What if your 'buyer' is a burglar?

Would you let buyers walk round your house on their own? Most people do, says Fiona Brandhorst
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Can criminals pose as house purchasers, "casing the joint" with the blessing of the owner and the estate agent?

Can criminals pose as house purchasers, "casing the joint" with the blessing of the owner and the estate agent?

There are lessons to be learnt following a recent survey by National Homebuyers showing that 87 per cent of the participants had let potential buyers walk about their house unaccompanied. And 94 per cent confessed to leaving keys for the house or car on view.

How easy would it be to gain entry to a property and what would I find inside? I viewed three to find out.

I started with a large family house on a private estate with a price tag of £999,950. The agent started earning his sizeable commission with an "accompanied viewing", as well as asking who I was and where I lived. I could have been giving false information, but his commission didn't stretch to checking the electoral roll.

We arranged to meet outside, as the vendor would not be present. She was taking her dog for a walk. I was propelled through the property at a steady pace, with barely time to gaze at the dated family photographs. These suggested that there was no longer a man about the house, yet the agent would not be drawn on the personal circumstances of the vendor. He was doing a good job; his 20 years of experience showed.

So far, so good. An almost depersonalised house with no valuables or information on show except it gave the game away that the woman lived without a partner, with her children, in a fairly isolated location. At least she had a dog - but where was that dog bowl?

The second estate agent I phoned, impressed me with his line of questioning. He wanted to know my name, address, home telephone number, what sort of house I lived in and whether it was for sale. Easy to bluff. But how hard would it be for me to profile the vendor, Mr Johnson, who was going to show me round his five-bedroom Edwardian semi, on sale for £475,000?

Mr Johnson was trusting from the moment I stepped over the threshold. And had clearly not been given any tips by his agent for divulging information about himself or his house. Car and house keys were on the windowsill by the front door and he helpfully pointed out where he parked his car to the rear of the garden, open to the side street. He seemed embarrassed that all rear doors had single locks and no bolts, and shamefaced that there was no burglar alarm.

In spite of my security interrogation, he suggested I take a second look around inside on my own. In one bedroom a mobile phone and watch lay on the bedside table. In another, I saw a chequebook with the security page still attached to the front, with the name, address and account details of the vendor, alongside a pension statement from the DSS and a dental appointment card. There was cash on the windowsill. This house was an advert for bad security and the vendor was not doing himself any favours if anyone had ideas of returning later.

So, would a private sale yield fewer possibilities for criminal activity? A two-up, two-down cottage was being marketed privately for £199,950, so I called the mobile number on the "for sale" sign outside the property and left a message. The vendor quickly called me back. He was out of the country, but his girlfriend could show me round. He didn't ask me any personal details apart from my first name.

I was taken round the house by the girlfriend, who proudly pointed out the burglar alarm control box in the cupboard by the front door, as well as window locks. A BMW motorbike parked at the rear of the tiny garden backing on to a passage way, could have been on a lorry to the Continent in minutes. As I considered this, she suggested I have a look around on my own.

A laptop in the front bedroom could have been whipped into my Birkin-size bag in a second. An un-cashed building society cheque stuck to the noticeboard could probably have been useful with the right contacts. Downstairs, I could have taken her keys from the "his and hers" key holders, to return later to take the plasma TV screen and hi-fi system.

I left as anonymously as I arrived, yet she should have asked a lot more about me. She was far too trusting and it would have been too late if I'd already helped myself to her valuables.

Vendors have a tough job, especially in the current market. They need to be friendly, yet far more vigilant in what they say about themselves and how they present their possessions, otherwise they may end up with a lot less than the asking price.

How vendors can avoid being victims

* Fix security weak spots before selling your home

* Ask agents to accompany viewings and vet potential purchasers thoroughly

* Clear noticeboards of sensitive letters and telephone numbers

* File away all financial and personal information

* Be selective about which family photographs go on show

* Empty bins and shred personal information

* Never leave money or credit cards lying around

* Don't reveal your daily routine or talk too much

* Ask questions in return