Open Houses : Good Way to Get Robbed?

open housesWhen your home is for sale and you hold an open house, potentially hundreds of people may walk through. Some are not just viewing your granite countertops and soaring vaulted ceilings, but also are eyeing your antique china, pearl necklace, and credit card statements. That may be because you have left these items in plain view. But it may also be because not all of the visitors to your open house are there to buy. Some might be there to rob you blind. Just ask Elizabeth Craig.

No, Craig is not a victim, but a suspect in a number of burglaries that occurred at several open houses in and around Colorado Springs, Colo. She was arrested Sunday for felony theft after police tracked her down by the license plate on the dark green Jeep Grand Cherokee she drove to several homes for sale where jewelry ended up missing during the past two weeks.

Although Craig has only been charged and not found guilty at this stage, home sellers should still take this as a valuable lesson to protect their valuables.

"I would recommend to anybody holding an open house, or just for showing their home, to hide their valuables, and not just out of sight, but in a lockbox," says ERA Shields real estate agent Jared May, who has a $200,000 vacant listing at 180 Cobblestone Drive, just a few doors down from the home where Craig was arrested.

"Valuables, prescription drugs and personal information are all high on the list of criminals for this
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type of crime," says Sotheby's International agent Bob Bredel in San Carlos, Calif. "I can't tell you how many times I have been into a listed home and seen credit cards, brokerage account statements, social security numbers, et cetera, just lying on the kitchen table or somewhere else in plain view."

Even if you don't have very personal effects out in plain view, homeowners do often stage their home with nice vases, statues and other artifacts to help make the home presentable.

"You have a house and you want it to look nice and attractive to a potential buyer, but that attraction is also attracting thieves. That is their Sunday job -- to go to open houses looking for homes that particularly have valuable things," says criminal justice professor Tod W. Burke, who is a former police officer as well as the interim associate dean at the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences for Radford University.

Thieves Case the Place

Burke, whose parents were real estate agents, tells AOL Real Estate that would-be thieves often make at least two visits to your home for sale. "The first time they are kind of casing the place and are taking notes. The second time they can come back with another person. One of the techniques is one person does the talking to the Realtor as a distracting technique and the other is wandering around."

"While one has your attention, the other raids jewelry boxes and medicine cabinets for narcotics," says Robert Siciliano, an Security Consultant who offers realty safety tips on his website.

And keeping an eye on everybody proves a bit difficult, especially during busy open houses. "It's not unusual to have 20 or more people in the house at the same time," says Bredel, who offers several tips on his blog to help both Realtors and sellers mitigate risks. "There simply is no way to keep track of them all and what they may be doing in rooms you cannot see."

Don't Show Home Alone

Burke says whether you're using a Realtor or are selling your home yourself, the person showing the home should be accompanied by a friend or an associate who can help you keep an eye on the people who come in. He says this also helps cut down on burglaries, robberies and even assaults on agents or home owners.

Siciliano suggests, "In high crime areas, consider hiring an off-duty police officer to watch the property during a showing."

Agents are not immune as targets, as AOL Real Estate reported previously in "Fatal Transactions: Gruesome Tales of Real Estate Murders" and in "Two Ohio Real Estate Agents Slain on the Job."

Although when Linda Reifler-Alessi put up her home as "for sale by owner" she did lock her valuables in the trunk of her car and made sure her husband was present with her at all showings, as AOL Real Estate reported in "FSBO: 13 Safety Tips for Home Sellers," what she didn't do was follow people around the home. "We didn't want to hover," she said.

"We have this multiple personality when we are selling our home," says Burke. "We will not let a stranger walk into our home normally, but when we are selling a house we become much more free-spirited and much more trusting, which makes us more vulnerable. What are you going to do? A background check on every person coming through the house?"

Skip Hosting An Open House

One option, is to just not have an open house at all, says Re/Max agent Collier Swecker, who believes traditional open houses have become largely an ineffective marketing method to get homes sold in the Birmingham Real Estate Market anyway.

In his video blog, Swecker notes that in addition to a shrinking number of potential home buyers venturing out on Sunday afternoons to preview the countless homes that are being held open in his market, (when they can do so from the comfort of their laptop and sofa), another problem is the increasing amount of theft that is occurring at open houses in Birmingham.

"Many of these open house thieves are working as part of teams and are very hard to profile as they are generally middle class people that do not look like the stereotypical criminal," Swecker says.

Make Use of Lights, Cameras, Neighbors

If the property is vacant, that doesn't mean it's safe from thieves. Some go in to steal copper wiring and pipes, and even the kitchen sink.

One tactic is for the thief to arrive at the open house and then unlock a back door or window so they can re-enter at a later time, says Burke.

There's not much one can do to prevent the "opportunist" crime, says Frank Scafidi, a former Los Angeles dputy sheriff and FBI agent who is now a spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Sacramento.

"If someone wants to burglarize a home for sale and, after watching the neighborhood, knows that neighbors are all at work, decides to find a discreet door or window to break through," they will, he says.

Some useful deterrents, he says, are to make sure that the property is alarmed (some alarms even come with surveillance cameras), that there are external lights with motion detectors, and that you install timers in multiple rooms and stagger their on-off cycles so that anyone driving by will see a variance in lighting.

He adds: "Consider enlisting a neighbor as a security guard. If there is a retired person close by or a stay-at-home parent, ask them to just keep an eye on the place and any people that seem to give the property more than passing interest."

Take Note of Arriving Vehicles

If you do have an open house or are just doing a showing, take a moment to walk outside to document the prospective buyers license plate, or give this task to a neighbor to note the make, model and color of each vehicle that drops people off at your home, as we say in our Tip No. 9 in "FSBO: 13 Safety Tips for Home Sellers." After all, it was someone noting the license plate number on the dark green Jeep Grand Cherokee Craig arrived to open houses in that helped lead to her arrest.

Locating Stolen Items

If you are targeted and are wondering what happened to that vase or wristwatch, you might want to check Craigslist, as most thieves aren't keeping the items for themselves. "Stolen articles frequently [end] up sold via online flea market type services and or at local outlets for a fraction of the value," says Rande Matteson, a criminal justice professor at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Fla.

Sheree R. Curry, who has owned three homes and has had multiple open houses, is a three-time, award-winning journalist living in the Twin Cities who has covered real estate for six years. During her 20-year career, her articles have appeared regularly in the Wall Street Journal, TV Week, and Fortune. She's been with AOL Real Estate since 2009 and seeks a book publisher -- or at least a lender who'll give a reasonable mortgage rate to a self-employed mom.

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