Take a pager and an alarm, says Sophia Chauchard-Stuart
THIS is supposed to be the perfect season to look for a new home. I was fed up with encrusted washing-up in the sink and mammoth phone bills, so I decided to look for my own place. But finding a new flat was a perilous undertaking.

Answering a newspaper ad is unnerving. On one dark, rainy evening, I found myself waiting outside a boarded-up shop for a prospective landlord called Dave. When he arrived I followed him up a creaky staircase. The door into the street shut behind me with a slam, as did the door of the tiny bedsit. I didn't even hear Dave describe how the heating would be put in soon. I was too busy sizing him up as a potential serial killer. I made my excuses and left hurriedly, struggling with the front door.

I should have taken a friend with me, but you run out of patient friends when you have to see so many depressing places at short notice. I decided to forget the classifieds. I had to up my price range, but at least I would be safer with an estate agent than a potential psycho from an advert.

In fact, only one estate agent would tell me the address of the flat he was going to show me so I could tell someone where I was. They don't want people to know the location of empty properties, to avoid attracting squatters. The others insisted I went to their office address first, so I had to get in the car with them, on my own, to drive to the property. I was met with blank stares when I asked if there was a saleswoman who could show me round. "I've been in this business for 27 years and not once had that request. I have never heard of any estate agent who has," snorted one agent.

Faced with this kind of response, I took to carrying a pager and getting a friend to bleep me, so it would be clear that someone knew where I was.

Other women have faced similar problems. A frightening situation can develop quickly, as Rebecca Cross found when looking for commercial property. She went with the agent to view a building that was soundproofed and partly underground.

"The estate agent seemed okay, but once we were inside I realised no one would hear me if something went wrong. There were some kids hanging around outside, and when the estate agent tried the door to get out we found it was locked. I panicked, thinking it was a set-up by the agent but it turned out the kids had locked the door from the outside. They eventually let us out, but it did make me think it was a stupid situation to get into. I've been looking for a flat for myself recently and I always take someone with me now."

Women's Link, a London advisory service that incorporates a lettings agency, recommends caution. "We advise women never to view property on their own," says a spokeswoman. "If that's not possible, then get the phone number and address to let someone know where you'll be."

Fiona Brown, of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, offers similar advice. "Be accompanied, or leave an address. Once you're in a situation and the door is closed it's too late."

"Carry a personal alarm and don't go into a room first. Look round and make sure you know where the exits are," suggest the Metropolitan Police.

It doesn't inspire confidence to know that there is no official complaints system, unless the estate agent is a registered member of the National Association of Estate Agents or the Association of Residential Letting Agents. According to Fiona Brown both associations now have guidelines for the safety of their staff - but not for clients.

Next time I move, I'm going to draw up a rota of willing friends, avoid small ads and insist on friendly, accommodating estate agents. There is virtually no other situation that would make you get into a car or look round an empty flat alone with a strange man. So why should you compromise your safety when looking for somewhere to live?

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