Deborah Abraham, a broker with Prudential Lorimer Realty in King City, Ont., is a model of real estate agent responsibility and safety. She always prescreens potential clients and asks them a series of questions over the phone — how long they’ve been looking, what their price range is, whether they’ve qualified for a mortgage and what properties they’ve seen. “This usually lets me know if they are a serious buyer,” she says.
Her personal safety ethos extends to outside the office, as well. She never meets new clients alone, but takes her husband (also a real estate agent) or another male agent from her office with her. She tells her office what time, with whom and where she will be, always keeps her cell phone in her hand and never takes her purse.
Abraham’s efforts have paid off — in more than 11 years of showing homes, she’s never had any incidents.
Unfortunately, not every agent has been so fortunate. In 2002, a Toronto commercial real estate agent was found dead in the basement of her office building. That same year, a Calgary agent was tied up and left in the basement of a home while her attacker fled with her car. Most recently, Lindsay Buziak, a 24-year-old real estate agent in Saanich, B.C., was found stabbed to death in a new luxury home. At the time of writing, there were no leads and no suspects.
According to the National Association of Realtors’ Safety in the US, more than 200 real estate agents were killed on the job between 1982 and 2000. Here in Canada, statistics of attacks on agents are harder to come by, but it appears to be a growing problem.
“It’s not anything we keep statistics on because not all (of the incidences) are reported to us,” says Bob Linney, spokesperson for the Canadian Real Estate Association, or
Online advertising a double-edged sword
To be clear, it’s not the fact they’re real estate agents — it’s the type of work they do that puts them in vulnerable scenarios, says Linney.
“We don’t believe there was any sort of crime pattern leading up to this that would have given any cause for concern for real estate agents being targeted,” says Sgt. John Price, Public Information Officer for the Saanich Police Department. “The idea is that it’s isolated versus a person or group of person targeting real estate agents.”
What’s clear is while technology can help agents — by advertising their services and even disseminating information about potentially dangerous customers — it’s also making it easier for criminals to stalk their prey. Most agents have a website where they post a picture and personal information about themselves.
“Advances and developments of such things as the Internet provide a great deal of information to would-be attackers or stalkers,” says Price. “It’s well documented that pedophiles and criminals use the Internet as much as Joe Q. Citizen.”
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Today, the foremost question for industry insiders to answer is, how can agents protect themselves and maintain their competitive advantage? “As marketing has moved online, the challenge for Realtors is to find that fine line between marketing their person, because that’s what they do — marketing a personal service — and guarding their privacy,” says Linney.
“One argument is your picture shouldn’t be on the website or on the sign on the house, but then you’re competing against people who are willing to take those chances,” says Price. “It comes down to revenue and making a name for yourself versus individual and personal safety.”
Yet many realtors have worked for years without incident, and often it takes an unfortunate event or crime to serve as a reminder.
“We’re very cognizant of it for three to six months and then that memory fades and we’re probably not as careful as we should be. Then it happens again,” says Kelvin Neufeld, president of the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board and a Realtor with Macdonald Realty Olympics in BC. “This time, we’re trying to be very proactive and keep it top-of-mind with our Realtors.”
The onus for safety will always lies largely with the agent, but gradual changes will likely be made to the way business is done. “We are so busy protecting the consumer, we haven’t really spent time protecting the agent,” says Chris Markham, president-elect of the Victoria Real Estate Board and principal agent with Queenswood Realty. “There’s rules and regulations, bylaws and disclosure statements but it’s all one-sided.”
“What I’ve been preaching is buyer-agency (agreements),” says Markham. “You meet formally before you do any work for them, typically during office hours in an office environment.”
A buyer-agency agreement essentially sets out the obligations between agents and their clients. It commits the client to working with the agent exclusively for a set time period and in turn, outlines the services the agent will provide and who is paying for these services (typically, the seller).
A growing number of real estate professionals argue that formalizing the agent-buyer relationship from the outset is the first step toward realtor safety. At the very least, agents should request that clients first meet at the office and provide identification, such as a driver’s license. The thinking is, a serious client shouldn’t hesitate to share this information.
Perhaps the second step in agent safety would be education for the consumer: Buyers have come to expect agents to be at their beck and call and demand access to a property at a moment’s notice.
So, the next time an agent asks you to sign some paperwork at the office before seeing a home, remember that while you may be genuinely interested in a property, not everyone is as virtuous or honest. “We can all be more careful and we must be more aware of who we are dealing with,” says Abraham.