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Agent robbed at gun point by ‘home buyers’

MAIN IMAGE: The police and emergency services arrive in the street in Rustenburg where the robbery took place. Source: Supplied

After being robbed at gun point while showing a house to ‘prospective buyers’, a top agent in Rustenburg in the North West is seriously reconsidering whether she ever wants to sell houses again.

The safety of estate agents when meeting clients to show them properties or while doing a showhouse is a growing concern in the local estate agency industry. The latest incident involving an experienced estate agent, her elderly mother and her younger colleague being held up at gun point, bound and gagged by a group of well-dressed ‘home buyers’ brought the issue to the fore again.

Maria Englezakis has been in real estate for 24 years, the last 12 years with ERA Rustenburg where she won numerous awards as one of their best agents. Becoming a victim of crime while showing a client a house or during an open house was something she never thought would happen to her until Thursday 2 May.

She had just shown her brother’s house, that is in the market for R2.4m, to a man who had called her about buying the property when two women stopped and asked to see the house. Englezakis says she then made an appointment with them for 12:30 noon. They arrived on time in a brand-new orange Ford Ranger with EC-number plates but with them were two men and another woman who were introduced as the husband of the woman interested in the property and also her brother with his wife.

“They were dressed to the ‘T’ and their English was impeccable, so we went in and I closed the gate,” says Englezakis who had a younger female colleague with her. In the garden was also her elderly mother (84) who lives in the house.

She remembers the woman as being very knowledgeable about property however while they were discussing an offer on the property one man pulled out a gun and put it to her chest. Englezakis and her colleague were taken to one room where they were bound and gagged after being questioned about the location of the safe. Englezakis mother was called in from the garden and then bound and gagged in another room. When Maria heard her mom screaming followed by silence, she thought they had killed her.

The group ransacked the house and pulled the safe from the wall before leaving. Maria’s colleague managed to get to the kitchen, find a knife and cut them loose. Her mother they found with her hand bleeding, arms and legs bruised and she was gagged so tightly that her mouth bled. She had to be hospitalised in the intensive care unit. The North West police is investigating the robbery.

“It was really unexpected. I am totally gutted. I can’t sleep. I don’t even want to sell houses anymore,” says Maria who is receiving counselling.

According to Renee Breytenbach, franchise owner of ERA Rustenburg, this could be the second time that members from this particular group targeted a house for sale in the area. She had heard of another incident involving three women also in a car of the same description where items from the house were missing after they were shown the property. She is very concerned about the situation and says they will be very sad if Englezakis decides to leave as she is one of their best agents.

Up to now crime hasn’t been a problem when going about their daily business of selling houses, but following this incident more stringent safety measures are being brought in. Breytenbach says she has instructed their agents to ask clients to come to the office and not to meet them at listed properties anymore. “Even if it costs us a transaction – the life of our estate agent is worth more,” she adds. She says she also has concerns about security at show days and she instructed her agents to remove ‘for sale’ signs with their contact details on it, going forward they will rely on other marketing tactics such as online marketing.

Safety precautions when viewing a property or doing a show house

Jean Botha, COO of Just Property Head Office, says safety is a very real concern for their agents and the clients they represent as both people and properties are vulnerable in the viewing process.

There are a number of non-intrusive precautions that their agents are encouraged to take:

  • always make sure that a colleague knows your movements, including when you are expected to be done with a viewing. This makes provision for an early warning that things are amiss
  • carry a panic button (like Guardian Gabriel) or install a safety app on your phone – again, an early warning system
  • attend viewings with a colleague, where possible, as this provides for “safety in numbers”
  • arrange viewings at prescribed times, where multiple people can view the property at the same time – again, this provides for “safety in numbers”
  • meet the clients at your office (where they can be seen by your colleagues) and drive from there to the property – this gives you time to assess them in a safe and public space
  • trust your intuition and act quickly if you sense that something is not quite right

Botha says more assertive precautions can be taken but these may not always be practically possible, especially where the same property is listed by multiple agencies. For example, that agents conduct a personal verification of the prospective buyers/ tenants before allowing them into premises – knowing who the client is (and having evidence to support that) helps to mitigate risk. This can be as simple as asking for an ID document or as comprehensive as a full background check.

“Agents are (understandably) reluctant to have uncomfortable discussions with their clients or to introduce barriers to the viewings process but personal safety and the security of the clients whose properties we represent is not something that can be taken lightly. Our priorities must lie with protecting those,” ends Botha.

Gerhard van der Linde, Seeff’s managing director in Pretoria East, says with regard to safety measures at show days their agents will not take any client out to a property or set up an appointment with a potential buyer without first obtaining as many details as possible of the client, inclusive of a cellular phone number which is usually confirmed prior to taking a client out.

It is extremely important that agents determine the authenticity of an appointment before meeting anyone and to also share the details of their whereabouts with another agent or someone at their office.

“At Seeff we screen potential clients and we also recommend that especially female agents undergo self-defense classes. We also encourage agents to ask the homeowner for the property’s panic button while they are showing the house.

“We always inform sellers to lock away any valuables and should the property be too big for one agent to attend alone, we’ll usually have a second agent or assistant at the show house.

“Agents are encouraged to keep gates closed at show days and buzz visitors in. Some agents even employ security guards to assist on show days. Agents are also encouraged to spread the word when suspicious characters try to gain access to their show days. If an agent is uncomfortable showing a house to a potential buyer, they should take a colleague with them to the appointment,” recommends Van der Linde.

Charles Vining, managing director of Seeff Sandton, says a show day is always attended by an agent or the agent’s sitter. In larger homes two agents or an agent and a sitter are often on duty.

If the property on show is not in a guarded complex or enclave, agents will often station a security guard at the entrance to the property. The guard takes names and usually registration numbers of cars as an added security measure. Quite often, a security company prevalent in the suburb will station a response vehicle at the property, which the agent also prearranges.

Vining concludes that there are some very high-end homeowners who prefer not to hold show houses, but this is an exception. “Usually this is not for security reasons, but to protect their privacy, which we will of course respect. In these cases we will do viewings by invitation only.

Steve van Wyk, managing director of Seeff Centurion, says many of the estates and sectional title complexes in Centurion do not allow show houses as it poses a security risk.

He concludes that like in the case of Sandton, visitors to show days here also need to write down their name, ID and contact number before entering the home and agents always walk through the property with visitors.

Also in the US estate agents have been the victims of crime while hosting a showhouse – read more here.

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