Lorei Velazco knew she wasn’t supposed to be the first one to enter a building when meeting new potential clients. In 2011, however, when she was looking to list a unit in downtown New Rochelle, the seller insisted she check out the apartment with him.
”We went back and forth a few times, and finally I said, ‘Fine, I’ll just go on up,’” Velazco, an agent at J. Phillip Real Estate, recalled.
As they were walking up the stairs, the man, according to Velazco, said: “When I get you to my empty unit, I want to bite you and tie you up.”
“I turned around and looked at him like, is he serious?” she recalled. “And I could tell in his eyes that he was.”
On the way up, Velazco started knocking on other apartment doors until a woman answered one and pulled her in. She waited to make sure the man was no longer outside and ran out of the building.
Meeting strangers and being alone with them is central to working as a real estate agent. While threats and attacks against realtors are rare, they do happen, and agents told The Real Deal that personal safety is a major factor in how they conduct business. Safety has become a far greater industry-wide priority since the 2014 murder of Arkansas agent Beverly Carter, who was kidnapped and killed by a couple masquerading as buyers. Agents often carry weapons for self-defense, use safety apps on smartphones, and meet clients only in neutral locations to mitigate dangers, industry experts said.
The National Association of Realtors has also stepped up its efforts on safety awareness. It named September agent safety month and is working to gather solid data on the types of dangers that brokers face.
”People used to think that crimes committed against real estate agents were crimes of opportunity, but in fact, they’re predatory crimes,” said Dave Legaz, a former New York Police Department sergeant who is now a broker with Keller Williams. Legaz, who teaches agent safety classes, believes that agents are often reluctant to report crimes out of embarrassment.
“Agents don’t want to come forward and say that they were sexually assaulted or brushed up against in a weird, awkward way or something like that,” he said.
NAR’s most recent survey, which was released late last month and included more than 3,200 agents, found that while just 4 percent reported actually being the victims of a crime, 38 percent of respondents said they felt unsafe in the last year.
It often comes down to instinct. “There are multiple times where you are standing there and someone is intimidating,” said Justine Bray, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens, who said she meets her clients in the lobby of a building and always keeps the door open when doing an apartment showing.
“Waiting in the lobby, you can get the impression if that person might be unsafe,” she said, “so you can say you can’t find a key, or the landlord has canceled the showing.”
Bray, Who Once Felt So Uncomfortable Showing An Apartment On East 72nd Street that she requested the building’s super send someone to the unit until the man left, said she will sometimes check the phone numbers people leave on sign-in sheets to make sure they are legitimate.
Joan Kagan, a sales manager at Triplemint, said “there is a perception that real estate agents have tons of money.”
“That makes us more vulnerable,” she added. “I’ve instructed my agents that there is no deal that is worth sacrificing their own safety.”
However, agents still have to strike a balance between protecting themselves but not being too nervous to chase down a lead. Early-career agents are more likely to push aside misgivings while they are trying to get ahead, brokers said.
“I tell [newer agents] to do all their showings before dark,” said Citi Habitats’ Ronnie Shumake.
And while brokers told TRD safety is a concern for both sexes, it’s something female agents need to especially consider. While just 25 percent of male agents in the NAR survey reported feeling unsafe, the number was at 44 percent for female agents.
”You just always, always, have to have eyes in the back of your head….being a woman going into a house as well, especially at night on a vacant property,” said Laura Copersino, a Douglas Elliman broker who focuses on Queens.
Others said they have strict rules about meeting strangers. “We meet [clients] in the office first — that’s been a practice for me since day one,” said Citi Habitats’ Natalia Padilla, who said if she really feels comfortable enough with someone she will meet them in A Public Place like a coffee shop rather than the office. “I am a girl and I’m only 5’2” … they prey on women more, obviously.”
“You really have to screen — don’t just take anyone out,” said Michelle Sedlitz, also of Citi Habitats. Sedlitz recalled being approached by a man outside her office early on in her career. The man first flirted with her and then set up an appointment with her to look at homes.
“It was a little uncomfortable,” she said. “I think his interest was me, more than an apartment.”
Several agents and companies said they’ve developed their own ways of handling safety concerns. According to the NAR survey, 44 percent of real estate offices have standard procedures for agent safety, while 52 percent of men and 57 percent of women carry self-defense weapons ranging from pepper spray to Tasers to noisemakers.
The president of the Real Estate Board of New York, John Banks, said he urges brokers to remain aware of their surroundings, and to take “precautionary measures such as actively communicating their whereabouts to their colleagues and any building staff when showing homes, and establishing procedures for emergency situations.”
Greg Harden, co-founder of Oxford Property Group, said his company will do virtual open house tours with Facebook Live and virtual apartment showings on YouTube to avoid having agents constantly open up the homes. At high-end apartments where security is a particularly strong concern, multiple agents will show up for an open house.
“The more eyes you have in the room at the same time, the better,” he said.
Sierra Residential’s Adam Frisch said his company has a broker in the lobby and apartment during showings and said it is important to do open houses by appointment only. He also stressed the importance of screening buyers or tenants before they come to the property. “This will weed out many potentially shady individuals,” he said. BHS recommends against agents holding open houses alone; Triplemint managers have access to all brokers’ calendars; and Mirador Real Estate said it plans to start running safety courses.
At Legaz’s safety classes, he instructs agents to try making the homes themselves safer by removing prescription drugs from the medicine cabinet and removing knives from the kitchen.
“The most dangerous spot in the house during a family dispute is in the kitchen,” he said, “because of those knives.”
Vincent Ferrante of Keller Williams NYC Bronx emphasized the need for agents to understand when someone is just angry versus when they are actually a threat.
“The business is emotional anyway, even if you’re not talking about, like, criminal acts,” he said. “You’re selling someone’s house. Sometimes people are going through divorces, so you’ve got to let people vent sometimes while understanding it’s not personal.”