By Jeff Stern

Another real estate agent has died, thanks to the vulnerability of working alone in an empty house.

The 33-year-old Annapolis agent was alone in an empty model home when he met a violent end. Someone came in, murdered him right there in his workplace, and left. No one has been charged.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s Annapolis, not here, so it’s not really my problem.”



I don’t blame you. It’s hard to take something seriously when terrible things happen everywhere all the time. We naturally want to think bad things happen “over there” and “to them” and not to us.

But where I live in Winnipeg these things happen too. The unsolved murder of Irene Pearson for one, then there was this 2008 attempted assault where the agent escaped, and this 2007 sexual assault where the agent didn’t get away. Then there are the countless close-call stories that don’t make it into the news.

Like my friend who got a call from a guy who said he was moving to the city because of his business, needed a fast possession and wanted to see vacant homes in the Tuxedo area. She said she’d look up a list of homes and call him back at his hotel. She got his name, number and the name of his hotel, and promised to call him back at 4 p.m. After hanging up with him, she called the hotel to confirm such a person was even there. They had no one there by that name. Big red flag. She was smart to check.

And these are just stories from Winnipeg. You start looking up news stories from across Canada and your day gets a whole lot darker. Agents get attacked, robbed and murdered at work.

It happens.

A lot.

And it’s scary.

It’s also completely unnecessary.

I’m a passionate advocate for excellent customer service and going above and beyond the call of duty to serve my clients, but I’m also passionate about client property security and my own personal protection.

The fact is, real estate agents are at risk when hosting open houses. Thankfully, there is something we can do.

Limit access – even at open houses 

Years ago, near the beginning of my career, I walked up the sidewalk to a house with my clients in order to show them the house they were considering. We walked in and started looking around. Moments later, a guy – could be a neighbour, could be a thief, I didn’t know – opened the door, walked in and asked if he could look around too.

Umm… no? I explained it wasn’t an open house, but that I was showing my clients; this was a prearranged appointment. If he wanted a peek, he’d have to wait for the open house or make an appointment.

I was stunned that a complete stranger would just walk into another person’s home, feeling quite free to do so, and expect to be allowed to wander around unfettered. Really? I wondered how many others felt this way, and imagined more people casually wandering in while I was showing my clients another floor and completely unaware anyone else had come in. The guy left, and I locked the door. I’ve been locking the door ever since. I do this at open houses too, by the way.

I post a sign that says, “Welcome, I’m showing the home right now, please wait here.” This allows me to connect with the people looking and do what I can to show the property in the best possible light while protecting myself and my sellers from random people with who knows what motives and agendas from coming in and doing whatever they want.

One word: Vetting 

Prequalify potential buyers. We are not obligated to show a home every Tom, Dick and Harriet who “wants to see”. On the contrary, that’s a sure way to aggravate your sellers and put everyone at risk. Instead, we should identify buyers.

Luckily, the federal FINTRAC laws are on our side, requiring us to identify the buyers when there’s an attempted transaction. Use that. The minute someone steps into your car or onto your property, get some I.D.  Getting their driver’s license is a good start. If they don’t proceed, shred it. But if you have their information, at least if something happens to you, the property or the buyer’s possessions, you have a bit of recourse.

Wave bye-bye to lookie loos

Listen. Agent to agent, I know people sometimes get squirrelly about giving the smallest amount of information about why they’re calling. They don’t want agents asking whether they’re pre-approved, or other questions about their needs. So, asking for I.D could get people feeling downright antagonistic. Especially if they “just want to look”. Who wants that hassle? I get it.

Here’s the thing. People like that most likely aren’t serious buyers. More and more, those who are serious, actual buyers are understanding the need to be pre-approved, well-informed and even represented before they even begin house hunting. This is becoming the norm. The random lookie-loos who want to nose around strangers’ houses unencumbered on a Sunday afternoon are not worth the risk to your sellers or to you.

Here’s my suggestion. When someone calls wanting to look at a house, get their info. Then confirm the info. Meet them first at your office (or coffee shop) with the “how can I help you” attitude and if they don’t want to do that, recommend to them that their best course of action is to attend an open house when it’s offered.

Then don’t worry about whether there is an open house on that property or not. Just politely wave bye-bye and move on. Our seller clients will appreciate your professional approach. Mine most certainly do as they know when I ask for them to leave for a showing, I have confirmed the prospective buyer’s ability to buy. We are real estate professionals, not TV reality show personalities.

Don’t go alone 

The vulnerability of working an empty house is the solitude of it. Protect yourself by breaking that solitude. There a few ways to do that. Bring a friend or another agent with you. You could also pre-arrange a buddy check-in system where you check in with someone before, during and after your time there. If you miss a call, someone calls you or comes by in person. Introduce yourself to the neighbours and let them know you’re there. Have a sign-in sheet for every person who comes in to the open house. There are even personal safety apps.

There are options. Real estate agents don’t have to be completely vulnerable, even if we do choose to host open houses (or inspect houses or do whatever else we do that leaves us in buildings alone for hours).

Have you ever felt at risk?

Jeff Stern, a 27-year real estate veteran with Re/Max Performance Realty in Winnipeg, received the 2017 CMHC/MREA Distinguished Realtor Award. He is an instructor for the Provincial Real Estate Licensing program, a member of the Education Committee and sits on the Professional Standards Investigation and Hearing Committee at MREA. He gives back to the community as chair of the MREA Shelter Foundation and writes stimulating and enlightening articles on his blog. The opinions expressed are those of Jeff Stern and not the Manitoba Real Estate Association.

14 COMMENTS

  1. A great article! I always enjoy your articles Jeff – you wrote a great one recently about that elderly lady visiting the oncologist that I thought was very well done and heartfelt. Keep up the good work!

  2. This has worked well for me and maybe it might be helpful information for others. When I host an open house I invite a mortgage specialist to attend with me. This works well for several reasons. It provides safety for myself and the lender as well as my client’s home and their items, It allows us to move through the home and answer visitors questions and keep an eye on things. I’ve found that people attending open houses often haven’t picked both a lender and a realtor and it offers us the opportunity to connect and maybe become their realtor/lender of choice if they are still shopping for one. The feedback from attendees and homeowners has been wonderful over the years. An added bonus is when the open house is slow you get to build relationships with the lender and learn more about each other’s industry, changes to their industry, current and future changes to the market, etc. When the open house is busy there is two of you to engage in conversations with the different parties. Visitors often comment that they have never seen a lender at an open house and they seem to like it. Rarely does a visitor not engage in a conversation with one of us. The Sellers seem to like the idea when I explain how I manage public open houses. But more and more I am finding that Sellers do not want to open their homes up to public open houses once you explain the pros and cons, etc.

    I understand the part about locking the door, but if the ‘bad’ visitor is in side the home I’d like the idea that a ‘good’ visitor would be able to enter and potentially scare them away. I think that if I wanted to harm a realtor and knew they had just locked both of us in the home I’d see that as a great opportunity for them. By putting up a sign you just informed them that you are alone in case they didn’t also see you lock the door.

    My one scare came early into my realtor career. Could I show the vacant condo I had listed today. After asking as many questions as I could think of I agreed to show the condo in my eagerness to get a deal. I remained in my vehicle next to the front entrance, so they could see that my husband had accompanied me and was waiting outside. I showed them the condo, asked for photo ID and even after ‘felix had suddenly came into some money’ they left and never called back. Sure scares one to think what if I hadn’t taken my husband along!

    • I’m so relieved you were safe with your unsettling experience. Good call trusting your instincts and your advice of bringing a mortgage specialist along is a great idea. Having a partner present as a deterrence for anyone with malicious intent, fostering a strong relationship with a lender, providing a one-stop-shop for visitors and providing a powerful benefit for your seller client all are achieved

  3. Tom nice article except for the tragedies noted. I am so sorry to hear
    I personally don’t think Open Houses are necessary in todays market as the buyers/lookers are working with a Realtor through a Representation Agreement who through a proper consultation will do the work for someone looking to buy property and then viewing by a booked appointment
    If a seller feel they must have an Open House Realtor could suggest that the Seller be there during such Open House for every ones’ safety including the contents of their home. or engage a professional personal to be there with the Realtor eg…. a security guard .it’s a shame it has come to this in todays market but that’s the way it is

    These are just my thoughts

  4. How about not having Open House at all except for Realtors. If a qualified buyer is interested they will make an appointment with their Realtor. Times have changed, attendees to most Open Houses are neighbours, curiosity seekers, people with nothing else to do and the people that are working with a buyer agent that is busy that day or from out of town and sends their clients. The Open House is used as a tool for Realtors to meet potential buyer leads and not necessarily sell that particular property. How can one or two realtors control & record the names etc of attendees when 3 – 10 people show up at one time. Keep in mind if you use several interior pictures of your listing showing the sellers furniture etc. a thief can easily attend a busy Open House with prior knowledge of contents. The best solution to safety at all times is for the buyer agent to do what you are being paid to do, make an appointment with the listings Realtor and take your qualified buyer through the property personally. Leave the Open Houses to the developers that have their own sales people in their model homes but if you expect a commission from the developer you had better check their policy regarding registering your buyer they do not have to respect your buyers agency. Every notice that the really successful Realtors never seem to have Open Houses, they leave it up to the not so busy Realtors. Very good article and hopefully a reminder to all about Realtor safety.

    • Thanks Tom, you express my sentiments exactly. Opens are unnecessary in today’s info-packed world. Motivated “now” buyers and soon-to-be sellers will still connect with us for the assistance they seek. More of each do just that now, never setting foot in an open house.

  5. Thank you for the article Jeff. It is indeed sound advise for not only female but males too. Yes, I experienced an incident in North Brampton and it does shake one to the bones! I was lucky as I know self defense & handled the situation and I am sure both men will never try it again! One did lose a tooth! :)

    • Thanks Radha and I am happy to hear you were fine. One lost a tooth, good for you! Can you imagine how that low life feels knowing they were the victim. Keep safe!

  6. Great article! Open house safety suggestion, especially for women – Stay on the main floor, near the front door, Visitors can explore the upstairs and the basement on their own. This way you can greet anybody who comes in the door and ask questions on their way out.

    • So while you are at the door, who is checking what these people are doing and who is protecting my house?
      Sadly the public do not know that the majority of agents are not interested in selling the house (or protecting it), but collecting clients.

      • Hi Lynne, I am not at the door as the door is locked and I am engaged with the people inside which is what the seller hired me to do. When they are done and head to the door, the next group can enter. I am not one of the agents that you refer to as not interested in selling the house. That is my job and that is why I do this unconventional open house

    • Terrific suggestion Kim, the same goes for basements. Especially, never go in front of any stranger and before opening the door to the first visitor, plan an escape route (an alternate is also a good idea). If the visitor wants you to do what feels “off” or makes you suspicious, never doubt your instincts or make yourself feel you are unnecessarily uncomfortable. Better to err on the safe side and be safe than lose one potential commission cheque.

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