This a little heavier topic than most real-estate-centered blog posts, but in light of recent events it’s a conversation that needs to be had. If you’ve been paying attention to current events lately, you have probably heard of Beverly Carter’s tragic fate at the hand of Aaron Lewis. We all mourn the loss of a valued member of the real estate profession, while coming to the startling realization that this could have been any one of a number of agents. This wasn’t the first time an agent was fatally attacked – in 2011 agent Ashley Okland suffered a similar fate.
This brings to light so many questions and concerns for safety for real estate agents, particularly females, but it also raises questions for how possible changes in real estate operations may affect consumers. With the discussion once again opened regarding the best possible way to ensure the safety of real estate agents, it’s important to consider the repercussions of what policies may be established for both agents and customers.
What is the best way to ensure everyone’s safety? Is there a right or wrong answer? Let’s consider some options...
The first answer that comes to the lips of many is to have prospective homebuyers pass a background check before they meet with agents. While this may seem like a simple solution to some, there are many, many questions that need to be answered before this becomes policy. First of all, who will conduct the background check? Will it be a required document to have on file when one fills out a pre-approval for a mortgage? Will every agent that works with the prospective homebuyer need to have a separate check completed? Who will assume the cost – roughly $50 – for this background check? What about open house situations – will agents need to require everyone who comes to view the home to have a background check? What about the time required? It can take up to a week for a full criminal background check to go through. What happens when a potential buyer wants to see a house, waits for the check to be completed, and ends up losing out because of the paperwork hold up?
Aside from the questions we’re considering, the other downside to a background check is that it isn’t a 100% guarantee that the person who wants to view the home is a good person. Adam Lanza had zero criminal history or prior altercations on file with Sandy Hook Elementary School. If he had been required to pass a background check to enter the school, there would have been no indication that he may be dangerous. But he was, and December 14, 2012 ended in tragedy.
Other matters to consider are what an agent would do if a background check showed previous criminal history. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Would that skew the agent’s perspective of a potential buyer and prevent someone who may have committed a misdemeanor – such as battery or assault – in previous years from purchasing a home? Sure, it could give the agent time to prepare and be on the alert with this buyer. A smart agent would use the information to take additional precautions, such as requiring a second agent to be on the premises of any home viewing. However, we have to admit that in today’s society, even if the person had rehabilitated and served their debt to society, there would be a certain amount of stigma against the buyer that could prevent them from purchasing a home, even for a minor infraction.
From the customer’s side, how would they feel to be asked to fill out a background check just because they want to look at a house? Would they feel like they aren’t trusted? Maybe they would feel like this was an invasion of their privacy – does their real estate agent really need to know about the DUI they got last year? And what about the cost? If the cost was transferred onto the buyer, it could deter potential buyers from looking at homes until they’re truly serious (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it), or prevent them from looking at as many homes as they want, which would affect their purchase decision.
Another option many agents are openly discussing is that of obtaining a handgun and a license to carry a concealed weapon (in applicable states). This debate has been ongoing for years (since Columbine, really) regarding teachers carrying guns in school, and a decision has yet to be reached in that arena. The questions agents and buyers alike should consider is whether or not this would truly be a safer option. Buyers may not feel safe around an agent with a weapon – not that they would feel the agent would use the weapon on them, but rather the notion that accidents do happen, and what if there was a misfire during a showing?
For agents, the consideration is this: will carrying a gun really make you safer? First of all, when you carry any kind of weapon – pepper spray, firearm, pocket knife, etc. – a phenomenon happens that makes you feel braver, bolder…less aware, less likely to listen to your gut because you feel like you can take care of yourself. Secondly, the people who are armed to protect you – police officers, military personnel – are trained. Heavily trained. Like, multiple times per week, at the range, in stressful situations. They know how to use their weapon under pressure. Most people who have a concealed carry license do not. Sure, they’ve passed their test, taken their class, fire off a few boxes of ammo at the range on the weekends; but they’re not really, truly trained to fire under pressure, and they’ve likely never practiced shooting at another human. Think about it – if you were carrying a firearm on your person and someone attacked you, would you be able to reach for your weapon in time? Would you be able to calmly take aim and defend yourself? Would you be able to shoot another human being? You don’t really know until you’re in that situation.
This is not to say that it’s a bad idea for real estate agents to carry concealed weapons. Or teachers, or convenience store owners, or anyone who wants to defend themselves from physical harm. But in order for one to truly be able to defend themselves with a firearm they need to have constant, thorough practice with their weapon. You can easily harm yourself, an innocent bystander, or have your gun taken away from you by an attacker if you aren’t prepared. True concealed carry for protection is not just buying a .22 derringer and sticking it in your cute little concealed carry purse. It’s becoming completely familiar with your weapon, knowing how to reach for it under pressure, and knowing that you’re going to be able to hit your target. If you aren’t trained to that level, you probably shouldn’t be carrying a gun.
In addition to the pressure of actually handling a firearm, there are several legal repercussions to consider. What if you’re carrying a firearm for protection and it discharges, damaging property or injuring a homeowner or buyer? Is that a risk you’re willing to take on for the one in a million chance you might be in danger? Aside from that, did you know that if you do shoot someone, even in self-defense, the injured party (yes, the criminal) or their family (if it’s a fatal shot) can file a civil suit for damages against you? Many concealed weapon carriers have additional insurance policies to protect themselves. Agents considering carrying a weapon as their form of protection need to seriously do their homework to review state and local laws, insurance policies, and previous case rulings to determine if this is really the right path for their protection.
The next form of protection that comes to mind for most people who aren’t ready to carry a gun is self-defense. This can take many forms, from pepper spray to tasers to keychain weapons to self-defense combat classes. What is the safest route?
Many women already carry pepper spray in their purse, and many female real estate agents make it their policy to do so as well. However, did you know that some people have built up a tolerance to pepper spray and are immune to its effects? What happens when you spray an attacker in the face to deter him and he keeps coming at you? Well, basically that pepper spray you were relying on to protect you has actually angered the attacker further, which can be very, very dangerous. This is not to say that agents shouldn’t carry it, but rather to inform agents that they need to have a backup plan and not place all of their faith in pepper spray.
What are some other options? Well, as previously mentioned, there are several tools one can acquire that aid in self-defense, such as tasers and personal defense tactical gear. Agents should do a little research before committing to a weapon, and it would be ideal to take a class or two on the use of that weapon, which should also include some basic self-defense techniques.
The benefit of this method for potential homebuyers is that they are less lethal forms of protection. Homeowners and buyers are much less likely to be afraid of an agent who is trained in combat than an agent who is carrying a gun, and it is something that each agent can take full control of their training, obtaining as much or as little as they feel necessary. It is less expensive than background checks and concealed weapon insurance, too. You can’t put a price on safety, but you have to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks of that price.
Common Sense, and Following Your Instincts
Absolutely the easiest way to keep agents safe is to follow common sense procedures as well as your gut instinct. Many agents are already trained to leave their purse in their car to prevent theft, let someone know where they are at all times, etc. But what about requiring prospective buyers to stop by the Realtor’s office and make a copy of their driver’s license before showing a house? If you don’t have an office, meeting at a public place like a coffee shop to fill out paperwork and get a general sense of the potential buyer could also provide the same safety benefits.
What if ‘open houses’ became a thing of the past? Homeowners like them, but they leave an agent vulnerable to anyone who walks through the front door. Would it be worth the safety benefits to discourage the practice, or at least require that more than one agent be present for such events? Working in partnerships may become a more common practice as the real estate industry gains more ground on implementing safety procedures for agents.
Above all, agents should follow their instincts. Contact your office or the police immediately if you feel unsafe or unsure about a situation. Be aware of your surroundings. Take note of escape routes when you walk a house. Keep your car keys and cell phone on you at all times. Be prepared. Don’t be afraid to turn down a showing with a potential buyer if they make you feel nervous. No amount of commission is worth your life.
What Can Potential Buyers and Sellers Do?
If you’re looking to purchase or sell a home, the best thing you can do is be aware that this can be a dangerous part of the real estate industry. Sometimes these showings are late in the evening, in remote areas, and that can be a nerve-wracking event for an agent. Real estate agents – especially females – need to feel comfortable with the prospective buyers they’re showing houses to, or the sellers whose homes they're viewing. Just as you want to be comfortable with the agent you choose, they want to be comfortable with you too.
Don’t balk at being asked to come into the agent’s office and show your driver’s license. If possible, ask to see the house in the daylight first. If you attend an open house, make sure you introduce yourself to the agent showing the home – don’t just walk through on your own. Yes, you may prefer to see the property on your own, but it will make your agent feel much more comfortable if you first smile and let them know your name. They don’t want your information so they can bombard you with marketing materials – they just want to be safe. Isn’t it worth the few extra steps to help prevent another tragedy? After all, everyone deserves to feel safe.
** Keep in mind, this post was not intended to be controversial, and these questions and discussions are not an opinion one way or another about how safety for real estate agents should be handled in the future; this is merely an analysis of some of the options being considered by brokers, agents, lawmakers, and homebuyers all over the country. This post does not represent the opinions of VIP Real Estate. Feel free to play devil’s advocate and voice your own thoughts (keep it civil, please) about the concerning issue at hand. It’s going to take a lot of voices speaking up to make the world a safer place. **