- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

While open-house season is in full swing, homeowners must be mindful of sticky-fingered guests who want to do more than just tour the house. Thieves posing as prospective buyers target open houses, leaving the homeowner vulnerable to having household items and valuables stolen.

Take the case of the Leesburg woman who is accused of stealing items from dozens of open houses in Loudoun County this spring. Investigators say she took jewelry, firearms and prescription drugs from homes before being arrested.

“Although you try to be careful by securing and/or hiding your valuables, a determined thief can somehow always find stuff,” said Margeau Gilbert, a Realtor with Exit Right Realty in Laurel who experienced theft at an open house firsthand.

Real estate agents say sellers who declutter their home have a good opportunity to put away their valuables and personal items. In the midst of preparing their house to go on the market, homeowners may overlook such things as checkbooks, jewelry, small electronics such as cameras or iPods and sensitive mail.

Walter Moloney, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, says standard operating procedure is for Realtors to advise homeowners to hide their valuables - even prescriptions.

“There are a lot of people who will case out an open house just to steal the medicine,” Mr. Moloney says.

Real estate agents say prescription medicine and alcohol are targets for substance abusers.

“Every spring, we have reports of people stealing prescription drugs at open houses,” says Suzanne Simon, office manager at Long & Foster in Arlington. She says that a few years ago, a thief went to open houses to steal black underwear.

Homeowners can take steps to avoid becoming victims. Ms. Gilbert says that if they don’t have a safe in the home, sellers should hide their valuables in an unobtrusive place.

“During an open house, people are milling about, so it’s easy for someone to take something when it’s out in plain sight,” she says. “On the other hand, if I saw an open-house attendee rifling through canisters or lifting a mattress I would be highly suspect.”

The Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (NVAR) participates in Realtor safety week each September and also sends safety alerts to members year-round.

Jill Landsman, NVAR’s communications and media relations director, says one such alert paid off for a Realtor who was reminded about a frequent but questionable open-house attendee in the Clifton/Centreville area.

“Our members tell us about unsavory characters,” she says.

A Realtor reported that the man came into an open house acting nervously and tried to distract the agent’s attention by asking her to print out photographs of the interior. Once he left, she noticed that he had rifled through the drawers in the house. The agent had taken down his license number, then filed a police report.

Since the concept of an open house involves masses of strangers coming in and out, those showing the house also need to be mindful of their personal safety, in addition to preventing theft.

“Safety is an ongoing problem,” Ms. Landsman says.

Some changed the way they conduct open houses to offer an extra layer of personal protection.

“We’ve had to change; there are too many instances of agents getting robbed, raped or even killed while holding an open house,” Ms. Gilbert says.

She used to hold open houses alone, “but not anymore, it’s just not safe,” she says.

Brenda Small, manager of the uptown office of Prudential Carruthers in the District said that her agents typically buddy up for open houses, preview and set up the home in advance, and canvas the street to get to know the neighbors in the area.

“We certainly pay more attention to our surroundings and are more aware of potential and unsuspected dangers,” Ms. Small says. She says agents should know how to strategically position themselves in the house if they are working the open house alone.

“Cell phone access is a must, and do not leave personal belongings such as a pocketbook in the open or unattended,” Ms. Small says.

Ms. Landsman says some agents have communication codes with their spouses or a friend if they become suspicious about an attendee.

They may call from the open house, saying, “I left the iron on” or “I really need those red files,” and the person knows to come to the house right away.

However, even in light of the current market and safety concerns, open houses are still popular. Mr. Moloney says a recent survey of home buyers and sellers showed that 48 percent use open houses as a resource.

“Buyers often cast a wide net, and attending open houses allows them to see what’s available and find agents who are active in certain neighborhoods,” Mr. Moloney says.

“Holding an open house is a good strategy because it brings in neighbors, the public and other agents,” Ms. Gilbert says. “The bottom line is that you never know where the next buyer will come from.”

Officer Tenesha Bellamy of the Montgomery County Police Department in Rockville says she would advise agents and homeowners to have a sign-in sheet, to avoid letting a stranger tour an open house alone, and to tell the prospect that you are expecting a visitor during the showing.

“Leave the dead-bolt locks unlocked should you need a quick escape and make arrangements to telephone a friend or neighbor at the conclusion of the appointment,” Officer Bellamy says.

Officer Bellamy also says that she would recommend that firearms, knives and other weapons be removed from sight and locked away. She suggests that sellers remove family photographs or items labeled with names, put away bills and invoices, credit card statements and anything with a Social Security number on it, as well as jewelry and prescription medications.

Ms. Small says that valuables may include a variety of items that are not just of monetary value but sentimental value as well, such as “heirlooms, artwork, one-of-a kind pieces, special collections, intellectual property and the like.”

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