Dawna Hetzler was showing the home to a man she thought was a potential buyer when he pulled out a knife and told her to get in the closet. She had a concealed carry permit and shot at the man, scaring him off and saving her own life.
While Hetzler’s story made the news this past summer, many more real estate agent safety incidents go unreported each year. According to the National Association of Realtors’ 2019 Member Safety Report, 33 percent of Realtors have experienced a situation that made them feel worried about their safety or their personal information. That same study shows that less than half of Realtors carry some kind of self-defense on the job, revealing how inadequately prepared most agents are for dangerous situations.
So why isn’t there more concern among agents about their own safety?
Tracey Hawkins, a former real estate agent who’s taught agent safety for 24 years through her company, Safety and Security Source, says the lack of conversation and preparation is a result of people not prioritizing safety until tragedy strikes.
“People think it’s not going to happen to them, or it’s not going to happen in the area they live in,” Hawkins says, but the truth is that it can happen to anyone at any time. “It’s someone else until it’s not someone else.”
Hawkins urges agents to think more about safety and be realistic about what your job entails: being a real estate agent often requires you to meet complete strangers in an empty house. When you think about it in those terms, it makes sense that one of the jobs with the highest risks of death by violence is property and real estate management, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. Real estate agent safety can no longer be an afterthought.
How can agents like you stay safe on the job? Make personal safety a priority and put these seven safety tips for Realtors into action.
1.) Always listen to your gut and trust your instincts.
If something feels out of place or wrong, it probably is. Your instincts are there to help keep you safe, and you have to trust them when something triggers an uneasy feeling. Kim Erwin, a top agent in Corpus Christi, Texas, with more than 35 years of experience, stresses that the commission is never worth the risk when things feel off.
“This is the hardest thing to drill home to new agents,” says Erwin. “Because they’ve got a lot of money tied up in getting a license or trying to make money, and they [take] shortcuts.”
Hawkins agrees, and says many agents are reluctant to take steps that prioritize their own safety over the wishes of the client, like meeting first at the office instead of going straight to see a home. Her advice? Don’t worry about inconveniencing the client.
“Your life is worth more than being polite to someone,” she says. “Every animal in nature is born with a survival mechanism, and human beings are the only ones who ignore it because they want to be nice and they want that commission check.”
2.) Stay alert and always let the client walk first into each room.
Be aware of your surroundings when working with others. Ask yourself: Where are all the possible exits? Are there cameras around? Who are the neighbors? These details are crucial to maintain control over a potentially dangerous situation.
Hawkins also suggests you let potential clients lead when walking through a home. Step into the room after they do. That way, you’ll have an accessible escape route at all times.
Don’t let daylight or the neighborhood’s reputation be an excuse to let your guard down. Hawkins says agents should be intentionally aware of their surroundings at all times. “If you look at the agents who have been assaulted, murdered or attacked in any way, typically it happens in the daylight,” she says. “And as long as criminals have cars, there’s no such thing as a good part of town. The upper-income parts of town are where the good stuff is, so instead of being more comfortable you should be more alert.”
This advice isn’t just for women, who tend to be the majority in Hawkins’ safety training classes. She says that male agents are in danger just as much as female agents. Every real estate agent should be aware of where you are and what’s going on around you regardless of your gender.
3.) Carry a self-defense weapon. Know your options and know the rules.
You have several options when it comes to self-defense weapons. Hawkins says pepper spray is the most-preferred safety product among agents attending her classes. It’s also the most-used among Realtors in general, according to the NAR. Eighteen percent of Realtors say they carry pepper spray.
Agents need to know that there’s a big difference between pepper spray and mace, two of the most popular kinds of defensive spray. Pepper spray, an inflammatory agent made from oleoresin capsicum, restricts breathing and causes temporary blindness for up to 15 minutes. Mace is a tear gas — an irritant made with alphachloroacetaphenone that causes pain in the eyes. Here’s the difference: Pepper spray is just as effective on people if they’re under the influence or on drugs; tear gas, on the other hand, doesn’t typically hinder those on drugs or under the influence. (You should also know that Mace®, as it’s referred to today, is a brand of self-defense products that includes pepper spray, not mace products. Mace® pepper spray will hinder those under the influence.)
Pepper spray is legal in all 50 states, but sales are restricted in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Wisconsin. Carrying tear gas is also illegal in Wisconsin.
As you can see above, firearms are also a popular form of self defense. Hawkins says she believes that more agents are carrying firearms than ever, and the NAR report shows that 14% of agents carry a gun on the job.
If you’re thinking about joining that group, the first step is to check your state gun laws to learn what’s legal. They vary from state to state, and many state laws differ from federal laws. When in doubt, check with local law enforcement officials about what personal safety weapons are legal in your area. And ask your brokerage if it has any rules or guidelines in place.
4.) Tell co-workers and family where you are at all times.
Erwin says agents should keep colleagues and family informed about what you’re doing, who you’re with, and where you are — and not just when you feel nervous about a specific meeting or client.
“Let people know where you’re at,” she says. “Let the receptionist know. Let your assistant — let somebody know where you’re at at all times.”
Erwin shares her location with her husband before meeting with clients so he knows exactly where she is. Many phones have built-in technology to let you share your current location, and there are also apps you can download and utilize. Which leads us into…
5.) Use technology & tools to prioritize safety.
In addition to person-to-person communication, there are a number of tools and apps that can help you prioritize personal safety on the job.
When it comes to safety apps, Hawkins has a few crucial criteria: longevity, location, and life. Here’s why:
- Longevity – In her years as a safety expert, Hawkins has seen many different apps come and go. She recommends you use apps that have been around for a while because they’re less likely to go out of business and disappear from the app stores. If that happens, you’ll lose access to technical support if the app stops working and it won’t be updated as technology improves.
- Location – The app should have a GPS locator that lets others know where the phone is at all times, so that others can see your location in case of an emergency.
- Life – Hawkins says the most important criterion is the human element. The app you use must have a way to contact another person who can then call for help or alert authorities if necessary.
In addition to smartphone apps, Hawkins recommends a device called POM, which stands for Peace of Mind. POM goes on your keyring and has a button with two modes.
- The first mode, triggered with a triple click, is an emergency alert that immediately sends your location to a dispatcher and allows you to speak to the person who receives your alert.
- The second mode, triggered with one click, is customizable. You can program it to fake call yourself, send a pre-written text with your location to a designated contact, or start a call and send your location to a designated contact.
POM currently costs about $60, and there’s an additional subscription fee for the on-call services.
Hawkins says she regularly hears agents recommend an app called Life360. It’s available for download on Google Play and Apple’s App Store. With Life360, you can create an invite-only circle and share current and recent locations, get alerts when someone leaves or arrives at a saved location, and send one-tap location alerts to the group if you feel unsafe. All of these features are free of charge. For an additional monthly charge, you can also access crime reports, roadside assistance and crash detection.
The NAR also has a list of agent safety apps/tools on its website, though the small print says that the NAR hasn’t vetted the products listed.
6.) Educate yourself through training and self-defense classes.
Professional safety training is a great way to ensure continual safe practices. Look for courses taught by reputable professionals. Hawkins stresses the value of safety expertise when it comes to training.
“If you have lawyers come in to talk about legal contracts, marketing experts talking about marketing,” Hawkins says, “why do you think it’s okay to let anyone who isn’t qualified to talk about safety?”
Even when self-defense and gun safety classes are offered, Erwin says many agents don’t take advantage of them. “It’s only when there’s some incident that makes the news that people think about it,” Erwin says. “So everybody’s been alerted and that’s how the safety class got scheduled.”
Don’t wait until there’s a perceivable risk to learn how to protect yourself. Search online for self-defense training classes in your area. Many police stations and fire departments offer free self-defense classes, such as this one in Portland, Oregon. (If there’s nothing like that in your area, ask local law enforcement if they’re willing to start one, or if they’ll help you and/or your colleagues start one.)
7.) Create a safety plan and get your office involved.
You might know agents who don’t like to admit that there’s a problem so they keep quiet about any safety concerns. You might be one yourself! But the lack of candid conversation around agent safety helps no one. The dangers of being a real estate agent are real, and ignoring them won’t make the risks go away.
Develop a strategic plan for your personal safety, but don’t stop there. There’s strength in numbers, and creating a comprehensive office plan will turn the idea of safety into a reality. Hawkins says every real estate office should have step-by-step practices for their agents to rehearse on a regular basis.
Not sure where to start in creating your plan? Hawkins has developed a program to help equip agents with safety information.
Bottom line: Agents should be vigilant & intentional about personal safety.
Safety will be an issue for real estate agents as long as you’re regularly meeting strangers in empty houses. While there’s no way to guarantee that malicious people will stop targeting agents, you can reduce the chances of having dangerous encounters with an intentional approach to personal safety, by staying alert at all times, using the tools and safety devices available to you, and making self-defense training a priority.
Header Image Source: (Jason Briscoe / Unsplash)