Potential Danger sticker with house and keys - exercise caution when showing homesReal estate professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the need to exercise caution in their line of work. This is true for both buyer’s agents and seller’s agents. It is good for our Silicon Valley buyers and sellers to be aware of some of these issues, since they could also be at risk.

Quick tips on how to exercise caution:

  1. Meet people you know, or for whom you are able to validate. (With real estate licensees, you can usually find their phone number and email on their company website.)
  2. Don’t presume that because a house is for sale, it’s empty (don’t peer into the windows or walk into the backyard). View the home through the proper channels, either by appointment or during an open house.
  3. Buyers should not be allowed to enter the home without their agent, who is to follow the instructions on the MLS. Some buyers may knock on the door and ask to see it. The answer should be no. It is not safe to let them in.
  4. When hunting for the home you’re trying to see, please be careful, particularly out in the country or in the mountains, where homes are not always well marked. I had two scary episodes in those types of areas, both involving my being on the wrong driveway.
  5. It’s wise to exercise caution when entering a home, even if you have an appointment and your agent is with you.  Sometimes communication isn’t great between residents, and it’s possible to surprise someone who’s not expecting you.


Agent colleagues: don’t have your first meeting with a stranger at a home for sale, especially if it’s vacant. (This doesn’t apply to referrals from your past clients, friends, etc., where that person is already vetted.) It is best for consumers and Realtors to initially meet in a public place, such as the realty office or a coffee house, and for others to know where you are during that meeting. Even better, get a pre-approval letter and speak with the lender to make sure the person is legit.

Buyers – exercise caution for your own sake, and for the residents of the home

For buyers who see signs on properties: do not presume that the house is empty and that you can peer into windows or walk around into the back yard of the house. (I have seen people do this and it is creepy at best.)  You don’t know the situation – the house could be for sale but not viewable, it could be occupied.  Some homes are offered with the instructions that the home can only be seen once an offer is accepted (“write offer subject to inspection”).

The home could be tenant occupied.  A resident could be ill.  Children could be in the house and if they look up and see a stranger at the window it will scare them badly. Don’t do it.  (Most buyers won’t do this, but I have seen it often enough that it warrants saying.)

If you need more information, call your own agent to pull it up on the MLS and give you the info you seek.  If you aren’t working with a Realtor, call the listing agent. In all cases, don’t go onto the property except to grab a flier from the box on the sign post. It’s imperative to exercise caution for not just your sake, but everyone’s.

Sellers – be careful for your own safety

For sellers who are marketing their home for sale without professional representation, be very careful about showing your property to people who call you from an ad or otherwise learn that your home is for sale. A few years back, an elderly woman showing her condo as a “for sale by owner” did not exercise caution, was attacked and killed in her northwest home by a pretend buyer.  (Real estate licensees know that agents are murdered around the country when alone or sometimes even in pairs, but home buyers and sellers are not usually aware of this risk to our safety.)

Homes which are shown by real estate licensees will usually be on a lock box – you can be gone when the home is shown, and each agent who accesses the key using the box will have his or her information recorded.  Safety is greatly increased.  At a minimum, make sure that you are not alone when the home is shown (and that all your valuables are gone).

Similarly, if you have listed your San Jose area home for sale with a broker or agent, buyers should come to view your house through the proper channels (i.e., during an open house or with their agent, who called ahead of time).  Do not open your door and allow entry in by people who simply “pop by” when they saw the sign, whether they are buyers or agents.  If agents, they can pull up your property’s information on the MLS, call and make an appointment.

Possible exception: If you have a lock box, you can perhaps let them enter if the agent is willing to use his or her display key to open the lock box – officially recording the visit with the agent’s ID now known.

When trying to find the home that’s for sale – and signs are not present

Be cautious when trying to locate the correct house, especially in the foothills or mountains where it can be hard to find some addresses due to private roads, unmarked houses etc. Some sellers do not want the For Sale sign, but that can risk having the wrong door knocked upon. Here are two of my scariest experiences:

Once I went down the wrong driveway and had a man emerge from his house holding a rifle. He was terrifying. I apologized and said that I was a Realtor looking for a home for sale that was near this one. I don’t think we ever did find that house.

Another time I went down a wrong driveway off of a long private road. The driveway I needed was the one next door, but there was no sign and it was confusing.  The owner of the home where I mistakenly drove in zoomed up behind me and blocked me in such that I had no exit, came over and started hollering at me in about trespassing in a very threatening way.

Turns out I needed to be at his sister’s house next door, and he knew that it was for sale,  but the homes were not well marked and I simply had the wrong leg of the road.  He apologized but it was harrowing. (By the way, I don’t think I looked like a threat. I was driving a grey Volvo, was wearing a pink suit, and had 2 toddler car seats in my back seat. I did, of course, give him my card and showed him the address that I was trying to find.)

The listings agents for these homes should have directional arrows and alert the neighbors about properties for sale nearby. There should be photos on the MLS of the front of the home so that house hunters and their agents know what they are looking for.

Both of those experiences have made me appreciate cell phones and GPS (both happened in the early to mid 90s).

Exercise caution when viewing a home for sale

When entering a home that you have scheduled to see, your Realtor will use the keysafe or lockbox to get the key and to open the door. Be cautious and enter slowly to avoid surprising anyone or being surprised yourself. Stay together. Sometimes sellers forget that you’re coming, have the time mixed up, or someone in the house failed to tell someone else about the appointment.

When I go into a property with my clients or alone, while previewing, I do so slowly.  First I knock and/or ring the doorbell.  I wait. Sometimes people are in the bathroom, have stepped into the yard or can’t respond fast.  Give it a minute. Then I’ll use the lockbox, and while opening the door and stepping in I’ll call out loudly, “hello! Real estate!” so that anyone in the far reaches of the house can hear me. This is where you’re most likely to encounter a surprise – when you first enter the home.

I’ve seen just about everything when going into homes for sale, including unclothed people running for cover, couples who were occupied with each other (they knew we were coming right at that moment!), all kinds of things.  Once I had a small child with a baby snake come running at me, pushing his pet into my face.  (Good thing I like animals and didn’t freak out.)

Sometimes sellers are home but don’t answer the door, so as you go through the house you may find them. (I hate that!  They should at least holler for us to use the lock box.)  I’ve stumbled onto sellers sleeping on a couch, showering (we leave fast) etc.  It’s not good to either surprise sellers or to have them surprise you!

CautionWith surprises there are additional risks. There are stories of agents with buyers going to a scheduled showing and being harmed or threatened by an unstable tenant, resident, or owner. It’s best to try to mitigate any surprise in case the seller or resident is confused about who is supposed to be there.

It’s very important, when buying or selling homes, to keep your wits about you and exercise caution at every turn.  Crazy things can happen so pay attention and follow some basic rules of caution for your safety and that of those around you.


Related reading:

Home buying tips (on this website, links to all sorts of home buyer posts)

Buying process (on popehandy.com)

September is Realtor safety month – tools for members to exercise caution (on the NAR website)





  • Mary Pope-Handy

    Silicon Valley Realtor, selling homes in Los Gatos, Saratoga, San Jose, Silicon Valley, and nearby since 1993. Prolific blogger with a network of sites.

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