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How to Have a Safe and Secure Open House

Dear Ali:

We're thinking of listing our house for the spring market, and every one of the agents we interviewed said that they would hold open houses. Are there ways to make sure that home shoppers don't walk off with our stuff?
A: Excellent question, because this is one of those times when it's better to be safe than sorry. I think the best way to take care of your valuables is to think of them in categories:
  • Jewelry. This is the item I'd be most worried about, because it's small and easy to walk out with, making it an easy target for thieves. Just last fall, a pair of jewel thieves targeting open houses were arrested in the Baltimore area, and according to Allison Klein of the Washington Post, police think they might be responsible for losses at up to 20 open houses. But fortunately, the answer here is simple: get a safe-deposit box and put every piece of jewelry that you don't wear every day in it. It will cost you maybe $50 a month during the time your house is being marketed, and the peace of mind is invaluable.
  • Prescription drugs.
    Remember that time you broke your ankle and got Tylenol with codeine? Perhaps you didn't throw out the extra but shoved it in the medicine cabinet, where it's in easy reach of any open house visitor who just asks "to use the bathroom." Some people keep their meds in the refrigerator, where they're in pretty easy reach too. Take them with you before you leave the open house in the agent's hands instead.
  • Small electronics. Cameras, iPods ... these are the kinds of things that are small enough to hide in a handbag or coat, and can therefore turn up missing. Lock them away in a filing cabinet along with ...
  • ...Personally identifiable information. This means stuff that has your bank account or social security number on it; mortgage bills, bank statements, credit card statements, cell phone bills. Most identity thieves aren't going to go to the trouble of attending an open house, but before you let your agent host an open house, make sure these things aren't lying on your desk (or in an open top drawer where they could be quickly snatched.)
  • Art. Paintings are often large, but photographs and sculptures are not. You may be most vulnerable to theft from your agent here -- I remember selling a loft where the tenant was a famed fashion photographer and there were just boxes and boxes of prints lying around. You're obviously not going to strip all your walls, but if you know something is really valuable, why not stash it at your sister's house?
In addition to these five tips, you'll want to make sure your agent runs a sign-in sheet. I find that there are always people who scrawl their names illegibly, but it's better than nothing, and if you're in a market that can tolerate it (NYC won't) the agent can ask open house visitors to show their driver's licenses.

Also, you'll want to keep your house in spic-and-span shape for showings. For a quick morning routine from Maria Cilley (aka the flylady) to help you clean up before the open house, check out this interview from Real Simple magazine.

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