'Safety Lessons That Saved My Life ...'

Real estate professionals share the valuable lessons they learned after encountering unsafe situations. Learn what they did to stay safe, and how you can too.

September 27, 2011

About 42 percent of female real estate professionals and 18 percent of male agents say they have “occasionally” felt unsafe in the course of their real estate job, according to an online survey of 450 real estate professionals conducted by Moby, a safety mobile app company.

Among the top safety concerns among real estate professionals are viewing vacant properties, hosting open houses, and showing short sale or foreclosed homes, according to the survey.

Recent headlines this year also serve as another reminder of the dangers that lurk, from a 27-year-old Iowa real estate agent murdered in a model home to an agent attacked at gunpoint and reports of robberies at open houses. The National Association of REALTORS® through its REALTOR® Safety Month, as well as local and state associations, are hosting seminars and offering resources and tip sheets to teach real estate professionals what safety precautions they can take when showing clients’ homes and conducting open houses.

A few real estate professionals share the dangers they’ve encountered and how they now take proactive steps to make safety a priority.

Speak Up

Ana Trinque, with Home Vizions Realty in Spring Hill, Fla., recalls an encounter in the early 1990s as a rookie real estate agent that forever changed her perspective on safety. A big focus of her job back then was reaching out to for-sale-by-owner listings. One day, she made contact with a FSBO who said he was tired of trying to sell his home himself. He asked her to come by to do a CMA on his home, which she agreed to.

“It turned out that he used the FSBO sign [on his property] to lure female agents who ‘sounded’ good to him by phone, and then once you were inside, he would attempt to attack you,” Trinque says. “I managed to run out of that house and get into my car and leave.”

Trinque was reluctant to report the incident, though, because she was scared it would turn into his word against hers, with no witnesses. But she was unable to shake the incident from her mind and her peers prompted her to notify the REALTOR® association, which in turn issued a warning to others on the MLS bulletin.

“It flushed out other women who had experienced the same thing,” Trinque says. “I am glad now that I did report it, but it was very upsetting. This experience early on in my career taught me to be very careful. I now Google people and always let someone know where I am and my schedule. I listen to my inner voice and have walked away from listings if I did not feel right about the person.”

Take Precautions Against the ‘Unknown’ Client

Sondra Sattani, with DPR Realty LLC in Scottsdale, Ariz., recalls a showing appointment she scheduled with a client to view a vacant REO property in Phoenix. Sattani arrived early, so she decided to go in and take a look around before her client arrived. She locked the front door behind her as she proceeded to view the interior of the home.

“I was on the second level when I heard the doorknob turning, and the sound of the doorknob and door being pushed back and forth,” Sattani says.  “I thought for a minute it may be my client, but why wouldn’t he just ring the doorbell?”

As she walked down the stairs, she peeked through the window blinds to see two men standing at the front door. She was initially unsure of how to react — what if they were able to push the door open? She couldn’t escape out the backyard since the yard had a 6-foot wall and a padlocked gate. Just then, her client arrived, driving up to the home, and the two men fled in a car.

“I now never enter a vacant home alone,” Sattani says. “I wait in my car for my clients to arrive. Sometimes it’s an unknown client that is the concern. These men must have seen me enter the home alone and tried to get in. Thankfully, nothing transpired, but I was definitely frightened enough to never do that again.”

Make a Phone Call to Safety

Sandra Ware, with Grubb & Ellis Co. in Wilmington, Del., was a rookie real estate agent in 1997 when she was asked to show a seasonal home near Rehoboth Bay.

“It was a walk-in client and I was doing floor duty,” she recalls. “I ended up transporting two men in my car. They told me that they lived in a group home in a nearby city. They claimed they wanted to buy a year-round mobile home in a resort area to gain their independence. They had chosen an older mobile in a seasonal neighborhood and had the ad in hand.” 

When they arrived at the home — which was in a deserted cul-de-sac — Ware sensed nervousness among the two men, which, in turn, made her uneasy. She told them to go ahead and look around the outside of the house, while she then went ahead and unlocked the vacant home for them.

Meanwhile, “I then called my office and told them to keep me talking and not to hang up,” Ware says. “I told them my exact location.” 

The two men asked Ware to show them the inside of the home, but instead, she told them to go ahead in, claiming she had to stay outside to take the phone call. She remained at the roadway entrance and stayed on the phone to her office the entire time.

“I firmly believe that the two men had planned this trip out in advance, with less than good intentions, although I had no firm evidence,” Ware says. “Having the cell phone saved me, and having another person stay on the line while I felt uncomfortable, made a huge difference for me and for my safety.”

Something Just Didn’t Feel Right

“We have instincts for a reason,” says Anne Meczywor, with Roberts & Associates Realty Inc. in Lenox, Mass. It’s her instincts that she believes helped her avoid a possible dangerous situation when working late at the office one night.

“I was writing an offer late one night and the buyers had left,” Meczywor recalls. ”Of course, I carefully locked the doors before I went back to fax the offer and call the listing agent. I got ready to leave — keys in hand — when I just didn’t feel right. From an upstairs window, I looked out across the parking lot and saw absolutely nothing unusual, but I couldn’t shake the feeling.”

Meczywor worked in an office building downtown and the parking lot abutted a gas station. She contacted the police department’s non-emergency phone number to ask if they had any patrols in the area that could swing by as she walked to her car, since she was alone and it was late at night. A patrol car arrived minutes later to escort her to her car.

“Two days later, the gas station was robbed at gunpoint,” Meczywor says. ”It is very possible the property was being watched by the robbers that night, but I have no way of knowing for sure ... thankfully.”

Seeing the Light

A few years ago, Gunna Voigt, with Coldwell Banker Frascatore Realty in Shelton, Conn., went on a showing appointment of a free-standing remodeling office building with two men she had never met before. The men were physically imposing, at 6’4’’ and more than 200 pounds each.

“Suddenly, the lights went out, and all you could see was the moon through the two skylights,” Voigt says. The situation had Voigt feeling uneasy and vulnerable, to say the least.

Through the dark, she then saw two hands raised in prayer and the men saying, “Praise the Lord, I can see the Lord!”

“It turned out the two clients wanted to rent the building to start a church,” Voight said, relieved at the time. “Lesson learned. Don’t go into vacant buildings with people you have never met before, especially after sunset.”

Being Proactive

After losing a coworker, Kathleen Cosner, with Cutler Real Estate in Kent, Ohio, never looked at safety on the job the same. In 2010, Cosner’s coworker Andy VonStein was shot in the chest and left in the basement of a vacant home after a former client perceived a deal having gone bad. That same week, in an unrelated incident, another real estate professional, Vivian Martin of Youngstown, was murdered while showing a property. The deaths reminded Cosner of the dangers that lurk.

She now uses safety mobile apps (see How to Use Your Smartphone as a Weapon) and she makes a point to look up people, phone numbers, and even companies prior to meeting with any client. She’ll copy driver’s licenses and write down license plate numbers, and on every showing, she’ll call someone from the road to let them know where she is and whom she is with. She’s taken safety and self-defense courses too.

“Some of these things may seem overreactive or paranoid-ish,” Cosner recently wrote in an article at AgentGenius. “If we have to be a little paranoid, if we have to take the time to research before rushing out and showing properties to people we don’t know, then so be it. Safety is no accident. Preventing even one violent crime is worth taking a few minutes to think about what we’re doing before acting.”