Arizona agent Jon Mrgudich had been planning on touring a home listed on Opendoor with a buyer when he noticed something strange through a window. A child was running around the dining room while a woman looked on. Instead of buzzing the door open through an app on his phone, Mrgudich knocked — and promptly heard the sound of the lock clicking shut from the inside.
“I put one and two and three together and I go, ‘Alright we have a squatter here,'” Mrgudich, who works at West USA Realty in Peoria, Arizona, told Inman. “So I turn to my buyer and explain the safety issue briefly and suggest that we move on.”
The iBuyer model, which has grown in popularity for its convenience, has also posed new risks regarding squatters and people who enter the home to use drugs, party or engage in activities other than touring the home. Ever since Arizona police arrested a couple found squatting inside an Opendoor home with two children and a cache of drug paraphernalia in September, agents have been discussing safety issue they see with iBuyer homes.
Over the past four years, iBuyers have exploded in markets nationwide. Startups like Opendoor and Offerpad allow homeowners to unload their properties for an all-cash offer in exchange for a seller’s fee of approximately 7 percent.
Opendoor, which recently acquired a Georgia-based title and escrow company, currently operates in 20 cities and recently began providing home loans. Offerpad, meanwhile, has raised nearly $1 billion in equity and debt capital and hopes to operate in 30 cities by the end of 2020. Traditional real estate companies including Keller Williams and eXp Realty have also all launched their own instant-offer platforms.
Zillow Offers, another iBuyer platform, also operates nationwide and allows buyers to tour homes on their own through an app.
The iBuyer model has been particularly popular in states like Georgia and Arizona, where all of the major iBuyers have a presence.
With Opendoor, Offerpad and Zillow Offers, in particular, interested buyers can find for-sale homes near them through the companies’ apps and enter the property with or without an agent — either by entering a code on a front-door keypad or unlocking the home directly through a phone. All Offerpad homes currently have traditional lockboxes but some also have instant access through a phone code.
Heather Gearhart, an agent in Chandler, Arizona, recalled in a recent Facebook post seeing a key left inside the front door of an Offerpad home. Bob Hertzog, another agent in Arizona, said numerous agents across the state have been discussing the problems they encountered when trying to tour iBuyer properties.
In August, Hertzog entered an Opendoor-listed home with a buyer when a man with disheveled hair ran past them while incoherently mumbling something about wanting to buy the property. They toured the home anyway but, upon coming in, noticed that the protection preventing the air conditioner from being tampered with had been torn off.
“In Phoenix, it gets so hot that people living on the streets or people who don’t have a home definitely look at this like an opportunity to shack up for a while,” Hertzog told Inman, adding that he tried to call Opendoor to report the problem but gave up after sitting on hold for nearly 30 minutes. “We’re starting to see it more and more.”
iBuyers acknowledge that their homes pose a risk of attracting squatters. An Opendoor spokesperson told Inman that, upon receiving reports of someone in a home, the company will “immediately engage with any impacted customers, investigate and regularly refer matters to local law enforcement.” It also said it has home monitoring systems, security patrols and customer-vetting systems in place to minimize risk.
Offerpad, meanwhile, told Inman that “home sellers have always encountered the unfortunate risk of becoming a victim to vandalization or breaking and entering” but that the company is working on a new security system that, once in effect, will improve safety at its homes.
Nonetheless, agents who have encountered problems at these homes believe the companies’ screening systems aren’t comprehensive enough considering that anybody with a smartphone can claim to be an interested buyer in a bid to gain access. Hertzog said that without the traditional high-security lockbox agents use to enter an open house, no security system can deter people with bad intentions from seeking out the homes.
“It takes seconds to kill somebody or hurt somebody really badly,” Hertzog said. “They can sit there and say all day long that they have monitoring systems and things like that but it didn’t work in my case.”
Robert Siciliano, a cybersecurity analyst and chief security architect at ProtectNow, told Inman there is no such thing as a 100 percent secure empty home — but the text-to-open-home model has attracted a new type of squatter that is specifically looking for homes with full amenities that are easy to open.
“When you can get a code online and walk into a house, you’re going to see a whole new stream of squatters take advantage of the situation,” Siciliano told Inman. “What you’re going to see is serial squatters with full knowledge of how to game the system.”
At the same time, Siciliano advises agents who are entering any open house alone not to “trust that the company is managing that risk” but rather take their own precautions every time they enter a home, iBuyer or not. This includes doing a full scan of the property before going inside, having alarms and easy access to law enforcement ready on one’s phone and getting trained in basic self-defense skills.
Given iBuyers’ young age (Opendoor launched in 2013 and Offerpad launched in 2015), the high risk of squatters may be part of the growing pains they need to get through as the companies work out more sophisticated systems and learn how to weigh easy access against security. But, at least in areas where iBuyers are most prominent, some agents are only now figuring out how to keep themselves safe while touring the homes.
“We’re just holding our breath, quite frankly, and hoping that there’s no worst case scenario,” Mrgudich said.