The 911 call came in shortly after 5 p.m. on a Wednesday last December. It was cryptic, but the caller sounded in distress. Then, the dispatcher heard another voice ask, “Where’s the money? Who are you talking to?”
By the time police arrived at the Ryan Homes model home at the Shipley Homestead development in Hanover, Md., the man who had made the call wasn’t breathing. Steven Wilson, 33, a father of two, was pronounced dead at the scene. He had been shot in the upper torso, the victim of a robbery-homicide.
Two days later, police arrested Dillon Nicholas Augustyniak, an 18-year-old man who lived nearby, and charged him with first-degree murder, armed robbery, theft, and use of a firearm in a violent crime. Authorities allege Augustyniak stole Wilson’s laptop and cell phone, and later tried to sell the gun used to kill Wilson.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 real estate and leasing professionals were murdered at work in 2017, the latest period for which data is available. That is half of the 20 real estate workers murdered on the job in 2016; in 2015, the number was 11.
“It happens more often than most people realize or know about,” says private security consultant Matthew D. Seifer, founder of Hauppauge, N.Y.–based Radius Investigations. “Real estate professionals are easy marks. They’re literally open to attack simply by the nature of the profession, going out into the field and meeting with people who they do not know for the first time in an unfamiliar setting.”
Of course, not every breach of safety in this line of work ends so brutally, but problems with crime and security are widespread. A recent BUILDER poll of real estate and construction professionals by Branded Research found that 42% of respondents have been the victim of a crime or felt threatened while at work. These instances highlight the importance for employers in the housing industry to ensure their staffs are aware of risks and educated on how to protect themselves.
According to the 2018 Member Safety Report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), model homes were one of the most common environments where Realtors reported feeling physically threatened or scared on the job. “Common situations that caused fear for agents were open houses, vacant homes, and model homes,” says Jessica Lautz, vice president for research at NAR.
Builders and their new-home sales agents often don’t like to talk about model home security because they think it will scare away customers and potential employees, says Robert Siciliano, CEO of Boston-based security firm Safr.me, which offers real estate safety education training. “Unless something happens locally, it’s just not top of mind. They figure the chances of it happening are slim, so why bring it up? But that’s not being responsible, or ethical.”
Not addressing the risks to these employees could be a ticking time-bomb for the industry, says Rachel Walla, owner of Portland-based workplace safety and OSHA compliance firm SnapFox Safety, noting that such incidents could leave companies open for liability.
“Employee security and workplace violence is more of a hot topic now than ever,” Walla says. “At the very minimum, employees should receive some training on how to handle situations that could get dangerous.”
Scottsdale, Ariz.–based Taylor Morrison has direct experience in this area. In 2003, sales representatives Cyndi Williams, 33, and Lori K. Brown, 21, were found murdered in a model home built by predecessor company Morrison Homes in Atlanta.
“We will never forget the tragic loss of Cyndi Williams and Lori Brown; their memory drives us to be vigilant about safety every single day,” writes Taylor Morrison chief customer officer Graham Hughes in an email. “As part of our required and ongoing training of community sales managers and all sales center staff, we openly discuss risks and review safety measures to ensure proper safety practices are always top-of-mind and always evolving.”
Hughes says the company has a formalized, in-depth training program to teach its agents how to react in potentially dangerous situations. Production builders such as Lennar, PulteGroup, and D.R. Horton also offer safety training for their sales agents. In fact, 62% of respondents to a Branded Research poll said sales agents at their companies are required to attend safety training.
Christa Amidon, a former model home sales agent for several large builders who now works as a recruiter for Berkley, Mich.–based construction placement firm The Birmingham Group, reports that while working as a consultant to sell homes for D.R. Horton, the company coordinated hands-on safety training for sales agents. “We actually had an entire sales meeting where they brought in experts and taught us a self-defense class,” she recalls.
She adds that she also was informed and trained on sales safety while working at Pulte: “I think a lot of these big builders actually do put similar rules and policies in place.”
Habitat for Humanity’s affiliate in Richmond, Va., is considering beefing up its security procedures after two employees were stabbed in March at a work site in South Richmond. A construction supervisor and apprentice were wounded in the attack, which police said was an apparent robbery. The man entered the home, which was unlocked, while the two employees were cleaning up.
“Our first concern is for the safety of all persons who are on our construction sites,” Habitat said in a statement.
Caught on Camera
The use of wireless security cameras is becoming more common in model homes, especially as the cost of the technology has come down.
That’s the route Marshall Gobuty, president of Pearl Homes and developer of Mirabella and Hunters Point communities, took in his models and sales offices. “Not only does it help with security, but it’s actually helped in scenarios where customers may have buyer’s remorse and claim a sales agent pressured them into doing something they didn’t want to do,” he says. “Now we have the interaction on camera.”
Security cameras helped catch a thief in January when the sales office at CBH Homes in Meridian, Idaho, was broken into. Luckily, the builder had recently installed Video Ring doorbells throughout its offices. The system recorded the thief approaching the front door and caught his face on the camera. The thief broke in the back door and stole items until he was deterred by the home’s alarm system.
A CBH employee posted the video on the Ring App and on Facebook, asking for help to identify the man. Within a few hours, 55 people shared the post, which ultimately reached more than 8,000 people. CBH quickly received a direct message on Facebook identifying the man in the video. “We don’t have problems often with break-ins, but it’s a top priority for us to keep our team safe,” says Ronda Conger, vice president of CBH Homes.
Siciliano says cameras—and signs that let people know they’re there—are a big deterrent for people with nefarious motives. “When people see signs that say a property is under video surveillance, anybody who has bad intentions now knows the likelihood of them getting caught is exponentially increased,” he says.
And yet, Amidon recalls pushback while working at one Detroit-area builder when a sales manager advocated for signage noting the presence of video surveillance. “The thought was, what if a young family comes in with their children and sees a sign that says they’re being watched?” she says. “They might think it’s an indication it’s not a good place to live.”
Builders, and any sales-oriented organizations, need to balance those needs. But from the perspective of workplace safety experts, the answer is clear: “Employers are accountable for mitigating these types of risks to employees,” says Phil La Duke, a Detroit-based workplace safety consultant and author of The Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Book On Workplace Violence Prevention. “They need to make it clear that safety always comes before sales.”
Another tip from pros is to buddy up—especially as workplace safety experts say a leading risk factor for employees who are victims of workplace violence is working alone. “You’re alone in a vacant house with your valuables: your credit cards, your wallet, your laptop, your cell phone. You’re isolated,” says Siciliano.
In her experience, Amidon says there can be resistance from both builders and sales agents when it comes to pairing up with others. “As sales have slowed, companies don’t always want to pay to have two people do the job of one,” she says, adding that agents also resist it at times to avoid having to split commission.
But promoting safety and sales doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, says Gretchen Howell, vice president of Austin, Texas–based developer SouthStar Communities, which emphasizes model home safety at its 3,900-acre Vintage Oaks custom home community outside San Antonio. In that development, the company has clustered different builders’ model homes in close proximity to each other to promote the idea of safety in numbers.
“It has a safety virtue to it because it means when someone’s walking to their car at 5 or 6 o’clock at night, someone else probably is, too,” she says. “But it also has a sales virtue, because customers who come in to look at a home can easily look at a few others for comparison.”
Another area where builders could join forces is by requiring prospective buyers to provide identification.
“Builders have the ability to make the biggest change in the market if they would just require prospects at model homes to show IDs,” says Jen Stanbrough, a former new-home sales agent and current Realtor in West Des Moines, Iowa. “So many times there’s pushback on that, but if builders all banded together and required it, it would just become a part of the culture that’s accepted.”
For Stanbrough, the issue of safety in the sales office is personal. Her friend, 27-year-old Ashley Okland, was shot twice and killed while working in a model home belonging to now-defunct builder Rottlund Homes in 2011—a case that’s still unsolved.
“Builders put a lot of money into their model homes,” she says. “Their other biggest asset should be the people working to sell them.”
Other safety measures and best practices recommended by experts include providing employees with “panic buttons” that can automatically call 911, and always letting someone know when an employee is out on a tour. Pre-agreed upon code words can also be established to signal to co-workers when someone feels uncomfortable.
Howell notes that if an employee feels at risk, there are procedures in place, such as saying they’re going to a designated address that doesn’t actually exist, which tells the other person something’s up.
Experts also advocate the use of mobile apps that can share geo-locations with co-workers or loved ones. The most popular, according to NAR’s survey, are Apple’s Find My iPhone, GPS Phone Track for Android, HomeSnap Pro, Life360, and SentrySmart. Trust Stamp, an app that NAR has invested in that is free to its members, also uses AI and public data to rank the trustworthiness of new contacts. NAR’s Lautz says about 47% of members are using these different tools.
Additional steps include not giving tours after dark; changing business hours seasonally; driving in separate cars for tours; and locking the sales center door after sunset. NAR’s survey also found that 40% of men and 45% of women carry a self-defense weapon, such as a firearm or pepper spray, to protect themselves.
Amidon says she always held firm to one personal safety requirement: “One of my rules was that I always wanted blinds in the sales office so that people couldn’t just look in and see inside after dark,” she says.
Taylor Morrison says its sales safety program contains many of these components. For instance, community sales managers always work in pairs or groups, they wear personal remote panic buttons, and they aim to close and lock sales offices by 6 p.m. In addition, security cameras monitor all properties, Hughes says.
For Gobuty, who has a co-worker stop by the company's sales center at the end of the day to walk agents to their cars, it’s simply a matter of peace of mind. “I’d rather lose the sale than lose one of my employees,” he says.