As REALTOR® Safety Month comes to a close, real estate agents discuss how to play it safe year round.
Attending open houses, entering vacant properties or traveling to remote residences are among the situations that make real estate agents fear for their safety.
Thirty-eight percent of real estate professionals report having experienced a situation during which they feared for their personal safety or the safety of their personal information. Five percent indicate they have been victims of violent and other crimes while on the job, according to the National Association of REALTORS®.
While women are more likely to experience these situations, at 44%, a quarter of men say they also feared for their safety while working, according to the report. And agents experienced worrisome situations whether working in small towns and rural settings, or cities and suburbia.
“All it takes is once”
“… agents are vulnerable in the sense that they often go to a vacant home, a remote property or meet an unknown client at a home,” said Karen Trolan, assistant manager/broker associate, Alain Pinel REALTORS®, and 2016 president of the Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS®.
“Luckily, there is rarely an issue, but all it takes is once. An agent a few years ago was murdered in Arkansas. She did all the basic protection preparations right, but she needed more.”
Melissa Zimbelman, REALTOR®/broker-owner, Las Vegas-based LUXE International Realty, said safety awareness is a big issue for agents.
“I find that because we have to be so multi-task oriented, it is easy to forget to be paying attention to your surroundings and the safety of yourself and your clients,” Zimbelman said. “We are often talking to the clients about the properties, shuffling paperwork back-and-forth, fumbling around with keys and lock boxes and generally are not paying as much attention as we need to.”
Zimbelman said in Las Vegas, it is not unheard of to enter a house and find squatters there. She said she has shown properties to clients, in which they’ve encountered personal belongings and even people in houses that were supposed to be vacant.
“These people are not typically looking to hurt you, but may be startled or may not be clear-minded. And you and your clients need to clear out as quickly as possible to be safe,” she said. “Listing agents here are trying to do a better job of trying to make the house look like it may still be occupied, by putting lights inside on random vacation timers; having a stereo turned on; and by putting lock boxes in more inconspicuous places to try to avoid attracting would-be squatters/thieves.”
Zimbelman said another potentially unsafe situation for agents occurs when they don’t prequalify potential clients thoroughly.
“When a caller is asking to see a property with intensity or urgency and wants you to skip important steps, like getting all of their contact information, getting them in front of a lender [and] verifying funds to purchase or skipping the initial client interview process, there is a chance this is someone who intends to hurt you,” Zimbelman said. “If you follow the same protocol every time, you are likely going to ward off a potential bad guy who sees you are not a good target.”
Play it safe when you’re unsure
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage real estate agent Danielle Moy recalls feeling uneasy during an open house.
“Once, when I was showing a client’s open house, there were two people who walked in, and I couldn’t see them because there was a wall obstructing my view of the front door from the kitchen. They immediately walked upstairs, which was unusual because most people enter the kitchen first to introduce themselves and take brochures,” Moy said. “I didn’t want to go upstairs without knowing who they were. Especially in cases like this one, it’s always important to take precaution and not subject yourself to a potentially dangerous situation.”
Zimbelman has a safety policy in place for herself and the agents who work for her. It’s to be sure someone a fellow agent, a staff member at the office or a family member — knows who they are going to be out with and what properties they’ll be showing.
“That way, if there’s an issue, we at least know where to start,” she said. “I also recommend agents follow their gut – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t go, or bring someone with you to the appointment. Most times, if you say you are bringing a fellow agent, a would-be criminal isn’t going to show, saving you from a problem.”
Trolan, who teaches an annual self-defense course to REALTORS® in the Silicon Valley, said an agent’s vulnerability tends to peak when it’s dark because fewer people are around and it’s harder to see. That makes it difficult for people passing by to know anything might be amiss, she said. Even daytime in a remote area can be a problem because there’s no one to help, she said.
“We are most vulnerable in large homes, remote properties and vacant homes,” Trolan said. “At remote properties, no one will hear an agent screaming, plus it takes a while to get emergency services there. In a bad situation, time matters. At a large home, it is easier to trap an agent that isn’t paying attention and it is harder to hear anyone screaming. Vacant homes can be a problem since the assailant knows that no one is coming home.”
Emphasizing safety from the top
One potential concern is that only 44% of brokerages have known standard procedures for safety, according to NAR.
Coldwell Banker Real Estate does have standard safety procedures and encourages agents and brokers to put personal safety front and center, according to Charlie Young, president and CEO, Coldwell Banker Real Estate.
“While the Coldwell Banker brand encourages its agents and brokers to immerse themselves in the community, at the same time, we urge them to make personal safety the highest priority for themselves and their colleagues. Nothing is more important,” Young said.
In the name of safety, Charlie Young said Coldwell Banker recommends real estate professionals:
• Get to know their clients at the office. Collect personal information about them and create a record for the office. Introduce them to others in the office.
• Do not share too much personal information about themselves with clients or online. In this social media environment, personal information may seem ubiquitous, but agents should be careful about revealing personal details that may expose them or their families to risk.
• Share their locations and planned property showings, open houses or in-home appointments with colleagues, friends or family members to ensure that someone always knows where they are.
• Keep their phones handy during appointments or showings.
• Consider a distress code to use with their offices or a safety/tracking app to install on their phones.
• Schedule safety courses with the local police department or a vendor knowledgeable in personal safety and self-defense techniques.
More safety solutions
More than half of male and female real estate professionals carry a self-defense weapon. Sixteen percent of respondents carry a firearm, but the most common form of weapon for protection is pepper spray, according to the survey, which reflects responses from 3,277 NAR members.
Weapons aren’t the only form of self-protection. Forty-four percent of NAR members use a smart phone safety app to track their whereabouts and notify colleagues in the case of an emergency. The most commonly used app among REALTORS® is the Find My iPhone feature, according to NAR.
Moy said that before meeting someone new, she shares with her real estate partner and husband where she’s going to meet the person and any other important details.
“I also stay outside of the house in my car until they arrive. When I wait in my car, I can see them pull up and text my husband, so he knows they’ve arrived and the type of car they drive,” Moy said. “As another best practice, it’s better to follow behind the client when showing a listing so if something unexpected does occur, you’re in a safer position than if you had your back turned.”
Real estate agents should learn to protect themselves, even if they don’t consider themselves to be physically strong, according to Trolan. Even screaming at the top of one’s lungs can make an assailant freeze, she said.
“[Agents] should also consider how to break away from someone’s grip, a grab, a choke or even a pin on the ground. Even learning to stay on your feet is very helpful,” she said. “[Learn how to] avoid getting in the bad situation. Be aware and don’t get trapped. I feel very strongly that if you are trained, you won’t ever have to use it. Assailants go to easy targets.”
Guidance on safety is available
NAR, which designated September as REALTOR® Safety Month, offers safety webinars and more for members. The Women’s Council of REALTORS®, a NAR affiliate, endorses the NAR safety program as an all-encompassing resource for its members, according to Jeff Hornberger, CAE, CEO and executive vice president of the Women’s Council of REALTORS®.