Tips for Maintaining Your Privacy While Selling Your Home
From defensive landscaping to forming an LLC, here's how to guard your property and identity while selling your house.
Letting strangers in your house while you're not there can be a difficult part of the home selling process. Protect your belongings and identity by removing valuables and any paperwork that has your personal information on it.(iStockPhoto)
Selling a home is hard. From picking a real estate agent to decluttering to letting strangers in, the process transforms a memory-filled residence into a stripped-down shelter for someone else to personalize. For all the activities associated with it, parting with a home may be just as big of a commitment as buying one. But unlike purchasing, selling involves a level of publicity that might curb privacy and safety.
While not every for-sale sign or online listing attracts nefarious attention, the protection of a home, the belongings inside and the owner’s identity should underpin the time a property spends on the market.
When security is a priority, here's what to consider about some of the most integral aspects of the home selling experience:
- Home preparation.
- Home depersonalization.
- Open houses.
- Online listings.
- Relationship with the selling agent.
Decluttering is among the first steps homeowners take when selling. Owners clean, remove excess items and stage in order to present a blank-slate home for buyers to customize. But preparing a home for sale is much more than making the space appeal to strangers.
“It's important for people to remember that when you're in the mode of selling a home, it's very different than when you're living in a home,” says Andrew Rhoda, a real estate agent with Compass in Los Angeles. “Sometimes people treat that very casually, but the reality is that you do have to invite strangers into your home. And when you invite strangers into your home, you open yourself up to the risk of your home being burglarized or even someone hurting themselves on the property.”
When it comes to physically protecting a home, installing motion-activated alarm systems, repairing faulty windows and doors and placing lock boxes are common procedures.
In condominium buildings in major cities, trustworthy doormen may negate the need for lock boxes. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, fences as well as hedges might add a layer of both privacy and safety.
During the selling period, homeowners insurance should be a part of the owner’s security plan. Because insurance is often costly, it may easily lose its priority when the home is on the market, especially if it's no longer the primary residence. But any gaps in coverage can translate into hefty out-of-pocket expenses for the seller in the event of a break-in or unforeseen damage.
Along with the home, the owner’s identity might warrant protection. While not every seller needs to hide any association with that particular address, depersonalizing a house should temper prying attention into one’s lifestyle.
“If you don't want people to be nosy about you, you have to take down things that have your name on them,” says Lisa Lippman, a licensed associate real estate broker with Brown Harris Stevens in New York City.
Such items may range from mail and business cards to awards and photographs.
But even if an owner strips down any physical hints of his or her identity from the home, easily searchable public records can still reveal who they are. Such a breach might not solely irk celebrities, Rhoda says. It could negatively impact virtually anyone, from high-profile professionals to average citizens trying to escape abuse.
“One way you can kind of hide your privacy is if you have either bought your (home) through a (limited liability company) or you're able to transfer it into an LLC before you put it on the market,” Lippman says.
A living trust is another option. Still, both an LLC and a trust carry legal and tax implications that demand careful consideration and even guidance from an expert.
Quietly selling a home off the market by utilizing an agent’s network may present yet another alternative when identity protection is paramount. But it may not result in the best deal. Moreover, a recent rule by the National Association of Realtors that clamps down on the so-called "pocket" or "whisper" listings could negate the privacy such offerings have traditionally afforded.
Open houses, or the afternoon or weekend events that invite strangers to a listed home, are an industry staple. Over small talk and hors d’oeuvres, they expose a residence to a slew of potential buyers, at least according to real estate lore. But Bill Gassett, a Massachusetts-based real estate agent with Re/Max Executive Realty, disagrees with the very premise of open houses.
“Open houses are heavily promoted by real estate agents because the benefits from open houses far outweigh towards the agent versus the seller,” he says.
Instead of finding interested, qualified buyers, these occasions are more likely to connect listing agents with future clients, Gassett says. He adds that committed house hunters work with their own representatives to tour a property rather than attend open houses.
Thus, he says, “open houses don’t sell houses” but can be a “magnet for crime.” That's because, while agents tend to collect personal information from anyone who comes in, the setup is not foolproof.
Burglars may use open houses as opportunities to study the layout and jam a door or a window to ease their later entry. Or they may simply smuggle an object out during the event.
“Two years ago, there was an agent in my office who held an open house and they lost over $15,000 worth of jewelry, stolen right out of the bedroom,” Gassett says. “At another circumstance, believe it or not, somebody took a painting right off the wall. It was worth $5,000.”
And, in such dire instances, agents seldom shoulder any responsibility. While contracts may differ from state to state and agency to agency, most agreements with real estate agents shield them from liability in the event of theft.
Robberies during open houses might be further incited by local stipulations that forbid security cameras from recording these events – as well as private home tours, for that matter – without the consent of all parties involved.
Nonetheless, Lippman says that in her 22-year-long career, open houses have never lead to larceny. Thus, it is important for a seller to carefully assess the potential benefits and drawbacks of open houses.
Advertising a home on the local multiple listing service as well as on various online platforms is “a fact of selling real estate,” says Keith Markovitz, a Palm Springs, California-based real estate agent with Compass.
But it could amount to the virtual equivalent of holding an open house, revealing structural weaknesses and identity cues that a thief could exploit.
In today’s digital era, however, keeping a property off the internet is quite a tall, if not impossible, task.
“If you just type somebody's property address into Google, you can get all (types of) information,” Markovitz says.
Aside from official property registries, websites such as Zillow and StreetEasy may hold images, descriptions and details even when a home is not for sale. That is why securing and depersonalizing a property should precede its online promotion.
Relationship With the Selling Agent
Even if conscious efforts to depersonalize and secure a property should promote safety and privacy, such goals are easier to attain when both the seller and the agent strive for them.
“When I show someone's apartment, I'm always there,” Lippman says. “I'm not letting somebody just wander around.”
Before a home showing, a seller’s real estate representative should screen home shoppers’ prequalifications to purchase, or even urge them to work with a buyer’s agent.
Furthermore, Rhoda says that agents need to avoid scheduling first meetings with potential buyers in listed homes, or giving tours and holding open houses alone at night.
“It's really important for real estate agents to be trained at and just have an awareness of security,” Rhoda says.
Whether it is a multi-million-dollar house or a starter apartment for sale, the security of a home and the privacy of its owner may not always cause concern. After all, a house might rest in a crime-free, gated community; or the seller may operate through a long-established trust. But when personal and property security looms crucial to a seller, a candid discussion with a dependable agent should allay any initial worries into sensible resolutions for protection.