Realtors are mindful their job sometimes is a dangerous one

Main risk lies in meeting strangers at properties in isolated locations

November 23, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Real estate agents are no less vulnerable to crime than any other segment of the population.

In fact, the National Association of Realtors, which represents almost 1 million members nationally, is suggesting that agents are even more vulnerable.

"The risks Realtors face often have an impact with tragic consequences," said Cathy Whately, a past president of the organization. "Working with an unfamiliar person, in an isolated location, may potentially expose both male and female agents to life-threatening situations."

A 2003 association survey reports that one in every four Realtors said he or she had been involved in a dangerous incident on the job. The National Safety Council reports that six real estate practitioners lost their lives on the job in 2001, the last year for which statistics are available, according to Realtor magazine.

In 1997, Charlotte Fimiano, 40, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Bethlehem, Pa., was found murdered in a vacant house in Lower Saucon Township, Pa. She had gone to the house for an appointment. Her killer has not been caught.

In 1994, Sherry Lewis, an agent in Decatur, Ill., was strangled in a house after making an appointment with a person she had never met to show the property.

A possible link between the two killings was investigated, but nothing came of it.

"It has a sobering effect on us," said Joanne Davidow, who manages Prudential Fox & Roach's office in Philadelphia and has been selling real estate for 25 years.

Still, she noted that the kinds of things that happen to real estate agents happen to the rest of the population.

Frank McGuiork, a broker with ReMax Gold in Media, Pa., is a retired Philadelphia homicide detective who believes that real estate agents are more vulnerable than other people.

He recalls a case he handled in Philadelphia in which a man answered a newspaper ad for a car and was killed when he arrived at the house.

"Consider how often agents show up at listing appointments at houses for the first time," he said.

Because of his background, McGuiork is almost never rattled by such meetings. "I've met a lot of real kooks, too," he said.

In most cases, agents do not take the time to find out whom they are meeting, McGuiork said. "They just have no idea," he said. "To them, it's a lead, and in a highly competitive business, leads need to be followed."

Because the majority of agents are women, and with the competition for business so acute, "I'm surprised that there haven't been more incidents," he said.

No matter whom an agent is meeting, McGuiork thinks it is important for the agent to tell someone at the office where he or she is going.

"In a situation where you've never met the person, ask for that person's telephone number and leave it with someone else in the office," he said. "That way, you can confirm the caller's identity and give the police something to go on if anything happens."

John Duffy, owner of Duffy Real Estate in Wayne, Pa., and Narberth, Pa., said he always sends two agents to meet a client at a vacant house in an isolated area.

"I also make prospective clients come to the office first," he said.

This is not simply a safety issue but one to better gauge the clients' needs and prequalify prospective buyers for mortgages before showing houses they neither want nor can afford.

Yet Duffy will get calls from people wanting to meet an agent in front of a house.

"While the motives of the majority of prospects is understandable and easily explained, agreeing to do this is just asking for trouble," he said.

Unlike most agents, Duffy will not put up signs advertising an open house. "I want people we are marketing to come and look, not people off the street," he said.

Christopher J. Ryan, a broker with Prudential Fox & Roach in Philadelphia, agreed.

"I don't put out signs for the same reason," though "one school of thought suggests that you want to attract neighbors who might have a relative or friend who would be interested in the house," he said.

Ryan will not meet new prospects at listings, but it is not for safety issues.

"More often than not, I'll be left waiting at a corner for a no-show," he said. "If I had to choose between an open house on Sunday and showings the other six days, I'd always go with the open house."

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