Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a three-part series focusing on the personal safety of real estate agents. This first article in the series focuses on best practices to observe while conducting open houses. Part II will examine statistics and surveys on violent crime in the real estate industry, and regulatory efforts to improve licensing requirements and weed out criminals. Part III will highlight lessons agents have gleaned from personal experiences with potentially dangerous situations.

In February, a real estate agent in Ottumwa, Iowa, was assaulted and tied up when she arrived at a home for a scheduled showing appointment. Her attackers robbed the home, according to news reports. Two months later, some 90 miles away in West Des Moines, 27-year-old Ashley Okland was fatally shot in the head and chest while working at a model home. The crime remains unsolved.

“Prior to Ashley’s (killing), we had (begun) to talk about Realtor safety and distributed safety materials to our members. This was in response to the Ottumwa, Iowa, agent being assaulted,” said Les Sulgrove, president of the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors.

“It still never hit home that it could happen to us.”

In response to the attacks, the Iowa Association of Realtors invited safety instructor Andrew Wooten to conduct safety seminars throughout the state earlier this month.

Wooten is a certified crime prevention practitioner and president of workplace safety firm Safety Awareness Firearms Education (SAFE). He has worked with real estate professionals for 25 years and has partnered with the National Association of Realtors as a safety trainer.

The bulk of his customers are real estate associations and large brokerages such as Coldwell Banker and Century 21, he said.

In 2003, major franchisor Re/Max established its own safety program, Safety Awareness for Every Realtor (SAFER), after the murder of a young sales associate in British Columbia. The program includes live sessions, online video streams, satellite broadcasts and DVDs, the company said.

A survey from Moby, a company that develops personal safety mobile applications, found that the majority (61 percent) of more than 450 surveyed real estate professionals report that their office, firm, or local or regional association offers safety presentations at least once a year. The rest said they were never offered safety training.

According to the survey, nearly 42 percent of respondents said it was the responsibility of every organization in the real estate industry to provide safety training for its agents.

Moby is one of several safety apps now available on smartphones. The free app allows users to alert chosen contacts with their GPS location should users need assistance. The app is available on the iPhone and BlackBerry platforms.

Thus far, Moby has partnered with the Iowa Association of Realtors, the Michigan’s MiRealSource multiple listing service, the Women in Default Services trade association, and franchisor Keller Williams Realty to promote the app to their respective members and agents.

Similar apps include Real Alert, a $1.99 iPhone app developed by Austin real estate agent Michelle Jones, and FORSSE, a subscription-based app available on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smartphones.

Being a real estate agent can be risky

Because a significant part of being an agent involves attracting and meeting with strangers, at least initially, real estate professionals are more vulnerable to criminals than those in many other professions.

“Anybody who works with the general public faces a higher degree of victimization than somebody who’s in the office all day,” Wooten said.

Much of his advice comes from insights he’s gleaned from interviews with both rape survivors and prison inmates who have attacked agents, he added. His No. 1 piece of advice? Trust your gut.

“Ninety-nine percent of all my survivors all say the same thing: ‘Andrew, I knew something wasn’t right. When I was doing the open house (I heard) that little voice. I didn’t feel good. But I ignored it,’ ” he said.

“Listen to yourself, trust yourself. Unfortunately, the little voice … may be the only warning sign you get. If it says, ‘Something’s not right,’ get out.”

One of the best safety precautions agents can take is to preview a property and its neighborhood before doing a showing or an open house, he said.

Introduce yourself to the neighbors, check for cell phone reception, notice any animals around, look around the house for possible hiding places for criminals, and visit the local police and fire substations and tell them you’ll have refreshments if they should stop by, he advised.

Even if an agent doesn’t have time to preview the house or neighborhood beforehand, Wooten offers 10 safety precautions agents can take on the day of the open house.

These tips are presented in a safety video offered in a Realtor Safety section of the Realtor.org website:

1. Park where you cannot get blocked in. Agents are most afraid when they are walking back to their car after an open house, Wooten said. Therefore, take a few minutes to make sure you have a clear line of sight to your vehicle.

“Before you exit your car, look around. Can you see the front door? Are there trees or shrubbery within 10 feet that can serve as a hiding place? When getting out of the car, keep looking around. When you get to the front door, turn around and walk back — are there places where someone could surprise you?” Wooten said.

2. Meet the neighbors. There’s safety in numbers. Introduce yourself, point out your car, and invite the neighbors over to the open house.

“Meeting the neighbors will drive people to the home and is a great source of referrals,” Wooten said.

3. Advise clients about valuables. Thefts often result in lawsuits against agents, Wooten said. To forestall this, develop a list of valuables clients should put away before an open house, including mail, jewelry, prescription drugs, extra sets of keys, and financial statements, among others.

Then, because clients likely “won’t listen” otherwise, get to the property an hour before the open house is scheduled to start and do a walk-through with the clients to point out what they need to secure, Wooten said.

4. Be aware and work in teams. The No. 1 place where agents are attacked during an open house is the front door, partly because lockboxes take time to open, Wooten said. If you are alone, turn your back against a wall to avoid being attacked from behind.

Company is better, however. Sign up your affiliates, such as a home inspector or title officer, to sit the open house with you.

“Not only will they jump at the opportunity, they will bring goodies and giveaways,” Wooten said.

5. Establish your escape routes. Walk around the house and notice how to get in and out of rooms. If there is a fence in the backyard with a gate, unlock the gate for easy exit. As another escape route, open the garage door but lock the door leading to the inside from the garage. Direct clients to the front door with signs.

6. Set up for safety. Hang decorative bells behind every outside door that you have unlocked. These will alert you whenever someone enters the house. Do not bring your laptop to an open house. Not only can it be easily stolen, but signing on to someone’s unsecured wireless network can open you up to identity theft.

Carry only what you need — purses go in the trunk of your car before you leave your house, not when you arrive at the open house. Finally, when picking a room to wait in during the open house, pick the one with the most cell service and with escape routes.

7. Check out your guests as they arrive. As soon as someone comes in, jump up, introduce yourself, and direct guests to a sign-in sheet.

“This is your time to do a ‘checkup from the neck up,’ ” Wooten said.

“Ask yourself, ‘Is this someone I’m comfortable with? Do I want to be alone with this person?’ If not, enlist your support team. Make sure there are others around you as you work with this person.”

8. Never, ever turn your back on a prospect. Let prospects walk in front of you. If a man says, “Ladies first,” to a female agent, the agent should say something like, “You are such a gentleman, thank you. But I really want you to see this home, and if I can direct you where to go, I think you’ll gain a further appreciation for this home.”

Both men and women can be violent, so this advice applies regardless of the visitor’s gender, Wooten said.

9. Never go into certain rooms. When showing visitors around, never go into rooms with no escape routes. These include walk-in closets, bathrooms and laundry rooms, among others. Instead, direct visitors to those rooms.

10. Close up in teams. Openings and closings are the most dangerous times during an open house, Wooten said. Often, there is another agent down the street also doing an open house. If you’re alone, lock up your house, go over to the other agent, and offer to walk through his or her house and close it up with him or her and then both of you can go over to your house to do the same.

Working in teams applies to both men and women, Wooten said.

Wooten said that inmates who have attacked agents have said, “Regardless if they’re male or female, if there’s one agent in the open house working (alone) I know I’ve got (that agent). But if there are two or more, I’m out of there.”

Crimes happen to men as much as they happen to women, Wooten said, though there are some differences. Women are more often stalked than men are, and stalkers tend to get violent at the intended victim’s home. Therefore, Wooten advises agents to heed his “three L’s for home safety“: locks, lighting and landscaping.

1. Locks: Install anti-bumping deadbolt locks on all doors. (Lock bumping is a lock-picking technique.)

2. Lighting: Install motion-detector lighting outside all four sides of the home, and install timers for interior lights so that the home appears occupied even when it is not.

3. Landscaping: To prevent criminals from using them as hiding places, trim shrubs to a maximum height of 3 feet and cut trees so they hang no lower than 10 feet from the ground.

Men are more likely to be attacked in parking lots, Wooten said. He advises agents to look around them as they walk. Whether or not they see someone who is hiding from them, “the perception is that ‘I see you.’ (Criminals) want the element of surprise,” Wooten said.

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