Brokerage

When it comes to agent safety, real estate industry will just have to place its bets on education

Why agents aren't being required to vet strangers before meeting them for the first time

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Do not expect real estate agents nationwide to be required to vet strangers before meeting them in homes anytime soon. Realtor associations and multiple listing services are betting on education, not mandatory policies, to boost agent safety.

In the wake of the kidnapping and slaying of Arkansas real estate agent Beverly Carter, some have called for MLSs and associations to institute “rules of engagement” for dealing with prospective clients in order to standardize protocols and get all consumers in a market to accept that agents will not show homes without knowing who they are.

The 1 million-member National Association of Realtors is developing a safety program set to launch by Jan. 1. As part of the program, NAR is considering  putting a national policy in place for steps to take before showing a property to strangers, but has not yet decided how far it wants to go with creating such a policy, said Chris Polychron, NAR’s new president.

Members will not be required to follow the policy, and the trade group doesn’t plan to include repercussions for those who do not participate in the program, he said.

“We will have a policy in writing,” but NAR hopes to raise awareness without a mandate, Polychron said.

“Hopefully, it will be a general policy that all offices will follow,” he added.

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Polychron has made improving Realtor safety one of his top three goals for 2015.

“As an association, we are certainly fully committed to member safety and continuing to educate Realtors because there are threats out there. We are hoping to add more resources that will help them protect themselves,” he said.

By boosting awareness, “we hope we can eliminate every potential threat,” he said.

Legal implications

NAR has not considered mandating national safety measures, said NAR Associate Counsel Jessica Edgerton. But if NAR were to try to mandate a national policy, state and local laws would come into play, she said.

“From that perspective, it may make more sense for policy measures to be looked at at more of a local scale. But that’s not an impediment to the guidance that I think President Polychron and NAR can offer,” she said.

In a nine-minute video released at the end of October, Edgerton emphasized that members should check with state and local counsel to make sure that their safety policies are in compliance with state and local regulations. For instance, states have different rules about carrying firearms or pepper spray.

Independent contractor laws also vary by state. “Brokerages should always be cognizant of the amount of control they are exerting over their agents from an independent contractor standpoint,” Edgerton said.

June Barlow, vice president and general counsel for the California Association of Realtors, noted that independent contractor status does inhibit brokers from exercising control over the specific actions of  licensees unless required by law.

“We are unaware of any law that requires such safety measures to be implemented by sales associates,” she said.

But she doesn’t believe that is the main reason education rather than requirements have become the industry’s chosen tack when it comes to agent safety. MLSs and associations enforce rules having to do with business, she said — it is the agents themselves who have the most to gain from following safety measures.

“You typically put a rule in place where there’s no self-interest in doing it,” Barlow said.

“[P]rudence and self-preservation interests should be compelling enough for them to act on their own to take measures for their own safety. Fear of harm is much more effective than any specific MLS or association membership sanctions would likely be.

“I suspect that is why most associations have taken an educational role instead, using their communications to get the word out,” she added.

Moreover, she didn’t see how mandatory policies would be enforced. She doubted associations or MLSs would be willing to level fines for not being safe.

“If someone foolishly put themselves at risk, you’re going to fine them? It’s kind of their risk to take,” Barlow said.

The role of MLSs

Most MLSs Inman contacted for this story said they focused on education and left it up to their broker members or shareholder associations to create safety policies.

“Our role as an MLS has been in helping to increase awareness about Realtor safety. We support NAR and the associations in helping to promote safety tips and advisories,” said MLSListings President and CEO Jim Harrison.

“It’s not within the MLS role to create policy for brokerage business practices, but we encourage all brokers and agents to take the issue seriously and take the extra time and steps to insure they are safe in their work. ”

Midwest Real Estate Data LLC (MRED) said safety education for real estate professionals has traditionally been the province of its association partners.

“MRED does not have any specific safety policies or rules in place,” a spokesman said. But “on a board level, should the issue be brought to the table, our leadership would be open to taking some type of action consistent with the close working relationship we have with our partner associations.”

Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. (MRIS) offers members education, but is also currently working with real estate mobile app company Homesnap to develop security tools for the brokers and agents in the field, a spokeswoman said.

Liability issues

Brokers, associations and MLSs that offer safety tools to agents should take appropriate steps to protect themselves from liability, NAR’s Edgerton said.

She advised brokers to make sure any trainers hired are properly certified and insured; that third-party contracts include appropriate indemnification clauses; and that anything offered complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and makes accommodations for agents with special needs.

Also, any policies or procedures put in place must be implemented across the board, Edgerton said.

“So if you ask for ID from one person, you ask for ID from anyone, for example. Discrimination would be an issue that could come up,” she said.

NAR’s upcoming safety program

NAR’s program will include an optional three-hour continuing education course that states will be encouraged to offer. In part, the course will recommend safety apps and tools for agents, but NAR does not plan to publicize the tools for fear of alerting potential perpetrators, according to Polychron.

The program will also provide safety tip cards agents can carry when showing homes and articles warning of the dangers of holding open houses alone.

Most Realtors are aware of safety measures they should take when meeting strangers, Polychron said. So why don’t they?

“Comfort level. Nothing happens for years. There’s not a Beverly Carter case. We get lax. I’m guilty myself,” he said.

“I had a cold call at my office on one of my listings. Went out to meet the guy and had no clue who it was. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have had that person come to the office. I should have qualified who it was.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that NAR has not considered mandating national safety policies.