When most people think of dangerous jobs, hard shifts like heavy manufacturing, construction, police work and firefighting generally come to mind. Selling real estate usually doesn’t top the list.
But only one of these jobs requires the employee to publish their photo in print and on the Internet with the purpose of providing strangers a tour of an empty building. Selling real estate, for all its perks in a hot market, still puts the agent at risk when the proper precautions are not taken.
And while most real estate agents say the people they deal with are genuine, well-intentioned buyers, they admit it’s often difficult to tell if a prospective client has motives beyond looking at the property. When there’s pressure to make a sale, personal safety can sometimes take a back seat.
In March of this year, a 71-year-old female agent in Cambridge, Wis., was attacked and murdered while showing a property to her alleged attacker, a 34-year-old male and registered sex offender from Brookfield, Ill.
Joe Rosner, owner of Best Defense of Illinois, teaches a self-defense course tailored specifically for real estate agents. He said that on average one in four agents report either being attacked or finding themselves in a threatening situation while on the job. He also said awareness about safety issues in the real estate community is pretty low. But when attacks like the one in Wisconsin occur, his phone rings off the hook. Rosner gave a half dozen presentations during one recent week and was scheduled to make three trips to Wisconsin over the course of a few days.
“We don’t want people walking away [from the course] scared,” he said. “We want them to feel safer and more confident.”
Rosner said that being aware of the situation, parking in a safe spot, prescreening customers and making the first face-to-face meeting at the office are all important safety precautions. But most important is having a plan for getting out of the building ahead of time.
Sharon Schwanderlik, an agent for Baird and Warner who lives and works in Forest Park, said she has found herself in tense situations a few times. While showing a vacant apartment several years ago, Schwanderlik said she was frightened to realize the male client she was with was holding an empty black bag. Usually very careful about showing vacant listings, Schwanderlik said in hindsight she sees her mistakes.
“I was talking on my cell phone like I was talking to my husband, which I wasn’t,” Schwanderlik said of her defensive strategy. “My heart was racing.”
As a rule, Schwanderlik never walks in front of a potential client when touring a home. She also keeps her cell phone in her hand at all times and more often than not will bring another person from the office when a client wants to meet at a vacant property.
“I would never meet anybody at a house after hours by myself,” Schwanderlik said. “The wise and prudent thing to do is bring a buddy.”
Gary Mancuso, a real estate agent with ReMax in Oak Park, said that a Realtor is taught to never meet somebody at a house without first meeting them in the office. And every office should have a code with the receptionist so an agent can call to alert the office that he or she may not be comfortable with the situation. The receptionist would then ask questions requiring only yes and no answers.
Bob Safranski, broker and owner of the boutique firm Saffron Realty in Chicago, said he constantly is evaluating clients and properties for potentially dangerous encounters. One encounter, which he calls a real “eye-opener,” occurred while he was showing a property to a young woman in Bridgeport. The property belonged to an elderly woman whose middle-aged son lived in the coach house in back.
After viewing the front property, the owner instructed them to meet her son in the coach house. The son led them down to the basement, which, with its low ceilings and narrow passage ways, was cramped and eerily dark, Safranski said.
The son plopped down in a recliner, pulled a gun out from under it, waved it in the air, and said, “We get rodents sometimes from the alley, and this is what I use to make sure they don’t come in the house.”
“It was the real deal,” Safranski said. “And my heart dropped because my client was between him and me, so I slowly moved to put myself between him and my client.”
While nothing came of it beyond a real scare, Safranski thought it could have ended badly. His client, of the free-spiriting type, thought it was just a wild experience.
Safranski agreed that the first face-to-face meeting should always take place in the office or at a public place. He said it is an important part to help an agent know if he or she is comfortable with the client.
“There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that needs to be evaluated when you first meet someone,” he said. “I think the female Realtors would agree that when they’re talking about a business transaction, if the potential client seems to be less focused on that, it might raise some red flags.”
Safranski’s wife, Rebecca Safranski, who is also an agent, said that although she has never had a dangerous encounter on the job, she tries to be vigilant to make sure that a potential client is genuinely interested in a property.
She also said that gut feelings about people are usually tipped off by strange behavior and should generally be heeded. And, if you are uncomfortable with a situation, don’t worry about being impolite, she said. Sometimes being a little cold can save your skin, and not just while selling real estate.
“If an elevator door opens, and the person in there gives you the creeps, why step in a steel cage with them,” Rebecca Safranski said. “Wait for the next one. Are you worried that you are going to offend them?”
Editor Josh Adams contributed to this story.