Realtors in Danger
As a real estate professional, you can find yourself in some pretty compromising situations. We’ve got the scoop on how to stay safe and sell.
Andrea Lard, a Tampa Realtor at the time of this incident, received a call from a man claiming to be a former National Football League (NFL) player who was relocating to the area and opening a gym. After making an appointment to meet him at the gym, Lard did some quick online research and couldn’t find an NFL player with the same name.
“Red flags went up all around, so I asked another [sales associate] to go with me to the appointment,” Lard says. “When we arrived at the gym, the man introduced himself with another name. When I asked him about this, he got very defensive and asked why I had brought my ‘body guard.’ I said I wasn’t comfortable working with him and left.”
Later that day, Lard found a photo of the man with yet another name on the county sheriff’s website, noting he had a criminal record of assault and rape. She quickly passed along her information to the police, who confirmed the man was posing as someone else.
“I feel lucky that I listened to my instincts, did a little research and took another (sales associate) with me,” says Lard. “Since the gym was vacant, this could have been a very dangerous situation.”
In the early 1990s, Vern English’s business partner was showing a vacant home to a man and woman when the prospects pulled out a gun, robbed him and tied him to an interior column. “He was very lucky because another (sales associate) came by a few hours later and freed him,” says English, broker-owner of Keller Williams Realty in Palm Harbor. “Although he was a big guy, it doesn’t matter whether you’re large or small, male or female, if someone pulls out a gun.”
Don’t Be a Statistic
Many Florida real estate professionals have also experienced potentially dangerous or uncomfortable situations when showing properties, meeting customers or hosting open houses. Besides the threat of assault or robbery, there are other security concerns, such as staying safe online.
And safety doesn’t have to come at the expense of sales. In fact, the opposite is true, according to Susan Fraser, a sales associate with Watson Realty’s Mandarin North office in Jacksonville. “When I get a call from someone I don’t know, I refer them to Watson’s mortgage company to get them prequalified. I also have them come into my office, where I can start building rapport—and check them out in person—before taking them out in my car. I don’t want to drive around with someone who might be dangerous.”
Here are some common practices and tips on how to stay safe while doing business.
Hosting Open Houses
When hosting open houses, Jeanne Corbin, a sales associate with Venice Real Estate Company in Venice, welcomes the neighbors and encourages them to linger as strangers arrive. Since there’s no telling who will walk into an open house, she takes precautions to protect herself as well as the seller’s property.
“My purse and other valuables are locked inside my car while I’m on open house duty,” she says. “I know the location of the possible exits, and I make sure they’re unlocked.”
After an unsettling experience with two young men who came through a town home she was showing, Maxine Robbins, a sales associate with The Keyes Company in Hollywood, never holds an open house alone. “I realized the potential danger from the ‘vibe’ of these two men,” she says. “I stood by the front door ready to flee if necessary.” Fortunately, the two visitors left without incident.
“Even working with a partner, I use extreme caution, because we’re vulnerable in this business,” Robbins says. “Any legitimate seller or buyer appreciates the caution that I employ in my business practice, and that kind of care permeates my real estate practice.”
Being safety conscious is particularly important for real estate professionals and their customers when touring listed properties. Experienced real estate professionals advise sales associates to leave an itinerary and timetable in the office before going out to show a property. Take along a cell phone and don’t wear expensive jewelry or carry an expensive pocketbook or wallet that might make you a robbery target. If showing a vacant property after dark, you might want to take along a spouse, friend or associate for additional protection.
Three years ago, a sales associate in Flagler County showing a property was robbed of her jewelry, tied up and left in a closet for several hours. Fortunately, the man who attacked her was arrested and convicted, and her stolen jewelry was recovered, according to Ric Giumenta, broker/owner of Exit Realty First Choice in Palm Coast.
“Many times we add to the risk of becoming a victim by wearing expensive jewelry or ignoring our surroundings,” says Giumenta. “The bad guys notice these things, so they’ll choose another target.”
Today, many Florida real estate companies provide safety awareness guidelines for their sales associates. “At Watson Realty, we take down the car’s license tag, as well as copy the driver’s license and note the address of the property,” says Fraser. “That way, if something happens in the field, the office can call the police and give them the address, license tag and a picture of the sales associate from our files.”
Giumenta, who teaches a course in sales and safety skills at his Giumenta School of Real Estate, recommends the following practices:
1. Never have a first meeting with a customer at a property.
Always meet customers in the office, where you can introduce them to the broker, manager or other colleagues. If you must, meet them at a public place to introduce yourself and conduct a buyer interview.
2. Leave an itinerary with the office.
Let someone know what houses you will be viewing—and be sure the customer knows there is a schedule you’ll be following.
3. Carry a cell phone.
Stay in contact with someone while you’re out in the field.
4. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or carry several credit cards.
Carry only a small amount of cash or one credit card, and have a key ring with just your car key and lockbox key on it.
5. Use your own car.
Be in control of the presentation and be the guide. If a customer wants to drive, have him or her follow you. And don’t park where you can be blocked in.
6. Always enter through the front door.
If you have to use a side door, have the customers wait at the front door and let them in that way.
7. Inside the house, stay between the customer and an exit.
Don’t ever walk into a room first. It’s safer and a better experience for the customer.
8. Have a secret code.
Create a code word or phrase to let your colleagues know that you’re in need of help. Then, if you feel threatened, you could call your office and say, “Could you please call Mr. CODEWORD to cancel my appointment?” This let’s the office know that you need help without giving any indication to the listener.
9. Carry pepper spray if it’s legal in your area.
This may be used for defense from animals, snakes or any predators and give you time to get to safety.
Make Safety a Priority
“We’ve had a (safety) program in Flagler County since 1992,” says Giumenta, who is also a former New York auxiliary police officer. “If the police have information about a crime, they tell our association, and if our associates see anything out of the ordinary, they call it in. It’s a good program, and it’s working well for us.”
As Debbie Smith, broker of Home Run Real Estate Inc. in Greenacres, says, “I teach my [sales associates] that no sale is worth taking a chance,” she says. “Safety first, last and always.”
Richard Westlund is a Miami-based freelance writer.