10 Steps to Secure Your Home or Apartment for Showings

So your landlord or an agent has called to say that she needs to show your home.

For owners this should come as no surprise. If your house is on the market, showings will happen and your agent will probably request that you absent yourself while they occur.

For renters, showings may be a surprise as they can happen at any time of year. You don't have to be moving out. A showing in the middle of your lease does not necessarily mean that your apartment building is for sale! Your landlord may be trying to get a better insurance rate or refinance the property. Both of these tasks could require access to your apartment. You should grant it provided that your landlord gives you proper advance notice.

Regardless of who is coming to view your apartment, though, you can be certain of one thing - strangers will be entering your living quarters and you may not be able to be home when it happens. Whether it's a new prospective renter, an appraiser or a Realtor, you'll want to take precautions to make sure that you've safeguarded your belongings. After all, your landlord's insurance won't cover the items if they go missing or get damaged.

Google currently shows over 36 million results for the phrase "robbed during an open house."

Here are ten things you can do to make sure your stuff stays safe when your home has an encounter with stranger danger.

Don't leave these out. Especially if you're behind on your rent!

1. Remove all small valuables from sight.
Small items that can be easily pocketed should be placed in drawers or hidden under bedcovers. This includes wallets, credit cards, jewelry, expensive shoes, cell phones and iPods. I am amazed at the number of times where I'd show an apartment and a credit card was left in plain sight on a table or windowsill. An agent or landlord should always do their best to keep all of their visitors in sight, but if a showing is attended by a large group of people even the most eagle-eyed chaperone can lose track of someone.

2. Tip down any framed photos and remove any obvious larger photos of yourself.
I recommend this for two reasons. One is obviously to guard your identity and that of your loved ones. The other is to make it a little easier for the landlord to get the job done. It's off-putting for new tenants and buyers to see the signs of the current occupant scattered all over the place. The easier it is for them to envision themselves in your space, the faster it will sell/rent and the quicker you'll be done with showings altogether.

This also goes for any obscene or extreme artwork. Everyone's a critic, I know, but a truly shocking piece of art may mean that the prospective renter or buyer can't remember anything else about the unit.

3. Cover any high end electronics and the media that goes with them.
You don't have to go crazy with this - don't worry about the big screen TV. You also can probably let your gear that's over 5 years old go uncovered. But if you have the latest video game system or a flashy laptop, make sure it's out of sight and out of mind. Not every supposed "prospective client" has benign reasons for booking showings. Rule of thumb: if it's small enough for one person to carry at any time, and it's recent enough to fetch a good sum on the market, take some protective steps. Hide it behind something ugly like a laundry basket or behind some older gear like a DVD player.

4. Remind landlords and agents to use caution with your doors and locks.
A frazzled agent could easily forget to lock your back door on the way back in from showing the porch, or leave your windows unlocked. Give them a little memory boost with a small post-it next to the back door deadbolt saying "Please lock me!" (On a related note, if you come and go through the back door, that note can also remind the agent to leave the screen door unlocked.)

5. Alert visitors about your pets before they even open the door.
Does your cat or dog like to bolt for the stairs? Is the cat's litter box in an area that could easily be closed off by accident, like a closet? Do you have a particularly friendly Pink-Toed Tarantula who occasionally escapes her container? A small warning note on the front door will go a long way towards making sure your favorite fluffy doesn't go on walkabout.

Showings should not turn into "escape the room" puzzle games.

6. Make sure you have keys to all of your locks.
If your door has a whole lot of locks on it, chances are you only use some of them. Your landlord, however, may well have keys for all of them. A good agent or landlord should be able to remember which locks they had to open in order to enter and restore those locks on departure. However, speaking as someone who's futzing with locks all day long, it doesn't take much to lose track of what you've opened and closed when faced with a door that looks like the entry to Fort Knox. Better for you to take precautions and make sure you have keys for every lock at least one of your doors once showings begin.

7. Remove any illegal or questionable items from sight.
How should I put this... not every nefarious stranger in your apartment will be a criminal. Sometimes they work for the good guys. Cops have got to live somewhere too. Don't give an off-duty cop a reason to become an on-duty cop. A lot of landlords have zero-tolerance clauses in their lease which could result in immediate eviction if you're nailed for certain crimes including drug crimes. If you've got it, put it away and clear the air fully before anyone new comes to visit.

8. If you're a renter, ask your landlord or agent to refrain from posting photos of your belongings online. Conversely, if you're selling your home, make sure your rooms don't look empty in photos.
This one requires a little communication. Well-prepared landlords should have photos of apartments from prior years that they can use to market your apartment. The only excuse for them not having photos is if they just purchased the building since you moved in. Either way, you do not want criminals using photos of your belongings to remotely "case" your apartment. If the landlord must use photos of your stuff, make sure that he/she does not also post your exact address.

Communicate these requests to your landlord both verbally and in writing.

Side note: if you're an interior decorator or designer, you can also request a byline credit in any photos of your own home's decor.

On the flip side, sellers should make sure they're not broadcasting to the internet that their home is empty. Your home will probably be listed with the address visible. I've recently been tracking down empty houses for Operation Porchlight and have been astonished as to the number of listings that show photos of empty rooms. An empty house is an invitation to criminals looking for a new base. It's also an invitation for scammers who want to post fake listings of your home to take advantage of inexperienced buyers. If your home is actually empty and you don't want to spring for rental staging furniture, ask your agent to look into some of the virtual staging technologies that will fill the photos of your empty home with fake decor to make it look inhabited.

9. Ask your landlord or agent for a headcount of who will have keys to your home.
If your unit is listed with multiple different agencies, it's very likely that each one of those agencies has a key to the building and the apartment. Find out how many will have keys. Ask your landlord how he will ensure that those keys are returned to a secure facility when the showing is over. If a lockbox will be placed on the property, find out where it will be located and how the landlord or agent will control distribution of the entry code.

Most agencies are pretty responsible with their key policies as their livelihoods depend on it. However, not every property management office has the same discretion. If I had a dollar for every time a recently-dismissed janitor availed himself to the items in occupied apartments, I'd have a sizable rental portfolio of my own by now.

New laws for 2012 in Chicago require landlords to change locks in between tenants, but that doesn't help you if you moved in prior to 2012 nor will it help while you're still living in your apartment. Have the key conversation with your landlord. You might not be able to affect their policies but at least you'll have tried.

Gender roles suck but sometimes they can work in your favor.

10. Single folks, get some toiletries for the opposite sex to display conspicuously in the bathroom.
It's unfortunate that I have to suggest this. Single ladies who live alone, I'm sure you're delightfully independent and well-trained in Tae Kwon Do. Even so, consider staging your bathroom sink with a few token boy toiletries. You don't have to go overboard - just a safety razor, some shaving cream and a male-targeted type of soap will be more than sufficient. Guys, a few girly things strewn about the bathroom will not make you forfeit your man card. Again, don't go crazy with it - you don't want your landlord to think you've snuck in another roommate. Just do enough to make it look like you occasionally have a partner staying with you.

I am not trying to discriminate against the gay and lesbian population here. I don't care what gender pushes your buttons. What you are doing here is clearly indicating that you are not always home alone. Mass marketing has made it easy for someone to identify which brands are for women and which are for men. Let those unfortunate gender stereotypes work in your favor for once.

Do you have any safety hacks that you've used to keep your home safe during showings? Share them with us in the comments! I'll be back on Friday with some food for thought about the Chicago Public School System.