WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — The potential for violence has real estate agents across the country taking up arms as they head into houses they've never seen alongside people they've never met. High-profile cases in recent months have motivated some to carry a gun on the job. But not every state makes it easy for agents to protect themselves.
Scott Smith works as a real estate agent in Baltimore. He's in and out of properties every day, never knowing what he could encounter. He protects himself thanks to a concealed carry permit he received legally.
Smith, who has also worked as a firearms instructor, says he’s never used the gun he legally carries when he's conducting business. But he trains regularly so he's prepared, knowing fellow real estate agents who have been assaulted or robbed in the course of just doing their jobs. Smith has had his own scare.
"I was completely taken off guard," he explained. "There was a person hiding in the house. Actually they were hiding in the shower. I had no clue they were there, and that was obviously pretty scary."
Real estate, by its very nature, is an industry that comes with some risk. Real estate agents regularly visit homes with floor plans they've never seen. They often meet strangers at the homes they're trying to sell. A 2018 report from the National Association of Realtors showed 33 percent of those surveyed experienced a situation that made them fear for their safety. The survey reported 5 percent of respondents claimed they'd been the victim of crime at work.
John Smaby is a Minnesota Realtor who grew up in real estate thanks to a Realtor father. He's been in the industry for decades and was recently installed as the new president of the NAR.
Smaby told Circa, "The real estate business is really an individual business, so we many times meet people in places that could put ourselves in peril. We can’t do it blind."
The organization that represents more than 1.3 million members knows that safety has to be a top priority in real estate. In the past few years, the NAR has stepped up education and training efforts to better protect and prepare agents across the country. It also began conducting the member safety survey in 2017 to get a sense of what Realtors are experiencing and how they're protecting themselves.
"When it comes to safety, you can never do enough."
The latest NAR survey shows some Realtors are taking matters into their own hands. It found one of the most popular forms of self protection for those surveyed was a gun, with one in six agents admitting they carry.
High-profile cases have been a motivator for some to take action. In 2015, there was a series of armed robberies targeting real estate agents in vacant houses in St. Petersburg, Fla. In December, a Maryland man working alone at a model home was murdered near Annapolis in what police called an apparent robbery attempt. And a real estate agent was gunned down last month in Utah while evicting a tenant.
But no case spurred more action than the chilling abduction and killing of an Arkansas agent whose case made national news in 2014. Beverly Carter's case sounds like a made-for-TV movie with the details come to life. The vivacious blonde whose smile radiated from her real estate picture was kidnapped by a couple that deliberately targeted the 50-year-old because, they later explained, she looked rich and worked alone.
"Your brain just can’t process the fact that your loved one was kidnapped and duct-taped and put in the trunk of a car and later murdered," Carter's son, Carl, told Circa. "My brain can’t get around that, and perhaps that’s a blessing. I don’t know that I could live with that circling all the time."
Carl Carter Jr. says his mother had spoken at length with the people who eventually took her life, texting them and speaking on the phone. Before showing them a lakefront property outside Little Rock, she told coworkers and her husband the address. Carter even locked her purse in the car before going inside. Then hours went by without a word from the longtime agent, prompting worried phone calls among her family.
"My dad said, 'Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on. Your mom’s car is here but there’s no one here.'"
Over the course of five agonizing days, there was a heartbreaking phone call from Beverly to her husband, a ransom demand and countless searches conducted by concerned neighbors, friends and loved ones. Then Beverly's body was found in a shallow grave, with the Realtor name tag she was wearing snapped in half.
"She was precious. She was hard-working," Carl Carter said. "She was not a reckless salesperson driven by greed. She was attempting to serve clients."
Carl Carter is now serving real estate agents through a foundation created in his mother’s name. What happened to Beverly brought the industry’s safety problems into sharp focus. It was the catalyst for a massive shift in how agents and real estate firms handle safety. Carter now travels the world teaching smart strategies.
But carrying a gun, he says, just isn’t enough.
"I believe this wholeheartedly, a gun would not have saved my mother’s life that day," Carl said. "There were a number of business decisions along the way that led her to that vacant room on the second story of a home where she turned from taking a photograph, and she was met with a taser in her side. There was no time to turn and grab a gun."
The NAR, through Smaby, provided no specific stance on whether Realtors should carry guns. Those who choose to carry may find challenges depending on where they live. Circa checked concealed carry laws across the country. Although many states will issue those permits, the National Rifle Association told us eight states, mostly along the coasts, can and do put severe restrictions on those who legally want to carry concealed guns. In many cases, those conditions mean the guns can’t be carried just for personal protection.
Smith knows that all too well. To get his concealed carry permit, he had to prove he could meet a specific requirement. As he explained, "Our state (Maryland) does not make it easy to protect yourself. As a Realtor, you can apply to get a concealed carry permit. It will be restricted as to while you’re doing business as a Realtor, carrying cash deposits, doing business transactions."
Smith knows carrying isn't for every agent. It's a personal choice. But he says education, training and proactive steps need to be required for every agent.
"It only takes once when you never come home again."
Carl Carter Jr. understands the heartbreak that comes when a real estate agent doesn't return home. He says his family still struggles to cope with the death of the woman that brought so much to their lives as they work to make sure the kind of tragedy she experienced is never repeated.
"I miss my mom’s laugh. I miss being able to kiss her cheek every time we greeted or said goodbye. I miss everything about her every single day," he said. "But I think my mom would be very proud of what we’re doing. She’d be very very proud."
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