Selling safely

Owners and agents should act to shut out criminals.

July 21, 2002|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For years, Allison Neal, a Re/Max agent in Columbia, has been selling homes. Now it's her turn to sell her own, and she's taking every precaution.

Valuables will be removed.

Only agents with qualified buyers will be allowed into the home.

"And I'll try not to be there when the house is shown. I'll get out," she said.

As an agent, Neal knows all about protecting herself, and about protecting sellers and their homes while they are being marketed.

She knows to check the doors and windows in her home after showings to be sure nobody has unlocked them for later entry.

She knows not to let someone inspect her home without an appointment, or while she's home alone.

And if she goes on vacation, she makes sure her agent doesn't inform potential buyers that she's out of town. Nor will she leave hints - such as piles of mail or newspapers - that she's away.

Though serious crimes stemming from the home-selling process are rare, agents can't ignore possible threats.

In 1993, a Howard County agent died after being beaten and raped while she was showing a home in the Hunting Ridge section of Baltimore, sending shock waves through the real estate community across the country.

In a similar incident in 1995, a paroled convict with a history of mental illness approached a female agent in a suburban New York neighborhood. He lured her to a home under the pretense that he wanted to put it on the market. He beat her and killed her.

Agents aren't the only ones at risk. Sellers also need to be wary. The Elizabeth Smart abduction case in Utah is sending out ripples. The Smarts' home was on the market when she was abducted, and her disappearance might not be related to the house deal, but aspects of the case show that opening one's home to strangers can be dangerous.

The main question is whether selling a house can be an invitation to predators. The answer is yes, especially when precautions aren't taken.

Local brokerages and trade associations have adopted tighter safety policies and guidelines to minimize the dangers to homeowners and agents.

Sellers and agents are demanding more verification and prequalification of potential buyers before they set foot inside a home. Many agents aren't willing to hold open houses, especially by themselves. Industry officials say the safeguards are working.

"Safety is better than ever now," said John Evans, chief operating officer at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. "As a company, we're teaching safety for new associates, just like we teach ethics."

Guidelines issued

The Maryland Association of Realtors, with 18,000 members, has issued detailed guidelines for sellers and for agents who deal with strangers every day.

"More Realtors are becoming concerned about it," said Debbie Hager, the association's director of communications, who wrote and issued an article on safety after the killing of the Howard County woman. "It's an important issue."

The National Association of Realtors has established detailed guidelines and produced a safety video. Real estate agents are educated on security issues before they get their licenses.

Though the Baltimore County Police Department doesn't separate statistics for crimes involving the real estate business, officials say it's not a significant trend.

"Theft [during open houses] is an issue, but I'm not aware that it's major," said department spokesman Bill Toohey. "Casing [of a home] could happen and probably does. People need to take the standard precautions and lock up. It's amazing the number of people who leave windows open at night."

Is this lack of a trend a surprise? Toohey says not really.

"A lot of agents are street-smart today. They understand what can happen. In that sense, I'm not surprised at the low levels," Toohey said.

"Security relates to the area where the open houses are held," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "Mostly, in good areas, crime is low to start with. And in most cases, several people are there. ... There are watchful eyes. It's not a vacant home."

Biggest temptation

Open houses are probably the most tempting for potential real estate criminals. Dozens of people can walk through at the same time without having to show identification. There is little control or oversight, so theft is a possibility.

Even if agents have a sign-in roster at an open house, there's nothing to prevent someone from using a fake name or refusing to sign in. That is the only precaution taken at open houses. No official identification is required, and no video cameras are used.

"It's a scary proposition today," said Rick Ray, a veteran agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. "I can't frisk them. They don't have to show me ID. And the registry ... you think they're going to write their real name? Some people don't like signing a registry and just put down `John Jones.'"

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