Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Scary Day Job


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 isn’t frightening – not like my “day” job, the profession I entered eight years ago as a way to counter the isolation imposed by writing.

agentI’m an agent. Not a secret agent, special agent, double agent, or FBI agent… I’m a real estate agent, and danger lurks outside my door.

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 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 (pictured below)was shot to death in April while holding an open house in West Des Moines, Iowa. No arrests have been made in the case.ht_ashley_okland_nt_110414_wg

I usually take precautions when I meet a stranger at a property, either bringing along another agent or my 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, agent Darby Farr, is even better prepared: she carries pepper spray and knows Aikido. Like me, Darby has 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; emailed back and forth with an eager Japanese doctor revealed as a fake; and showed the sprawling oceanfront home of a man who once threw his wife in a dumpster. I’ve encountered sellers who hoard garbage and others who hoard cats. I’ve looked at a customer’s dazzling waterfront estate and then spotted his photo in the paper a month later as he’s taken to prison for scamming millions of dollars from investors in a 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. food-storage-shelves1Some 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 stepped on something in a garage drain that looked like a miniature “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Somehow I managed to continue flawlessly with my spiel describing the house.

CreatureFromBlackLagoonThere are frightening house-eating creatures 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, not only in the present but also 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.

AWRP051805_37-common-snapping-turtleDespite 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.

I think of it this way: real estate is my profession, while writing is my career. I feel very fortunate that the two overlap in my mystery series, and that I’m able to put the wackiest of situations (watch for that turtle…) to good use.


Top producing Realtor Vicki Doudera uses high-stakes, luxury real estate as the setting for a suspenseful mystery series starring crime-solving, deal-making agent Darby Farr. A broker with a busy coastal firm since 2003 and former Realtor of the Year, Vicki’s next mystery, DEADLY OFFER, takes Darby to a winery where murder, mayhem, and Merlot all mingle. As in the popular KILLER LISTING and A HOUSE TO DIE FOR, Darby discovers a dangerous truth: real estate means real trouble. Read more about the Darby Farr Mystery Series and Vicki at her website,


Lois Winston said...

Vicki, I've often wondered about the people who moved into the Amityville Horror house, why anyone would want to live in such a notorious home. Imagine how the realtor pitched that one! Fodder for another book plot?

Robin Allen said...

Compelling post, Vicki. I'm totally creeped out by the giant carnivorous turtle in the basement. It's not the houses that are wacko, but their owners.

Unknown said...

Great post, Vicki. My sister was a realtor, and although she never mentioned any really scary happenings, there were lots of weirdos in her life. That's true in all areas of life, but real estate by definition makes you vulnerable. Just thinking about some of the bizarre houses we've walked into as potential buyers, I can only imagine (or read about!) what you get to see!

Beth Groundwater said...

Fascinating post, Vicki! I never realized the amazing situations that real estate agents can be exposed to. I can tell you that in our area, those basement stockpile rooms are very common. Mormon families keep a 6-month stockpile of food handy for the Second Coming. I've seen our neighbor's stash across the street.

Darrell James said...

Interesting post, Vicki. Vacant houses are kind of creepy all by themselves, but you've shown us the human (in-human?) factor that comes with it.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thought-provoking post, Vicki. I'd never thought about the possibilities until an agent was killed near my home while showing a rural house to a "prospective buyer." You've got great fodder for your series...but I'm glad you take precautions!