On top of the everyday risks agents face in a normal year, real estate professionals in 2020 also had to deal with the challenges of navigating a pandemic, including safely providing home tours and working remotely.
Add to that, a rise in online scams, a gaping political divide that resulted in harassment on social media and a deluge of open house attacks, and it became clear that the real estate industry had its hands full this year.
Below, some of the biggest crime, corruption and agent safety stories in 2020.
Attacked agent receives outpouring of support
In June, Virginia real estate agent Lenora Farrington of Keller Williams Realty was hosting an open house when a man walked in and, after posing as a homebuyer, cornered her in one of the rooms and hit her in the head with a crescent wrench.
Farrington, however, deployed her black belt skills to fight off the attacker before help arrived. While police later arrested Dustin Holdren on charges of aggravated malicious wounding, the attack and ensuing hospital stay left Farrington severely traumatized.
Agents nationwide rallied in support of the injured agent and raised more than $160,000 for her recovery.
Scams, schemes and other fraudulent activity
As the pandemic put millions of Americans out of work due to forced business closures, the number of hucksters seeking a quick buck through various real estate scams rose.
In California, one woman was arrested for allegedly posing as a real estate agent to enter a series of homes that she then burglarized.
Meanwhile in Missouri, fraudsters reportedly took advantage of self-tour technology as it rose in popularity amid the pandemic. Apparently, scammers were scoping out apartments available to rent, receiving codes to enter the homes and then advertising the property online as their own. They then offered unsuspecting would-be tenants their codes for self-showings before collecting deposit money and abruptly vanishing, according to officials.
Homes with sordid histories
Throughout the year, a number of homes with sordid and outright criminal histories hit the market.
In May, a Realtor in Louisiana posted offered a four-bedroom Lafayette home for free to anyone who could cover moving costs. The post went viral after local residents claimed it was “haunted” by the ghost of a former owner.
And while perfectly legal, one homeowner’s Halloween display prompted multiple police calls from neighbors terrified by the display, calling it “too realistic.”
While concerns over agent safety are perennial, those worries reached new heights after two Ohio men attempted to abduct a female real estate agent.
In August, David J. Helton, 45, and Michael W.B. Evans, 37, reportedly pulled up in front of a home for sale in North Ridgeville and waited for the agent to come inside before grabbing her by the arm and trying to pull her into a car.
While the agent was able to break free and lock herself in her own vehicle, she was left with cuts on her arm and traumatized by the event. The attack received attention nationwide as agents discussed how to prevent similar attacks.
Man with a rifle
Showings can be full of surprises but that was taken to a new extreme in September when a Utah agent showing a home to a client opened the door of a bedroom and came face to face with a man holding a rifle.
The man, later identified as 26-year-old Matthew Lee Hirschi, pointed the rifle at the agent and her client while telling them to get off the property.
Police arrived at the scene but weren’t able to get in after Hirschi locked himself in the house and refused to open the door. Hirschi was later arrested and booked on two separate charges but the incident highlighted the inherent risk that often comes with an agent’s job even during private showings.
A rise in racist, online attacks leads to a crackdown
The year has seen a slew of racist attacks and other online incidents, particularly in the months leading up to the presidential election.
In October, a 25-year-old YouTuber filmed Arizona real estate agent Paul Ng shouting slurs at him and his roommate. The video went viral and Ng was arrested and fired from his role at Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty.
On the same month, Corcoran disassociated itself from former agent Roy Silbert after a neighbor posted a video of him flipping her off and destroying the “Biden For President” signs she had been displaying in her yard.
All this comes as the industry reckons with a turbulent past. In November, the National Association of Realtors formally apologized for past policies that resulted in segregation.
More agents picked up arms in 2020
As part of its annual safety report, the National Association of Realtors found that more agents were carrying weapons for self-defense in 2020 than they were in 2019.
While varying state gun laws and political beliefs make this topic one of the most hotly debated in the industry, the fact remains that many agents are arming themselves in the name of self-defense.
Nearly half, or 49 percent, of Realtors who participated in the survey, said they carried arms. That number was up from 44 percent in 2019 while the most common weapons were pepper spray (19 percent), firearms (14 percent), and a pocket knife (7 percent).
Jeffrey Epstein’s home
A long-running saga over what would happen to the Palm Beach home of disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein came to an end in November after Florida real estate developer Todd Michael Glaser agreed to buy the property at 358 El Brillo Way from Epstein’s estate.
Epstein bought the Palm Beach property in 1990 for $2.5 million and over the years brought dozens of underage girls to the property. After police raided it in 2005, they found the names of girls in the desk of its master bedroom.
Glaser announced that the property would be razed to build something new. Meanwhile, Epstein’s main townhouse in New York remains on the market for $88 million.
A fatal condo showing
One of the most troubling deaths of the year happened in October when a man plunged from one of the top floors of a luxury Los Angeles tower while the Realtor showing the property had his back turned.
With apartments that sold from between $2 to $58 million, the Sierra Towers is home to celebrities including Lily Collins, Emma Watson and Vincent Gallo.
Sierra Towers management refused to comment on the incident but screams were reportedly heard that day and at least one of the building’s residents saw the body on the ground.
Carpenters and mob ties
In November, the New York City District Council of Carpenters vowed to crack down on members of its union with suspected mob ties.
A court order filed in New York allowed monitor Glen McGorty to independently bring charges against members suspected of “knowingly associating with any member or associate of any La Cosa Nostra crime family or any other criminal group.”
Ties to the mafia have plagued the union since the 1990s and, in recent years the trade organization fell under renewed scrutiny in 2014 after carpenter and member Michael Dolphin was caught renting a Queens apartment to a mafia social club run by mobster “Bobby Glasses.”