Lock Boxes Play Key Role

November 01, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

An electronic keypad about the size of a credit card rests in Warren Tunkel's palm.

In a scene reminiscent of the TV show, "Mission Impossible," he plugs the keypad into a heavy metal box coated with gray, rubberized plastic. After Mr. Tunkel punches in a secret code, a red light blinks and a spring-loaded shelf pops out of the bottom, revealing a space for a house key.

The contraptions are electronic lock boxes, a relatively new security system for people trying to sell or rent their homes through real estate companies. The new boxes replace an older system of metal boxes accessible through thousands of master keys.

In the past several weeks, the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service has distributed more than 8,500 of the boxes to real estate agents throughout the Baltimore area.

"It was a massive undertaking," said Mr. Tunkel, executive vice president of the service.

Soon, the boxes will hang from the doorknobs of almost every house, condominium and apartment listed by agents in the Baltimore real estate market.

Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service is a real estate trade association for the Baltimore area that provides computerized listings to 7,000 members. The purpose of the lock box system is to allow any member agent to show any house to a potential customer.

The risk under the old system was that if a burglar stole a master key, a crime spree could follow.

Last summer, agents in Baltimore got a glimpse of what could happen when, in a three-week period in Washington, two agents lost their master keys while being robbed at gunpoint during carjackings. The D.C. Association of Realtors quickly switched from master keys to electronic codes.

Central Maryland Multiple Listing and its member boards in the neighboring counties had studied the electronic lock box market for years. About 500 master keys were unaccounted for in the existing service's system. Although Mr. Tunkel attributed the majority to agents who had retired without returning them, it seemed like time for a change, he said.

"The handwriting was on the wall," said Nick Tsottles, president of the listing service.

The new system, which is already used by about 60 realty boards from Los Angeles to Syracuse, N.Y., offered many advantages, Mr. Tunkel said. If a keypad is lost, it is useless without the code. Moreover, the code changes monthly. An agent must call a computer and punch in his personal identification number to receive the new one.

The electronic lock box is also like a nosy neighbor. It stores information about which agents have entered a residence and when. If a door is left ajar or an appliance is missing, the lock box can show who was in the home last.

The lock boxes are made by Supra Products Inc. of Salem, Ore., and cost the listing service about $75 each. Of the 8,700 distributed, 12 have broken, Mr. Tunkel said.

The reaction from real estate agents has been favorable.

"I think it's a very positive move, and all our agents seem to feel the same way," said Norma Judd, manager of the Coldwell Banker realty office in Columbia.

The only snag at Ms. Judd's office came when a broker forgot to update her access code and couldn't get into a house. She solved the problem quickly by borrowing another agent's keypad, Ms. Judd said.

Agents at Diana Realty Inc. in Bel Air picked up their lock boxes two weeks ago and haven't had time to draw conclusions, said owner Anthony R. Diana.

Mr. Diana and Ms. Judd said they had used the old master keys for years without any problems but thought the new system would give homeowners more peace of mind.

"I think it provides a much greater degree of security," Mr. Diana said.

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