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Old 05-14-2006, 05:03 PM
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Post In real estate industry, agent safety is a selling point

CHICAGO On the rare occasions when real estate agent Lanora Walker agrees to hold open houses for her clients, she gets there early and hides the knives.

"I put all the sharp objects, all the knives, underneath the bed," said the Lansing agent. "I put away fingernail files and nail clippers."

Walker is adamant about not becoming a crime victim on the job. She prefers not to host open houses because she doesn't like the idea of being in a vacant home with a sign in front that invites strangers to come in off the street.

When she goes to an appointment with a potential client, Walker checks for the person's name in a sex-offender registry. She diligently informs her office of her whereabouts every minute of her workday.

Paranoia? Probably not.

In the realm of "dangerous jobs," being a real estate agent hardly carries the risk factor that, say, driving a taxi does. But beneath the smiles and salesmanship, some agents feel unease.

In 2003 and 2004, 42 realty and apartment-leasing agents and managers died from violent attacks on the job, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The rate of crime doesn't appear to be going up, but the issue got a jolt of attention in the industry after two agents in Florida were attacked in separate incidents within the space of two weeks in March.

"It is a dangerous occupation. You never know who you're going to meet," said Janice Flasschoen, one of the Florida agents, who was showing a home in South Daytona Beach when her client came at her with a hammer.

In April, the Georgia Association of Realtors put out an alert about a man claiming to be a former Seattle Mariners baseball player. He abducted and robbed an agent April 4 and apparently has approached other agents, identifying himself in the same way.

Flasschoen, who took 20 blows from the hammer-wielding man, including two to her head, fought him off and fled outside, where bystanders grabbed him. She said she worries that similar horror stories will become more common as the real estate market slows that agents hoping to snag a client will take more risks with strangers.

"Realtors will have a tendency to bend over backwards and not take the necessary precautions, just so they can get a sale," Flasschoen said.

A few real estate brokerages require agents to leave detailed information on their whereabouts or to meet new clients at the office, not in an unoccupied or unfamiliar home. Others merely recommend those steps.

Such procedures are comparatively rare in the day-to-day routines of the nation's million-plus real estate agents, who say the nature of their business often renders those rules impractical.

For one thing, many agents nowadays work mostly from home and visit their offices infrequently. For another, selling homes tends not to follow a schedule. A listing agent may get a call from someone who says he's standing in front of a house whose for-sale sign has the agent's name and number on it and asks that the agent come over now and show it.

"Sometimes it's not about agents taking risks. Sometimes the risks are pushed upon the agents," said Todd Hodgen, a Seattle entrepreneur who developed a hand-held alarm, called RealGuard, after a colleague of his real estate agent wife was killed on the job in Montreal.

Hesitation can mean a lost deal, agents say.

"You don't want to alienate the buyer," agreed Julie Roberts, a St. Petersburg, Fla., agent whose office firmly, but politely, enforces a show-some-ID requirement for house hunters.

That's because Roberts was measuring a room in a vacant house in March when the would-be buyer hit her on the head with a gun, broke her arm as he struggled to tie her up, and locked her in a closet while he ransacked her car and then used her ATM card to get money.

Roberts, whose attacker is still at large, said her company doesn't have formalized safety training, though many larger brokerages have incorporated it into their programs for new agents.

In Chicago, Baird & Warner Real Estate and Re/Max Northern Illinois, for example, teach safety techniques at new-agent orientations, and both have supplementary materials and programs.

Re/Max recommends, but doesn't require, agents to get identification from house-shoppers.

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