After Arkansas real estate agent Beverly Carter vanished while showing a home to a prospective buyer in 2014, the National Association of Realtors bumped up its efforts to keep agents safe.
“It was such a high-profile situation that it raised the consciousness of a lot of Realtors,” said Anne C, Rendle, CEO of the 3,700-member Delaware Association of Realtors. “We’ve been talking about safety since I arrived in 1985, but the consciousness has been raised to a much higher degree.”
Carter, an attractive 50-year-old blonde, made the headlines, but 17 other agents were victims of on-the-job homicides in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A National Association of Realtors survey found 96 percent of agents who responded have never been the victim of a crime, but one-third carry a self-defense weapon and two-fifths have found themselves in situations where they feared for their safety or the safety of their personal information.
When Bill Lucks, manager director at Keller Williams Commercial in Lewes, taught a safety class last year, 35 agents showed up. Many were male. “If you look at the statistics, it’s not just female Realtors who are running into problems,” he said. “It’s everybody.”
From brokerages to county associations to the DAR to the NAR, the real estate industry is being proactive, so it doesn’t get caught flatfooted.
The agents at Patterson Schwartz in Middletown end their monthly meetings with a reminder to keep safe, and agents like Peggy Sheehan pay attention. “I used to carry a taser,” she said. “It died.”
She’s learned how to derail a sticky situation: “If they want to see the basement, I don’t even go down with them. I say I’ve got bad knees.”
Selling real estate is a Goldilocks task – agents need to be welcoming to potential buyers but mindful of their own personal safety.
“You always have it in the back of your mind,” Sheehan said. “I can’t say that I’ve ever had an incident where anything bad happened, but I can say on two occasions I’ve been afraid. When I have that situation, I let them go through the house and I remain by the front door. I won’t follow them.”
Many agents, male and female, heed the warning in the first sentence in the National Association of Realtors’ safety book: “Every day, real estate agents put themselves at risk.”
Lois Dolby’s job as an agent for Coldwell Banker in Bethany Beach often lands her on deserted streets in the wintertime. Last month, when she went by a vacant house in 12-degree weather and noticed the door was wide open, she didn’t venture in. It turned out the wind blew the door open, but Dolby’s learned not to take chances.
Selling real estate since 1969, she’s found plenty of workarounds. “You used to get in the car with them or they got in the car with you. We changed a lot of that,” she said. “People have gotten a little bit smarter. Now we know we can’t judge a book by its cover. Now, If someone wants to see the cellar, I say, “I know the cellar. Go down and stay as long as you like.’”
She doesn’t do winter open houses: “You don’t get that much traffic through them. It’s usually in the paper, so anyone can drive up. I just don’t feel it’s a wise thing for women to do because you might be sitting in a house alone, and, because it’s a beach house, there’s nobody on the street period.”
Lorraine Sheldon, a commercial agent with NAI Emory Hill Real Estate Services in New Castle, might be showing an empty warehouse or a 50-acre tract on an average workday, but a partner always has her back. “Problems are very few and far between because we don’t put ourselves into a dangerous situation,” she said.
Aware they are in an industry where things could break badly, almost half the commercial real estate agents who belong to the Delaware Real Estate Women turned out for a self-defense course offered last year. The instructor introduced the women to a phone app that tracks agents’ whereabouts and taught them how to go at a man holding a gun.
About 13 percent of agents use a phone app to track their whereabouts and tip colleagues to a problem, and they typically meet prospects they don’t know at a neutral location, according to the NAR.
Like most agents, Will Webber of Will Webber Homes advises his sellers to pack a to-go kit with their personal information, jewelry, firearms and other valuables, and move it out of the house during showings. He was glad he did when four people showed up at the door of a house he was showing one day. They mumbled answers to his questions, never made eye contact, then walked in four different directions. .
Webber stayed by the door and took down their license plate number. The homeowner didn’t notice any missing items, he said.
Robert F. McVey Jr., president of the Delaware Association of Realtors and owner of Mann & Sons in Rehoboth Beach, said the state association offers a safety course at its annual convention but most Delaware agents take courses through their county associations. “The NAR is really promoting safety, and, as a professional organization, we’re trying to promote that all the way down the chain,” McVey said.
Some brokers sponsor their own safety programs. McVey’s firm hosted a two-hour safety class recently. He said none of his 57 agents have ever come to him with a problem beyond a strange buyer, but it is harder to discern when a bad guy is masquerading as a customer now that so many buyers texts and emails to phone calls and face-to-faces.
“Safety has been an issue for years. Where I worked in Massachusetts, one of our members when I was up there had been killed, and they had a scholarship in her name. It’s not a daily occurrence or anything like that, but it’s been a continual problem since I entered this industry in 1985,” the DAR’s Rendle said. “Beverly Carter’s murder in Arkansas really heightened the awareness that we have to do better than we have. It’s always been a priority, but, now, it’s even more heightened.”