On Open House Thefts: What Can a Real Estate Agent Do?

J Philip Faranda November 23, 2012

Last week I read in Agent Genius about a homeowner that was suing their real estate broker after the theft of $162,000 worth of jewelry from their home during an open house. The homeowners claim that they are entitled to damages because the crime basically occurred on the agent’s watch, and that the agent was negligent in not preventing the property from being stolen. This hits close to home for me, because a few years ago I hosted an open house where a theft occurred.

No one should ever have to endure this sort of loss, especially jewelry, which can have meaning that transcends appraised value. That said, I have a question for those debating what role the agent could or should have played in foiling the crime:

What should the agent do once they catch the crime in progress?

We are there to sell the home, so being in “prevent crime” mode strikes me as being rather antithetical to making a deal happen. You can’t exactly sell someone while at the same time being suspicious. Have you ever walked into a retail store and been “watched” by a suspicious shop keeper? It doesn’t exactly make you want to stay very long and buy something. That, coupled with the fact that the odds of a theft occurring in a properly prepared house being remote, mean that all we can do is catch thieves in the act.

Then what?

Tackle them?
Citizen’s arrest?
Subdue them somehow?
Chase them off?

In my own situation, it was two people who stole from a number of open houses in the area, and they were traced to another state. My client’s belongings were never recovered, and I don’t think the two were ever prosecuted. They signed in with fake names and numbers, and worked fast. One asked me some questions while the other cleaned out jewelry in under 2 minutes that was not under lock and key. I don’t know what would have happened if I somehow caught them in the act of committing the crime, and frankly I don’t want to know. People who stumble onto active crime scenes seldom tell happy tales.

Having already been attacked once in a house years ago as a new agent, I have to say as a husband and father of 4 children whom I REALLY want to see grow up, it is not my responsibility to take one in the gut for someone’s unsecured jewelry. It just isn’t. We take enough risk being alone with strangers in our efforts to sell your home.

I am no lawyer and have no interest in discussing the legal nuances or theory. I just value the pragmatic and my well-being. I find it ironic that if the agent slipped down the seller’s stairs that the seller would be liable, yet the agent is somehow supposed to possibly risk their life with a criminal for …things.

If you are selling your home, lock up your jewelry. Install a nanny cam if you want. But don’t add “crime prevention” to your agent’s job. We can’t prevent crime, we certainly cannot stop it, and we shouldn’t be responsible for valuables that should have been locked away.  Lock away your valuables. Everything-and everyone- is safer that way.

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