Safety an issue for real estate salespeople


Homebuyers, imagine walking into a real estate office and being carded, handing over your Social Security number, agreeing to a credit report, and having to pre-qualify for a home before stepping foot in one.

"We have to find a new way to do business," says Gwen Howard, a real estate agent for O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in Columbia. "I'm at the point with these people that if you don't prove who you are, we don't want to sell you a house."

Lynne McCoy, who worked for Mrs. Howard, was murdered Dec. 21 while showing a house to a man she believed was a potential buyer. They first toured the listing while the owners were home. Then, the man asked for a second look after the owners left. Mrs. McCoy's beaten body was found in an upstairs closet of the two-story home in Hunting Ridge, in West Baltimore.

Mrs. Howard and other members of the Howard County Board of Realtors planned to meet today to discuss safety in the wake of Mrs. McCoy's death. And the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors will set up a task force on industry safety, says the group's executive vice president, Fletcher R. Hall. The task force of agents and brokers is expected to make safety recommendations this month.

Currently, no national safety guidelines for agents exist, and most "common sense" procedures are established on an agency-by-agency basis. For example, an office might occasionally use a buddy system with agents teaming up to show houses. Other agencies might insist on buyers first meeting the agent at the office.

The hope, Mrs. Howard says, is that agents will agree on uniform precautions -- such as having the potential buyer show identification and requiring buyer prequalification before a house shown.

"The buying public will get used to it," says Elaine Northrop, a veteran agent with Caldwell Banker in Howard County.

But two problems exist, she says. One, if not all agencies adopt uniform procedures, the customer will go next door to an agent who works differently. Two, agents are under pressure not to question potential buyers too much for fear of discrimination charges, Mrs. Northrop says.

"So, we can't ask questions that would protect us," she says. "If people insist on seeing a house and we say no, we would be in jeopardy of losing our license."

Despite the fear Mrs. McCoy's murder has evoked, real estate is not dangerous work, says the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which rates the most dangerous jobs. Crimes against agents aren't specifically logged by police because the statistics are relatively low. But random incidents of agents killed, robbed and raped have been reported by the news media throughout the country.

* A Realtor was slain, another one robbed and a third assaulted on the job in Houston last year.

* Last May, a man received a 50-year prison term for raping an agent after luring her into a vacant home in New York.

* A broker was stabbed to death at a broker's open house in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1992.

* In 1990, a Seattle parolee was sentenced to 75 years for killing a real estate agent while she was showing a house.

* Agent Sheila Lankin was killed on the job in 1985, shot in the back twice while showing a man a model home in Florida.

Mrs. McCoy's death is the first recorded killing of a real estate agent in the Baltimore area, according to the 150-year-old Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. The suspect, Kenny Lamont Brooks, was on parole for auto theft. The 21-year-old Baltimore man was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape and robbery.

Although not an agent, 43-year-old Nancy Pucci of Bel Air was murdered in 1983 while showing her home to a potential buyer. Private stories exist of agents being robbed or raped in the Baltimore area. Publicly, stories are told of spooky encounters on the job.

"I had a weirdo make an appointment last year," Mrs. Northrop says. Someone called her claiming she was a $500,000 cash buyer. Mrs. Northrop asked that the potential buyer meet at her office. It turns out the "buyer" was a 6-foot-1 man dressed in women's clothes with a stubbly red beard. "I made up a story about my mother-in-law being sick," she says.

Linda Doyle, an agent at Realty Executives 100 in Prince George's County, says that a few years ago police were looking for a rapist in Columbia. The community was edgy. Ms. Doyle was showing a house to a man, and they came back to the office at night when everyone else had gone home. The potential buyer looked at her.

"Do you know what the rapist looks like?" he asked.

Staying calm, Ms. Doyle replayed the rapist's description given on TV.

"Don't I fit that picture?" he asked.

Yes, she said, with adrenalin rushing.

"You really should be more careful," said the man, who turned out not to be the rapist.

Ms. Doyle polished her security act. She checks in with her office more, uses her car phone more, has stopped showing houses late at night and occasionally takes her husband with her when showing a house.

When she does show a vacant property by herself, "I make it a habit of never walking in front of anyone."

Consider another staple of the real estate industry -- the open house. Showy and highly publicized, open houses also can expose agents and owners to crime. Tradition says owners leave when an agent opens their house because it's easier to critique the house with the owner gone.

But agents, such as Mrs. Howard, say it's hard to keep track of everyone roaming through rooms. Montgomery County police last week arrested a pair of "open house" thieves suspected of stealing $120,000 worth of property while posing as potential homebuyers in Chevy Chase and upper northwest Washington. Valuables were lifted from drawers, walls and closets.

"I would like open houses stopped unless owners agree to stay for them," Mrs. Howard says.

Other agents say open houses are pointless. They attract

neighbors, dreamers and real estate "bottom-feeders" -- all people who probably aren't serious homebuyers. And, of course, open houses give anyone a chance to case the house, check out the security system and mentally inventory the valuables.

Whether open houses or other practices are changed, the heart of the safety issue is buried in the industry's core called customer service.

Real estate agents have a peculiar job. Fairly well-dressed strangers walk in off the street, say they want to look at houses, and then an agent -- who are predominantly women -- shows them the inside of a vacant home. For free.

"You have to trust the public to make the sale happen. You still have to show that house, and that's not going to change," says Mr. Hall of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"Agents," he says, "are the last people to make house calls."


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