An open house can attract the perfect buyer with the perfect budget, but a stranger walking through your home when you're not there may make you nervous.
You might remember from your house-hunting days that real estate agents stayed downstairs while you checked out rooms upstairs, so what would stop ill-intentioned strangers from going through your dresser drawers, closets or even kids' rooms while they have free rein in your home?
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The National Association of Realtors says 45 percent of homebuyers, not satisfied just viewing images and descriptions of homes on multiple-listing websites, used open houses during their home-search process. Realtors, having been trained in the basics of home safety, require all visitors to sign in upon arrival. But it's quite easy for a thief to write down incorrect information, which doesn't protect you.
Here are some important steps to take before your open house to ensure your belongings are secure and visitors aren't likely to get injured during a visit to your home:
• The National Association of Realtors says thefts occurring during open houses often result in lawsuits against real estate agents and agencies, so Realtors have been advised to help keep their clients' valuables from disappearing. They might present you with a list of belonging to lock away, including jewelry, mail containing personal information, prescription drugs and extra sets of keys.
"I had a paper on my refrigerator that had our home security alarm password so that my teenagers would always be able to find it, and it didn't occur to me that a thief could grab that paper and get into my house in the future," says homeowner Melanie Davis. "Our Realtor walked through our home and pointed out things like that to hide away."
Always take precautions yourself and let the real estate agent do a walk-through to ensure you did not forget anything.
• Never allow someone into your home without an appointment. A common scam is for thieves to ring the doorbell of a home hosting an open house to ask if they can see it now, because they can't make it during the hours listed. But opening the door to a stranger could lead to assault or theft. Tell anyone who shows up without an appointment to call your agent to schedule a visit. Stick to your decision and trust your gut. The answer should always be no, even if the person has a small child and appears "normal."
• If you're selling your home by yourself and will be conducting your own open house, be sure to have trusted friends or relatives in the home with you for the sake of safety. Never conduct an open house while you're home alone, because teams of criminals could carry out the common ploy of one person distracting you while the other roots through your belongings. "I had my son and three of his larger friends stay in the house with me during our open house," says homeowner Tracy Grimes. "I felt more comfortable with them there."
• Ask your real estate agent to pre-qualify any visitors to your home's open house. Prospective buyers will have to make an appointment with your agent, get prescreened for safety, and then they can attend the open house or schedule a private visit to your home, advises the National Association of Realtors.
• Ask your agent to request to see guests' driver's licenses as they are signing in at your open house. Always ask for a form of ID, since thieves can always print up fake business cards.
• Before your open house, open all the blinds, shades and curtains in your home, and turn on all the lights. Your home, belongings and perhaps you will be safer when someone outside can easily see inside your home.
• Prior to your open house, have all members of your family put their valuables safely away, such as in a lockbox, locked file cabinet or desk drawer. Hand-held electronics left on bedroom dressers and desks are, along with laptops, easy pickings for thieves. Jewelry especially needs to be locked away. It's not enough to put financial statements and other documents in a drawer, since thieves may look through them. And prescription medications need to be secured. Many homeowners place them in a large plastic bag to take with them when they depart for the hours of the open house. Just don't leave the bag on your car seat while you're in a coffee shop. It could be stolen from there as well. Keep medications in your handbag.
• Before your open house, make sure all carpet ends and corners are secured to the floor so no visitor can trip and fall, or fall down the stairs. Nonslip pads placed beneath area rugs are wise to invest in to protect you from lawsuits.
• Prior to your open house, make sure all outdoor path stones are corrected and that none is sticking up to potentially trip a visitor and cause injury, which, again, could lead to a lawsuit. Also remove all items from outdoor stairways so no one can fall on them.
• At the end of the open house, you or your agent needs to check to see that everyone has left the premises before closing up for the night. Check the basement, attic, inside closets and inside showers to be sure no one is hiding away to rob you later. And go through your house to make sure all windows and doors are locked tight. Thieves may unlock a window to gain entry later into your home, so be vigilant and check every entrance into your home, including your garage door.
Always trust your gut. If a visitor raises your suspicions or acts aggressively toward you, call the police for your safety.