Wary real estate agents beefing up safety efforts

December 24, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Real estate agents who work the Baltimore metropolitan area -- from the toughest city neighborhoods to the most serene of suburbs -- know that showing empty homes to strangers can be risky business.

Still, the beating death this week of a real estate agent while she was showing a house in Hunting Ridge jolted fellow sellers with a heightened awareness of how vulnerable they can be -- and has them rethinking the way they sell homes.

Agents said the death of Lynne McCoy, a 57-year-old agent with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in Columbia, would prompt them to take more precautions when showing properties.

Mrs. McCoy's body was found in an upstairs closet by owners of the two-story, brick house on Glen Allen Drive less than an hour after they left her with a potential buyer who had requested a second look upstairs. Mrs. McCoy's Chrysler New Yorker was missing.

Agents -- many of whom said they knew Mrs. McCoy, who had been with the real estate agency for 20 years -- said they would be less tempted to cut corners on safety in their eagerness to make a sale.

"The problem is, you're trying to sell a product and do whatever it takes to sell a product," said Doug Schopman, an agent for more than four years with Century 21 Forty West in Ellicott City, even if that means meeting someone at an empty house rather than at the agency first.

"Sometimes people just want to take a look at a house. They don't want to bother with the office. But I think people are going to be a little more cautious in the way they show homes."

Agents said they also might be more cautious in conducting open houses, possibly by arranging to have another agent on hand.

"This will make people realize that price range and area are not factors in whether or not you should think about safety," said Chris Raborn of RE/MAX Greater Metro in Baltimore County, who said she once ran away after a customer backed her into a corner in a $200,000 house she was showing in Federal Hill.

Ruth Eve of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty in Phoenix in Baltimore County said she tries to schedule daytime, rather than evening, appointments, leave itineraries with her office and confirm potential buyers' phone numbers. She even carries a portable phone when showing vacant homes.

Although safety policies vary among agencies and offices and among individual agents -- who are independent contractors, not employees -- most agents follow similar, common-sense guidelines.

Agency managers and trade association safety courses make several recommendations, among them that agents:

* Meet buyers initially at an office rather than at a property, especially a vacant home.

* Arrange for someone from the office to call the property and check up.

* Carry beepers or portable phones.

* Bring someone else along to the property if a situation appears unsafe.

"In the inner city, you're always wary of people, especially when you're in crime-ridden areas showing investment properties," said Ed Chase of Inner Harbor Realty. "Working the streets of the city, you have to be."

Agents in the suburbs need to be equally wary, said Joe DeLuca, sales manager at Long & Foster in Eldersburg in Carroll County.

"We're going to have to do something," he said. "I'll be more adamant about meeting people here first rather than at the property," to allow agents to get information on prospective buyers.

Meeting customers at the office and encouraging agents to bring someone else -- a spouse or friend, for example -- with them to open houses have been official policies at Century 21 Forty West for a year, said broker Cindy Durgin. "Yes, we do lose some buyers, but I'd rather be safe than sorry," she said.

Sympathy calls from people in the real estate industry have poured in to Kenneth M. Steil, a principal with American Properties Inc. and president of the Howard County Association of Realtors.

Mr. Steil said it appears that Mrs. McCoy took precautions, showing the home in the quiet, middle-class community with the owners present initially.

"There are risks in this profession we face every day," he said. "From what we know, she didn't do anything wrong. She followed the guidelines. This is kind of a wake-up call."

"Unfortunately, we are living in terribly violent society," said Nancy C. Hubble, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "The tragic thing is someone won't just steal your car, they have to take your life."

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