Are open houses too dangerous to justify?

Following a wave of headlines about open house-related crime, agents say safety issues are a growing concern BYJIM DALRYMPLE II

Jen Geisinger was holding an open house alone about a decade ago when she heard what sounded like someone rummaging through the master bathroom’s medicine cabinet.

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“I started up the steps, because the master was at the top,” Geisinger recently told Inman. “We were the only two people in the house and I said, ‘is there anything I can help you with sir? Do you have any questions?’”

Was she scared?“Definitely,” Geisinger recalled.

“I ended the open house really quickly,” she added. “I locked everything up. And left.”

Though the incident happened years ago, Geisinger said it prompted her to abandon solo open houses. And in fact, she has since started to avoid the entire practice.

“I don’t think they are effective for selling a home,” she explained. “I don’t do them.”

Geisinger is not alone. Though open houses obviously remain a popular way to market homes and find new clients, many agents also view the practice with growing skepticism. The debate on the topic is complex and touches on the the idea of basic effectiveness. But among the agents who have moved away from the practice and spoke with Inman, safety concerns — either for themselves or for their clients’ property — are arguably the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Safety is a major concern among agents

Data on agent safety and open houses specifically is sparse. However, research from the National Association of Realtors shows that in 2019, 33 percent of agents experienced a situation that made them fear for their safety or the safety of their personal information. And significantly, open houses were identified as among the “common situations” that caused agents fear.

Credit: NAR

NAR’s research additionally showed that 40 percent of women had experiences that made them fear for their safety in 2019.

And tellingly, NAR’s 2019 report on agent safety included a section on theft of prescription drugs during open houses and home tours. Though the percentage of agents who actually reported a drug theft during an open house was only 3 percent, 2019 was the first time that section was included in NAR’s annual report — suggesting such incidents are at the very least a growing point of concern within the industry.

A recent report from NAR shows that 3 percent of agents reported the theft of prescription drugs during an open house in 2019. Credit: NAR

A long pattern of open house crimes

If specific data on open houses is somewhat difficult to come by, headlines about crime are not. In August, Jason Yaselli — at the time a Keller Williams agent — was arrested for serving as an accomplice in a string of burglaries at the homes of celebrities such as Usher, Jason Derulo and Adam Lambert.

In June, suspected thieves Sara Neal and Richard Maloney were arrested after a spree of alleged open house burglaries.

In January, Benjamin Ackerman was arrested for posing as an agent and using open houses to case celebrity homes.

In August 2017, George and Sophie Kallas were arrested for posing as homebuyers in order to steal things during open houses in Illinois. And in January of that year, Nino Siganoff, Valerie Siganoff and Barbara Adams were arrested in California’s Orange County for pulling a similar scheme.

Suspects in open house-related crimes: 1. Stanley Keller 2. Benjamin Ackerman 3. Jason Yaselli 4. Valerie Siganoff 5. Nino Siganoff 6. Barbara Adams 7. Sophie Kallas 8. George Kallas 9. Alen Karaboghosian 10. Sara Neal 11. Richard Maloney 12. Arron Lewis 13. Craig Getzloff 14. Isaac Corben Mau 15. Dillon Augustyniak 16. Peter Schieffelin Nyberg 17. Ernest Robert Chrisman 18. Steven Breed Credit: police

The list of petty theft incidents could go on, but unfortunately some open house-related crimes have also turned violent. Just a month and a half ago, Alen Karaboghosian was allegedly caught on camera assaulting a female agent at an open house in Encino, California.

In April, Stanley Keller allegedly used a stun gun on an agent conducting an open house, then tried to sexually assault her.

And in one of the most horrifying incidents of all, a Philadelphia agent was carjacked, and sexually assaulted in 2014 at an open house. That incident ended when the perpetrators, Jonathan Rosa and Cornelius Crawford, crashed into and killed a mother and three children. The two men were later sentenced to prison.

Another high-profile incident, albeit one with a very different outcome, happened in August. At the time, Colorado agent Dawna Hetzler was conducting an open house in Commerce City when a visitor, who had initially asked questions about the listing, suddenly threatened her with a knife and bear spray.

The man allegedly ordered Hetzler to take off her ring and get in a closet, but she — a concealed carry permit holder — pulled out a gun. The man then discharged the bear spray and Hetzler fired several shots. Police later arrested Ernest Robert Chrisman for the incident. And Hetzler ultimately told the local news that if “I did not have my firearm, I would not be here to talk to you.”

Aside from Geisinger, none of the agents who spoke with Inman for this story had first-hand experience with open house-related crime. (Several agents who did either declined to discuss them or didn’t respond to Inman’s request for an interview.)

But even if most agents aren’t victims themselves, concerns about crime came up again and again in conversations Inman had with agents. It is, it seems, an issue that is nearly universally pondered in the industry, both among critics and proponents of open houses.

“The risk is definitely higher than it used to be,” Marc Cassens, a Realty Experts agent in Oklahoma who avoids open houses, said.

“There have always been creepy people,” Toronto real estate agent John Fortney, who is a fan of open houses, said. “But I think it’s more of an issue today than ever.”

The list of specific concerns is long and varied, and goes beyond the physical safety issues raised by headlines. On the most basic level, agents have to be wary of thieves like the one Geisinger thwarted. The real estate professionals who spoke with Inman said that homeowners and their agents also need to be especially careful when it comes to small things, like drugs and jewelry, that can be easily spirited away.

“If it’s not nailed down it can be taken,” broker, retired agent and real estate writer Jay Thompson explained. “And it is.”

Mary Gillach, a team leader at William Raveis Real Estate in Boston, also said agents have to be wary about the information they discuss inside properties because owners may have surveillance devices listening in.

“I tell my team if you don’t want to be on the front page, don’t say it,” Gillach told Inman.

Gillach herself is a fan of open houses and described them as mandatory in her market, but given the array of concerns its no surprise that some other agents have largely abandoned the practice.

“When I was a real estate agent and actively selling homes, I didn’t do them,” Thompson added of open houses.

“Security is probably the biggest reason,” Geisinger said of her move away from doing open houses. “I don’t think it’s safe, and I’m not a big proponent of it.”

How to stay safe

Though Geisinger has moved away from doing open houses, if she still has to do one she brings her husband, who is also a real estate agent.

This was a nearly universal tip agents shared in conversations with Inman: Don’t do open houses solo.

Fortney, too, suggested agents always bring a colleague. One way to make that happen is to train or mentor a newer agent, he suggested, but either way “you never want to be alone.” And while some people may resist teaming up because they don’t want to miss out on commissions, Fortney said that doesn’t really work as an excuse.

“What’s more important?” he asked. “Safety. If there’s two of you, there’s strength in numbers.”

Some agents have also opted to arm themselves. NAR’s recent report on safety shows that a total of 44 percent of agents have opted to carry “self-defense weapons.” The most common of those weapons is pepper spray, followed by guns.

Credit: NAR

NAR also found that 49 percent of women in the industry choose to carry self-defense weapons, verses 35 percent of men. However, women opt for pepper spray in greater percentages than men, while men lean toward firearms.

Credit: NAR

As was the case with NAR’s other numbers, this data isn’t specifically referring to open houses. But it does show how agents are responding to situations that make them vulnerable, of which NAR identified open houses as among the more notable.

The debate over whether agents should carry weapons is long-running (and probably has a lot to do with the geographic area where a given agent is working). But whatever conclusion someone might reach on that particular point, real estate pros told Inman there are other even more basic things agents can do to protect themselves.

Thompson, for example, said that when agents do choose to hold an open house, they should always tell someone where they are going to be, do an inventory of what’s in the home and talk to the sellers about safety and security.“Always get between the person visiting and the door, so you can get to the door before the person does,” Thompson further advised. “And let the visitor lead the way through the house.”

Even with these precautions, agents can still run into trouble and Thompson advised everyone involved in an open house to be ever-vigilant. And that, at least, should be one positive outcome of the increased focus on safety.

“I do know that there’s far more awareness of safety,” Thompson added. “I don’t know if the safety issues have gotten worse, but I think people are more aware of them.”