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Real estate firms consider agent safety a selling point

By Mary Umberger Published: June 17, 2006
CHICAGO - On the rare occasions when real estate agent Lanora Walker agrees to hold open houses for her clients, she gets there early and hides the knives.

"I put all the sharp objects, all the knives, underneath the bed," said the Lansing agent. "I put away fingernail files and nail clippers."

Walker is adamant about not becoming a crime victim on the job. She prefers not to have open houses because she doesn't like the idea of being in a vacant home with a sign in front that invites strangers to come in off the street.

When she goes to an appointment with a potential client, Walker checks for the person's name in a sex-offender registry. She diligently informs her office of her whereabouts every minute of her workday.

Paranoia? Probably not.

In the realm of "dangerous jobs," being a real estate agent hardly carries the risk factor that, say, driving a taxi does. But beneath the smiles and salesmanship, some agents feel unease.

In 2003 and 2004, 42 realty and apartment-leasing agents and managers died from violent attacks on the job, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The rate of crime doesn't appear to be going up, but the issue got a jolt of attention in the industry after two agents in Florida were attacked in separate incidents within the space of two weeks in March.

"You never know who you're going to meet," said Janice Flasschoen, one of the Florida agents, who was showing a home in South Daytona Beach when her client came at her with a hammer.

In April, the Georgia Association of Realtors put out an alert about a man claiming to be a former Seattle Mariners baseball player. He abducted and robbed an agent April 4 and apparently has approached other agents, identifying himself in the same way.

Flasschoen, who took 20 blows from the hammer-wielding man, including two to her head, fought him off and fled outside, where bystanders grabbed him. She said she worries that similar horror stories will become more common as the real estate market slows -- that agents hoping to snag a client will take more risks with strangers.

A few real estate brokerages require agents to leave detailed information on their whereabouts or to meet new clients at the office, not in an unoccupied or unfamiliar home. Others merely recommend those steps.

Such procedures are comparatively rare in the day-to-day routines of the nation's million-plus real estate agents, who say the nature of their business often renders those rules impractical.

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