Protect sellers’ privacy at showings and open houses


By Susanne Morrow

Over the years I have come to appreciate that a truly superb real estate professional is one who understands the importance of taking the necessary time to educate and protect their customers and clients, not only in the “legal” process of selling their home, but also on the importance of personal privacy.

Touring an open house recently, I was immediately able to tell the home was occupied by a single individual, living alone. Tell-tale signs were evident throughout the house.

When I stage a home it’s important for me to not only declutter, neutralize and stage the house to sell quickly, but to focus on “de-personalizing” the home as well. It’s important that the Realtor and home stager work together in educating the homeowner on the importance of protecting their privacy before any showings occur, and prior to any open houses.

Most of us are generally trusting in nature, and that’s a good character trait. It’s important to see the goodness in all people. However, the reality is that we live in an age where identity theft is on the rise, and personal protection is imperative.

Once the for sale sign goes up on the front lawn, your seller is at risk.

De-personalizing a home means more than simply taking down Uncle Buck’s photo from the fireplace and removing the finger-painting artwork from the fridge door. Identity theft can occur when private information is left in sight during showings and open houses. How many times have you walked into a house and noticed utility bills on the kitchen counter or cheque books, voter registration cards, pay stubs, and so on? These items are an open invitation to thieves.

De-personalizing the home means moving all of these items from sight and keeping them in a safe, secure location. A locked desk drawer would be good place to house these items until after a firm Agreement of Purchase and Sale is in place.

Below is a list you can give your sellers to help protect them.

1. Remove all private or personal photos, diplomas, awards and trophies.

2. Remove all calendars. These often contain a great deal of private information, often noting when you’re not going to be home.

3. Store all valuables.

4. Remove all bills, letters, magazines and library books. Shred papers with personal information that are no longer needed.

5. Password protect your computer to block access to your private files.

6. Turn off your printer and fax machine before each showing. Printers and fax machines often have the capability of printing the last numbers dialed or received.

7. Turn off answering machines. This avoids personal messages being left while strangers are in your home.

8. Unplug phones with caller ID features.

9. Remove or conceal digital devices that contain information about you or your family (cell phones, iPods, USB drives).

Some of these suggestions might seem a bit extreme, but for most of us, our home is a sanctuary. We feel comfortable and safe and don’t realize how exposed we may be when our house is on the market. It’s just good strategy to not only depersonalize so that people can see themselves in your space, but also to safeguard against an unscrupulous visitor taking advantage of you.

Use these suggestions as a catalyst for getting your clients to at least think about protection. This enhances your position as advisor and further serves to prove your professional determination to serve your client’s best interests.

Susanne Morroww is the owner and creative eye behind Stiletto Staging, a professional home staging company serving the Burlington, Oakville, Milton, Mississauga and Hamilton areas. As a former real estate sales rep, she understands the challenges that Realtors face when convincing homeowners that they can successfully sell their home. She offers a partnership approach that demonstrates an intelligent home marketing strategy. Email [email protected].


  1. Great artilce. Too late for us unfortunately. Most unfortunately-there was no conversation between Agent and ourselves about securing our property which includes our identity. Too much conversation about staging and not enough about security can lead to $4,000 of theft like ours. Who would imagine visitors would go through our underwear drawers and nightstands? Who would imagine that our agent agent downstairs would let everyone roam 3,200 square feet with their baggy coats on and their bags over their shoulders? Time to change the way Open Houses are done and now I am advocating to the Ministry of Consumer Services since not all agents use good common sense; only the better ones.

    • I am so sorry to hear of your experience, Brenda.

      How does this differ, Brenda, from a booked appointment to show?… agent arrives. Buyers arrive. Agent stands on porch, having a smoke, while Buyers peruse the property. He has let them in, excuses himself for his coffee-smoke break while they “investigate.” And tells them to let him know when they are “finished.”

      I, and many colleagues, could fill an encyclopedia size book with the numbers of times we have seen this happen over the years. That’s just one reason I thoroughly advise sellers on securing their property, properly. Many simply do not listen, and do not take the topic seriously at all. They leave out everything from pills to diamond tennis bracelets on bathroom counters. WHY won’t sellers listen?

      Only one time in thirty years did it happen, that, since I stay with the buyers while visiting a property, the buyers that I had shown a couple of other properties to, decided to turn on me, literally, as we ascended the stairs, literally turning to me and HISSED: “Stay downstairs. We want to talk amongst ourselves and don’t want you following us around.”

      WHAT???? I kept my cool but — What ensued was that ultimately the buyer was so angry when I explained why I had to stay with them, and why agents would do the same at their house when a buyer was viewing that it lead me to always have a pre-viewing conversation with would-be buyers – and review that conversation before entering each house. I will be staying with you. Everywhere.

      I was so shocked by that incident that I never forgot it. They went home and wanted to cancel their listing because they thought I was being overprotective of someone else’s seller. And they weren’t going to have me “following them around.”

      It’s the only time in thirty years that happened. I gladly released them from the listing of their filthy dirty house that looked quite amazing after staging actually. I had no desire to represent them further. I sometimes wonder how their story found fulfillment in the end.

      Carolyne L

  2. Jeff, I don't understand how you think you can't disclose an estate sale, the 'seller' is deceased! You don't and can't have a listing agreement with the seller, and you can't sign an agreement of p&s with them either. What you have is an Executor, acting under the authority of probate for the estate. Not stating this on this listing is dishonest.

    You are correct however regarding power of attorney, as technically the transaction is still with the seller, albeit indirectly. I don't however see a need to hide this, there are many situations where a power of attorney could be used in a non-vacant house (tenants, family members, spouse on vacation/working, etc).

    I don't know what lawyer you spoke to, but honesty (vis-a-vis disclosure) should be every Realtors highest priority! As you say, we owe a fiduciary duty (and more) to our clients…so make sure you know who exactly your client is, a person or an estate.

    • In the situation of an estate sale, title is still under the name of the decedent, and therefore the Executors are signing in that capacity. The Executors are as well duty bound to act in the best interests of the deceased, and therefore if they make it known it is an estate sale, they could cause the estate to leave money on the table. At the time of the offer, to have the executors when signing, include the statement below their signature: Executor for the Estate of XXX solves that issue. Tom, if you are commenting as a buyer agent, I see your point, if as a listing agent, the fiduciary duty is to ensure you get the best price…it's that simple!

    • to Jeff Stern:
      Simply put, it's too late to disclose the 'real' seller (the estate) at the negotiating table…it MUST be disclosed on the listing. You're correct about how the executors sign the contract, but that's really just semantics, the main issue is disclosure.
      Yes you have fiduciary duty to sellers, but it never trumps honesty of disclosure to ALL parties.

      Finally, it's a spurious argument that you can't get the "best price" on an estate sale if you disclose it as such…I've seen many buyers actively searching out estates, and often they attract interest, offers, and a sale price above the norm.

      Please, please, do our industry a favour and disclose, disclose, disclose! It will save you trouble later and is what clients demand…and deserve.

  3. Yes, I now remember why I have not had an open house for over 25 years. Only appointments with agents with qualified buyers. I guess you could always hire a 'Security Guard too'. Also, I am amazed at how my sellers are so happy I refuse to hold them.

  4. Turn the hearable-sound off on your residential telephone answering device, if you have your house listed.

    I was showing a property and the phone rang. The answering machine took the call and the listing agent left a message, loud and clear, saying she was coming over with an offer – and she STATED THE PRICE OF THE OFFER!!! and said something to the effect: "don't worry about the price, it's just a starting point – they will come up."

    WOW! Knock your socks off. My people liked the house, but declined to offer. Sold them something else though.

    Another time, an answering machine took an incoming call while showing and talked about a recommendation for hiding the crack in the basement wall – listing agent reminding seller to pile some boxes up against that wall… WHATEVER! not cool! How dumb is dumb?

    Carolyne L

  5. Great article…I would also add that anything that can be used as a weapon be put away safely, especially during open houses. As a stager, I always recommend that my clients put away the block of knives displayed on the kitchen counter. You never know!

  6. Hi, what Susan says in this article is exactly what I tell my clients when I list their property, however, I still see jewelry on dresser, mail opened on kitchen counter, all kinds of keys hanging by back door, computers on and available for all to view, etc etc. We ARE a trusting people for sure.
    Great tips Susan, Thank you.

  7. Most importantly, (depending on the size of the house), there should be a sufficient amount of agents at an open house to keep an eye on things. For a large 2 storey home for example, there should be one agent in the basement (if the basement is not finished and has nothing of value an agent is not needed), one on the main floor and one on the second.

    A portion of the LA's commission should go to compensate those agents who assisted at the OH. Obviously, under such circumstances, OH's should be kept to a minimum.

    Besides, under current real estate market conditions, if the house is exposed on MLS are open houses really necessary?

  8. Wilf, I have checked with lawyers and this is not one of the disclosure requirements. Regarding vacant properties and insurance, my suggestion actually works within the insurance requirements as someone is checking the y frequently fulfilling the responsibility to frequent checks of the property and while there, placing leftover meals in the fridge to maintain the lived-in look. My suggested additions to that great list are not intended to deceive anyone, just ensure that ammunition for buyers that would use the situation to their advantage not have an advantage. What is the difference between a highly motivated seller who has say, bought another home with possession quickly approaching and the unfortunate sale due to death or an aging seller going into assisted living? Why should the seller upsizing or downsizing have the benefit of confidentiality as to their motivation and the other with life issues? We as REALTORS(R) owe fiduciary to our client.

  9. Wise well, sellers need to see themselves as having moved on and left this home … This means they detach and don't showcase their wonderful eclectic taste through their art pieces or family galleries. Too many sellers want the world to know how fabulous they are when prospective buyers are previewing the home. Educating them that sucessful staging has the buyer visualizing where their own sofa will be and seeing themselves cooking dinner in the kitchen tonight …is part of the staging goal.

  10. The article was very insightful. We as agents assume most people as good natured but we too can be mistaken. Thanks

    • Yes, Excellent. Good advice. Re the "Calendar" notations… helped me a whole bunch at one of my listings years ago wherein the owner didn't want to say why he was moving, whether or not he had bought another house, etc. Okay. Fine. No problem.

      I understand he felt some agents might try to corner his decision-making if they knew. Not me, because I believe it doesn't matter why someone is moving – but often people will say or even volunteer the information; not him.

      But as I arose from the kitchen table where were doing up our paperwork, I couldn't help but notice a rather beautiful calendar mounted in a wood frame attached to the end wall portion of the kitchen cabinet. It showed three months at a glance. I practically bumped into it as I stood up. WOW!

      Right there in generous letters —- "CLOSING DATE" (and the address of a house they had bought firm). How did I know they had bought it firm? I pulled up the address on the MLS. In those days it stated who the buyers were. Hmmmmm…

      I didn't use it against him of course, and he got an amazing price for the house. He had a couple of other agents in ahead of me and they had left all their listing presentations with him. It was all on the counter for anyone to see. Bright coloured expensive file folder brochures and such. (btw – don't leave a copy of your listing contract lying out in the open, either).

      One of his questions to me was why he should hire me instead of one of the fellows, a top producer, and even pay me more. Too funny. My response was: because you are hiring "me" – I don't work as part of "his" team. And I'm worth it. Just watch me.

      He replied: Okay, where do I sign? He looked so shocked when I said that. I guess it was because I smiled when I said it? The expression on his face was priceless. It just popped out of my mouth.

      Carolyne L

  11. Excellent article Ms. Morrow. Will use it for my clients as a reference in future listings. Tks. Roby.
    Deerbrook Realty Inc. Brokerage.
    519-322-6868 direct.

  12. What a refreshingly great article Susanne, thank you for this. In addition to your great list, I would add the following:

    – if an Estate Sale/Power of Attorney, do not list the Seller as "The Estate Of, or Power of Attorney For" this can be dealt with on an amendment or counter – offer

    – again, if an Estate or Power of Attorney, always leave a vacated home staged and clothes in the closet and have the people watching the home keep the fridge stocked with their own left-overs.

    – any paperwork relating to the Sellers next move should as well not be left out for the public to view. Even the bottom drawer of a dresser under the pile of clothes is a great place to conceal this and other valuables.

    • Jeff,
      I would suggest consulting a lawyer.
      Seller & his/her agent has disclosure obligations.
      Also, vacant properties have serious isnurance issues.


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