The brutal murder of Sarah Ann Walker in McKinney, Texas early this month has again spotlighted a perennial topic - violence against real estate agents and real estate safety tips.

Ms. Walker was presiding over an open house at a new housing development when she was stabbed 27 times. A house hunting couple found her body on the kitchen floor.

Conducting a real estate practice almost by definition puts agents in potentially hazardous situations. An agent conducting an open house is often alone and knows nothing about the person walking in the door. Agents often meet customers for the first time in front of a vacant house, or drive or ride with them to an appointment. It is not uncommon for an agent to be alone in the office late at night, finalizing an offer or catching up on paperwork, and some agents still go door to door looking for listings.

There don't appear to be any real solid statistics on the number of agents who fall victim to murder, rape, assault, or robbery. One source states that 206 agents were murdered on the job between 1982 and 2000. This does not even touch on the number of agents who were the victims of sexual assault, non-fatal shootings, beatings, and stabbings; robbery, and car jacking. Misiu Systems, Ltd which provides security products to the industry lists news articles about 74 incidents including murders, police alerts to agents, sexual assaults, and robberies since February, 1997, ten since the first of this year. Many of the accounts concerned multiple victims.

Among the stories:

St. Petersburg, FL, March 2006. A neatly dressed young man posing as a relocated Drug Enforcement Administration agent spent over four hours looking at houses with a real estate agent before asking to return to one of the first homes he had seen. There he attacked her, took her car keys and purse while threatening to kill her with the gun and the 12-inch hunting knife he had concealed on his person. The agent was hurt but not seriously.

DeKalb County, GA, May 2006. Within 11 days, three female real estate agents in DeKalb County reported being robbed at gunpoint by a man and woman. Police said the incidents appeared similar because each happened in the evening hours, involved a female real estate agent and was allegedly committed by an armed man and woman fitting similar descriptions.

"The perpetrators would contact the realtor, usually by phone. In one incident, the realtor actually went to the MARTA station and picked them up, took them to the location, showed them the home, and as they were concluding their walk-through, they were robbed," said Officer Davis. In each case the agent was tied up and her vehicle was stolen.

A month earlier another DeKalb County agent was abducted and forced to withdraw $1,500 from an ATM machine then taken to a jewelry store where she used credit cards to purchase a $7,500 Rolex watch for the robber. During the incident he frequently threatened to shoot her or "dismember" her if she did not cooperate.

Diamond Bar, CA, November 2005. A newly licensed real estate agent was shot and critically wounded while canvassing a neighborhood for clients. The victim had apparently appeared to be acting suspiciously and a homeowner shot him after he knocked on his door. Police thought the agent may have been mistaken for someone the homeowner had had an altercation with earlier in the week.

Baltimore, MD, July 2004. Maryland State Police warned realtors about a man who allegedly injured one agent and could be stalking others.

In the first incident a female agent was assaulted during an open house by a visitor who looked around the house then picked up an object and struck the agent on the back of the head. Police had first viewed it as an isolated incident but other agents reported a man matching the description had attended open houses in the area and in one case tried to lure the host agent into an isolated part of the house.

The agent who was hit was able to fend off her attacker but police believe it was intended as a sexual assault.

Many real estate office managers routinely discuss safety practices with their agents but few have any hard and fast rules and agents themselves say that they often knowingly take risks because it is the only way they can conduct business. Local real estate boards conduct occasional safety courses and some, such as the Kentucky Board of Realtors, have published booklets on crime prevention for their membership. The National Board of Realtors' (NAR) has designated the week of September 10-16, 2006 as the fourth annual REALTOR' Safety Week, stating that more than 54 percent of all respondents to a recent survey reported that they had experienced safety concerns, incidents, or harassing situations on the job.

Law enforcement officials, real estate boards, real estate trainers, and others routinely advise agents to observe some common sense safety precautions.

Realtor Safety Tips:

  1. Always meet a client for the first time in the office. Introduce him or her to coworkers and make it clear that they know you are taking him out of the office. Try to take separate cars but if that is not possible you will have slightly more control if you drive. Do not meet a client at the property, particularly if he is calling on a yard sign. He will already have had a chance to note if the property is vacant.
  2. Get a license plate number and leave it at the front desk. Just explain that it is office policy; a customer who means no harm won't mind. You might also leave an itinerary for your house tour.
  3. Don't identify a property as vacant to a caller on an ad or sign.
  4. When showing property to a stranger, follow rather than lead him through the house. Don't let him get between you and the door. At an open house, take up a position as close to the door as practical.
  5. Always carry a cell phone where it is easily accessible (not in the purse you left in the car or stowed in a kitchen cabinet.) Make sure emergency numbers are programmed into the speed dial.
  6. Ask the office manager to control keys to the office and to place deadbolts on the doors. If you are alone in the office at night draw the shades and do not admit anyone you do not know well and trust.
  7. Go with your gut. If something doesn't feel right, if anything raises the hair on the back of your neck escape the situation immediately. You might feel like an idiot but don't worry about it.

Police have also noted an increase in crimes where a woman sets up the victim, even for sexual assault. Women agents tend to be much more trusting of another female and let down their guard. Until you really know a customer, remain vigilant regardless of the gender, appearance, dress, or charm. It could save your life.