Last week I was telling a woman about my murder mystery series, and she shivered and asked me how I slept at night after imagining such spooky scenarios. The truth of it is, penning fiction at my comfy desk with the wood stove crackling away isn’t frightening – not like my “day” job, the profession I entered nine years ago as a way to counter the isolation imposed by writing.
Take the obvious first: safety. There don’t appear to be any real solid statistics on the number of agents who fall victim to murder, rape, assault, or robbery, but practicing real estate almost by definition puts us in potentially hazardous situations. Agents often meet customers for the first time in front of a vacant house, or drive or ride with them to an appointment. It is not uncommon for an agent to be alone in the office late at night, finalizing an offer or catching up on paperwork, and some agents still go door to door “prospecting,” or looking for listings.
My current book, KILLER LISTING, begins with the murder of a real estate agent at her own open house. Sadly, this scenario isn’t wholly fictitious. The real-life murder in 2006 of Sarah Ann Walker in McKinney, Texas, was definitely in my mind while I was writing. Ms. Walker was presiding over an open house at a new housing development when she was stabbed 27 times. More recently, real estate agent Ashley Okland was shot to death last April while holding an open house in West Des Moines, Iowa. No arrests have been made in the case.
I try to take precautions when I meet a stranger at a property, either bringing along another agent or my big and bearded husband. (I used to take my chocolate lab, but now that my canine companion is a toy spaniel, that option’s out.) I lock the office door if I’m alone at night and try not to share too much personal information on-line. My series protagonist, Darby Farr, is even better. She carries pepper spray and knows Aikido. Like me, she’s had some frightening experiences while on the job.
I once worked with a white-haired, elderly man who turned out to be a very capable con artist with a rap sheet as long as your arm; I spent months emailing back and forth with an eager Japanese doctor laterrevealed as a total fake; and showed the listing of a man further up the coast who subsequently threw his wife in a dumpster. (She survived. Let’s hope they divorced.) I’ve encountered sellers who hoard garbage and others who hoard cats. I’ve been asked to give a value for a customer’s dazzling waterfront estate and then seen his photo in the paper a month later as he’s led off to prison for scamming millions of dollars from investors in his phony insurance company.
I’ve known desperate sellers, greedy buyers, and agents who are both.
Houses themselves can be creepy. Some are soul-less shells; others so scarily organized they scream Stepford. One of my listings contained a hidden “Armageddon Room” stocked with provisions for the end of the world; another, a basement brimming with porn. Some places are stigmatized properties, where murders, suicides, or other tragedies have occurred. A few contain strange odors, dead vermin, or unidentifiable suspicious stains. I once kicked something in a garage drain that looked like a miniature “Creature from the Black Lagoon” yet managed to continue flawlessly with my spiel describing the house.
There are frightening house-eating fungi that lurk out of sight, such as poria incrassata, a mold that lives in dank cavities and makes mummified skin out of studs. There are blatant examples of greed unearthed in old deeds, a scenario I wrote about in A HOUSE TO DIE FOR. There are so-called “spite” wells that are placed near property lines to prevent someone else from building. The list goes on and on.
One of the oddest things to cross my path happened only a few months ago at a new listing our office viewed. The owner, a kindly man in his 70’s, showed us the snapping turtle he’s tended for 37 years in a plastic kiddie pool in his basement. He’s periodically provided his “pet” with other turtle playmates, but, he told us with a wink, they always end up eaten.
Despite the inherent dangers, stress, and the ever-shifting housing market, I enjoy real estate. The money I earn allows me to splurge on writing conferences; the hours give me flexibility to write; and the camaraderie keeps me sane and connected. I’ve found that I use my time more efficiently when I’m busy, and I enjoy transitioning from my public persona as Realtor to private role as author, and vice versa. Even with the oddballs, I have many, many delightful clients.
Real estate is my current profession, while writing is my career. I feel very fortunate that the two overlap in the Darby Farr Mystery Series, and that I’m able to put the wackiest of situations (watch for that turtle…) to good use.