West Des Moines real estate agent Ashley Okland was alone at an open house for a new development in 2011 when someone walked in and shot her twice. Okland died from her wounds, but to this day the case remains unsolved and no one has been arrested.
The senseless killing reverberated through the industry at the time, but it was particularly hard on Jen Stanbrough, a fellow Des Moines agent and a friend of Okland. Stanbrough told Inman that after Okland’s murder, she began looking over her shoulder, suspicious of people in restaurants or who pulled up next to her in their cars. The incident shattered what Stanbrough described as her “false sense of security,” and it helped change the way she does business.
“Now I’m 100 percent referral based,” Stanbrough said. “I don’t do open houses.”
Agent safety has become an increasingly urgent topic of late thanks to a number of high profile, and in some cases deadly, incidents. Some incidents, including one in which a man used a stun gun on a female agent during an attempted sexual assault, have specifically happened at open houses. And that has prompted a debate — including in a recent Lab Coat Agents Facebook group post with hundreds of comments — over how to safely welcome strangers into a property and if agents ought to conduct open houses on their own.
Real estate experts said there isn’t one single answer when it comes to agent safety at open houses, but there are basic precautions that everyone should take. According to Carol Berberian — a safety trainer and consultant at Boston brokerage Lamacchia Realty — those precautions include meeting the neighbors before an open house, making sure that you can get cell phone reception inside the property and knowing local emergency phone numbers in advance.
Agents can also heighten their situational awareness and make sure that they’re physically located in a safe space. So, Berberian said, that includes for example agents ensuring that they are closer to a home’s exit during an open house than the people viewing the property. She also said agents should feel confident refusing requests that creep them out.
“It’s okay to say to somebody, ‘No, I won’t go to the basement with you, I’m going to stay here in the kitchen,'” Berberian said. “The thing you ever need to do if you’re caught in a house is create distance.”
Stanbrough, who since the killing of her friend has become a board member of safety group the Beverly Carter Foundation, also said that agents can deploy cameras during their open houses, then advertise to visitors “that the open house is being monitored.”
Some agents, including several who weighed in on the recent Facebook post, have also suggested carrying weapons. And indeed two armed agents restrained an intruder at a vacant property in Ohio last month. The case reignited the debate over agents carrying firearms while on the job.
Asked if agents should bring weapons to open houses, Berberian pointed out that there are “certain people out there who are very well qualified to be armed.” But she also said many agents also lack sufficient training and could run into trouble even with more basic defensive tools like pepper spray.
“You can very easily further incapacitate yourself by having something you don’t know how to use,” she said. “Most real estate agents are really good at selling houses, we’re not security guards too.”
So, in the end, is the best solution to just bring along a partner?
Berberian said that in many places that may not be entirely necessary. Open houses, after all, are usually conducted on weekends when neighbors are home and there’s still plenty of daylight. She also said that agents can take advantage of various messaging apps to have a kind of digital partner.
“Make sure people know where you are and who you’re with,” she added.
Other newer safety technology includes an alarm that attaches directly to a phone. The device is meant to alert bystanders to someone in distress.
Still, some agents do prefer to bring along another human being to open houses. Though the drawback to that strategy can be having to share leads, Alisia Krastel — an agent in Maryland who posted the recent Facebook question — noted that in her case she typically brings a loan officer to her (now relatively rare) open houses.
“They’re happy to help you and if it’s slow you can have a working meeting,” she said.
Dan Hughes, an agent in North Carolina, said his preference is also to take a lender along, adding that the only reason he would specifically bring another agent is “if you expect huge traffic or for the security of the property.” He also cautioned against fear and said that “on the whole, people are nice and life is good.”
“My basic thoughts on the subject are simply that there are lots of risks in life,” he told Inman. “Nothing is danger free.”
Whatever strategy agents opt for, however, industry professionals who spoke with Inman for this story said that safety should at least be a consideration at open houses, especially given agents’ greater potential exposure to threats today.
“I don’t know that it’s a more dangerous job now, but I think people have more access to know where we are,” Krastel said, referring to the tendency to post on social media. “We’re giving them more information.”
Stanbrough added that many agents may not be fully considering the potential risks they face while doing their jobs, though that may be changing as more incidents make headlines.
“No lead is worth your life,” Stanbrough said. “You can get a bazillion leads, but if you don’t come home at the end of the day they’re not going to do you any good.”
Update: This post was updated after publication with a photo of Jen Stanbrough. The post initially included a photo of a different agent with the same name.