agent, faxed the offer, and took care of some details. 

“As I started to turn off lights and head down the stairwell to the parking lot, I got an unbelievably uneasy feeling and immediately went back upstairs. 

“Our office was located in a very low-crime area, the lot was well lit, and my car was just a few steps from the door under a light. [But] I am cautious and the feeling was so strong it was startling. 

“From an upstairs window, I saw nothing unusual in our lot, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I called the local police department and explained that I was working late and asked if there were any patrols in the area that could just come and watch me walk to my car. 

“The dispatcher sounded a little surprised but said there was one nearby, and he would have them drive over. The patrol car arrived in about two minutes and the officers put on their high beams at the entrance to the lot. “I stepped out, locked the door, walked across the lot, giving them a little ‘thank you’ wave, and got into my car under their watchful eye. I felt just a little silly for overreacting — that is, until I read the paper two days later. 

“The gas station abutting our lot was robbed at gunpoint the night after my scare. It is very likely the lot was being watched before the robbery. Later, I spoke with an officer who told me I did exactly the right thing. 

“He said that the police really prefer to prevent crime rather than clean up a crime scene. I would not hesitate a moment to call for an escort in the future!” 

— Anne Meczywor, Roberts & Associates Realty, Lenox, Mass.

Solicit Spousal Support When in Doubt

“I had a listing in a town about 15 miles from my home in a remote area. On a Saturday afternoon, I got a call from a man, asking for a showing of the house. He said, ‘I'll just meet you at the house.’ 

“I am a woman in my 50s, and he sounded about the same age. I made the appointment and found that the owners were out of town, so they would not be there. I was getting ready to leave to show the house, but decided to wake my husband up from his afternoon nap first and explain what I was going to do. He grabbed his 9mm handgun, which he has a carry permit for, and we went to the showing. 

“Everything was wonderful. The client was there with his wife and there were no problems. When I showed up with my husband, I just told the client that after we were done showing the house we were going to go out to eat. 

“The client apologized for meeting me at the house and realized, after his wife brought it to his attention, that he had made the appointment without mentioning his wife would be with him. But the caution I took made me feel more at ease.” 

— Vergie Scroughams, Century 21 High Desert, Rexburg, Idaho