How can you prevent your key from being stolen?

Real Estate Agent with Realty Executives Ambassador (Orland Park, IL South Chicago)

Going on my 3rd year of listing and selling REO properties the one thing that never changes are people (real estate professionals or buyers) stealing the key and or lockbox for well-priced HOT properties. I find this happens quite often, not just on my listings, but also other agent's listings. It's so common that buyers get used to it and some have even asked me if they can take the key when we find a property they are interested in. I simply laugh it off and explain that I'm a professional and would never allow that to happen during one of my showings.

The cheapest and simplest way to leave a key on a property is to buy a cheap $9.99 4-number lockbox off of the internet and put the key in it. When I say cheap I don't mean a cheap in quality lockbox, I mean cheap in the amount of money paid for the lockbox. Now this set-up is most often the kind of set-up that gets your key or lockbox stolen. Most often it is the key which is taken but, at least in my experience, they take the entire lockbox about 25% of the time. Then there are the times when they don't take the lockbox or the key but they simply change the combo so nobody can access the lockbox (except the person who changed the combo) and the only way to salvage the door handle which it's clasped to is to ruin the lockbox by cutting it off with bolt cutters.

Here are the only ways I've come across to keep your key from being stolen (or at least make someone accountable if it is taken).

1. Sentrilock       

Sentrilock is fairly new in Illinois (used to use Supra) and is basically a smart lockbox. Everything on the lockbox is computerized and only agents with Sentrilock cards can open the lockbox. Some agents don't have Sentricards so those agents are issued a personal code which can be used for a 24 hour period. What's good about Sentrilock is that it makes whoever uses the key accountable for getting the key back in the lockbox. Sentrilock, for example, can show that John from Century 21 took the key out at 9:45 am and returned it at 10:15 am but then Suzy from Coldwell Banker took the key out at 11:00 am but never returned the key. It makes it easier to call Suzy from Coldwell and pin the missing key on her. The only downside is that a Sentrilock lockbox can easily cost $100.

Sentrilock Sample 

2. Electronic Locks

Electronic locks have been around for quite some time now and it's only recently I've been seeing them on REO properties, mostly in Chicago and some high end suburban properties. It's as simple as installing the lock on the door and setting the code. When an agent goes to show the property they punch in the code and the motorized lock opens the door. When they are done they simply close the door and press the lock button where the deadbolt is locked. Some of the higher end models allow for codes to be set for single uses or only to be used within a certain time frame (example: code 1546 can only be used on Saturday 1-15-11 between 1:00pm & 1:30pm). Also, on the higher end models, you can actually change lock codes and get updates as to when the door is opened or locked straight through a smart phone or computer but usually there is an extra subscription service for that feature. Once again the only downside to using electronic locks is the cost which can easily run between $100-$200 or even higher for the top models with all the features.   

 Electronic Lock Sample

3. VPS Boardup Door

VPS Board up is all over the Chicagoland area lately. They really do a good job of securing a property with perforated metal window covers (so light can get in) and a vault like door. The good thing about the door is that it has a built in keypad so no lockbox or key is required. The first time I showed a property boarded up by VPS I had no idea what was going on because the code I was given was something like Blue, Yellow, Green, Blue, Red. When I finally arrived at the property I was looking all over for a lockbox but couldn't find it until another agent came walking up and showed me how it works. The key-pad is built right into the door with color coded buttons. You simply punch in the correct colors and then push a handle up and pull the handle down to open the door. VPS is easily the best option for securing and selling an REO but like all the other options there is the price. I have tried contacting VPS to ask for pricing but they won't give out any pricing info until they do an inspection of the property you want secured. I do know some agents who use VPS on occasion and they told me the pricing runs about $500/month for a standard Chicago bungalow.  

VPS Sample

4. Office Pick-Up/Courtesy Key

Finally, the cheapest solution to prevent someone from stealing a key, or at least make it so someone is held accountable for a missing key, is to have the agent pick up the key at your own office or leave a courtesy key at an office close by the listing. The only problem comes when the office holding the key has short hours or isn't open on weekends. The showing agent schedules the showing through your own office where you instruct them where to pick up the key. The agent picking up the key leaves a business card with the office's front desk and is instructed to drop the key off once their showing is complete. It drives me nuts when there is a hot property and one agent shows it and then hands the key off to another agent who hands it off to another and so on. All of the sudden, the key goes missing and nobody wants to take the blame. In reality, the blame always comes back to the 1st agent who took the key out but didn't return it.

Courtesy Key Office

Now you would think it would be a no-brainer to use one of the above solutions instead of the standard mechanical metal lockbox but you also have to take into account having properties in run-down neighborhoods where the house might only be worth $10,000. Do you really want to put a $100 Sentrilock on the property or a $200 electronic lockbox which despite its technical power still can't resist blunt vandalism from a sledgehammer or crowbar?  Also, courtesy keys just aren't a right fit for lower end properties because it's hard to even find a good office to hold the key when dealing with run-down neighborhoods. Some offices will tell me to just put a lockbox out in front of their office but then I'm back at square one. What it comes down to is the amount of money the asset manager in charge of the property will allow us to spend on securing the property before we have to dip into our own supplies. I don't think they care at all if the key gets stolen because they expect us to be out there the next day to replace it which I do but other agents don't since they haven't even visited the property and instead have hired someone else to manage the property. One other way I've stopped people from taking keys on my listing is to simply post a sign. I tape the sign next to the lockbox and it reads, "Come on People! Act Professional! Taking the key will not give you any advantage over another buyer." I have still seen keys get stolen on listings which have this sign but it happens far less than on properties which don't have a sign. I think the sign speaks directly to a person's conscious and makes them think twice before taking it.

Whether we like it or not key stealing is here to stay. Too many people nowadays are dishonest and too many agents don't even bother personally showing low end investment properties anymore and instead give the lockbox combo directly to the buyer to look at the property at their own convenience. When you combine dishonest people with great deals then people will always look for a leg up. If anyone else has any other ideas to keep a key from being stolen (preferably low cost) then please post.

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Comments (7)

Rose Mary Justice
Synergy Realty Pros - Dandridge, TN
Synergy Realty Pros

Here in Tn those boxes are called Risco.  They are expensive.  But necessary

Jan 10, 2011 12:16 PM
David Spencer
Keller Williams Northland - Kansas City, MO
Show Me real estate in Kansas City

I had a call today from an agent who could not find the jey in the box. I am changing it to Sentrilock tomorrow.

Jan 10, 2011 12:22 PM
Todd & Devona Garrigus
Garrigus Real Estate - Beaumont, CA
Broker / REALTORS®

Tim - Thanks for your informative blog. Out here in southern California I have never seen a VPS Boarding Door, although I don't think I would use one. $500 a month seems very steep.

Jan 10, 2011 12:27 PM
Conrad Allen
Re/Max Professional Associates - Webster, MA
Webster, Ma, Realtor

We use Supra electronic lock boxes.  It shows who and when an agent was in that property.  $20/month and $25 a lockbox is cheap protection.

Jan 10, 2011 12:52 PM
Tim D. Krzyskowski
Realty Executives Ambassador (Orland Park, IL South Chicago) - Orland Park, IL

We used to use Supra but our association claimed it was too expensive and switched to Sentrilock. When we had Supra we paid $100 a year and $100 a lockbox. Now our Sentrilock fee is rolled into our MLS dues of $85/quarter and they gave us a straight trade of 1 supra box for 1 sentrilock box but it costs around $100 for a Sentrilock box without a trade.

Jan 10, 2011 01:03 PM
Eileen Liles
970-216-0530 - Cedaredge, CO
Macht-Liles Real Estate Group - Cedaredge, CO

Wow, this makes me really happy to live in a small town sitting in a fairly small county.  I have never heard of someone stealing a lockbox or a key.   Now, I will admit to picking up a key from another real estate office and then putting it in the ashtray of my car and forgetting to take it back until the next day, but, heck, the agent knew who had the key last because I picked it up at their office. 

Jan 10, 2011 01:31 PM
SentriLock Blogger
SentriLock, LLC - Cincinnati, OH

Hi Tim,

Thanks for blogging about SentriLock! It's great that you like our product enough to share its benefits.

-Laura Kreuter
Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Jan 11, 2011 01:02 AM