Don't Show Fear to Shady Open House Guests

When I felt threatened at an open house, I was on high alert internally but remained professional on the outside. Not letting on that I was scared may have actually kept the situation from getting worse.

Since I started in real estate in 2005, I’ve hosted hundreds of open houses. But I’ll never forget one in particular in 2009 — when I thought I’d become the victim of a couple of sketchy visitors.

It was a typical open house on a typical day in late October. The property was my newest listing in a subdivision in the northern part of Austin, Texas, known for attractive price points and opportunities to find fixer-uppers. It was a small, slightly updated, single-story home near major roads and plenty of traffic.

During a lull at the open house, a windowless van backed up to the home, and two men dressed in all white — which made me think they were painters — got out of the truck and slowly made their way up to the door. (I saw them coming because I conspicuously watch for guests during lulls in foot traffic. It’s good to avoid looking surprised when guests show up at your open house.)

My excitement grew: Could they end up being the buyers I was hoping to meet that day? Even if they weren’t, I’d be determined to make them new clients of mine and help them find another home. I greeted them at the door, and while one of the men — very charismatic — stayed to chat with me, the other curtly asked, “Where’s the master bedroom?” I pointed the way, and he darted off.

“No worries,” I thought. “He must not be ready to talk to a salesperson.”

At this time, my husband — who wasn’t in the real estate profession but accompanied me to every open house since I learned from new-agent training courses that having a buddy was a good safety precaution — introduced himself to the man standing in the entrance with me.

The man walked with us to the living room, asking strange questions. Do the owners live here? Where do they work? Are the sellers coming back after the open house? His eyes would dart between us and the large flat screen TV hanging above the fireplace. The hair on my skin started tingling, and I could feel my heart racing. My instincts already signaled to my body that we were in a fight-or-flight situation.

The adrenaline honed my mental reflexes, and I realized I needed to play it cool in order to keep the situation from escalating into the danger zone. I replied to his questions with my own, which were the type of queries designed to fuel conversation with guests. Still smiling, I asked: “Are you looking for a quick move? What is your time frame? Is this neighborhood in good proximity to your workplace? What would be your ideal commute? Would you like to schedule another time to come see the home again?” Part of me hoped I had been jumping to conclusions and that the two men really were house-hunting that day.

My husband stayed right next to me, also acting cordial and engaged in what the man had to say. We both knew that we had to stay calm and collected in order for things to not take an ugly turn. These men were obviously on a mission, and regardless of whether we confronted them or played nice, they were going to follow through with that mission. Playing nice was the easy, safe route.

The other man who went to the master bedroom resurfaced, and the two exchanged glances. The man who stayed behind with us asked the other, “Did you see what you needed to see?” The man nodded, and then they left.

It took about five seconds after they were gone for me to take a breath. As soon as their truck left the driveway, I called the sellers and asked if they had anything of value in the master bedroom. “No, Shannon,” they said. “You told us to remove everything of value before the open house. We’re good.” (Whew! Coachable clients are the best!) Next, I alerted them to the suspicious men, their vehicle description, and that they had seemed very interested in the TV, so they needed to be on alert in case the men came back for it. My sellers were thankful for the heads up, and luckily, no one ever came back for the TV.

I’m certain that listening to my instincts and keeping calm, cool, and collected helped keep the situation that day from becoming dangerous. However, could I have done something better? Could I have found an excuse to go to the front yard — out of an enclosed space with those men — with my husband, our car keys and phones in hand? Perhaps. It’s easy to look back and think, “Wow, I really should have gotten outside the moment things turned weird.” But I am thankful that simply remaining professional and acting nice and as if they were any other open house guest was all it took that day. If robbing us was on their agenda, maybe it was the way we treated them that thwarted their plan.