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Fair Go: How safe is your open home if hundreds may be able to get your house keys?

Christchurch real estate company Harcourts gold has been caught accidentally disclosing details online which allowed anyone to get inside their clients’ homes.

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A Christchurch real estate company accidentally disclosed details online that allowed anyone to get inside their clients’ homes. Source: Fair Go

“I just for the life of me can't understand how you can have such a fundamental breach,” says former Harcourts gold client John Luhrs.

A Fair Go investigation that began with his family home has also revealed it is common for hundreds of agents to have access to the house keys a real estate company uses when marketing a home for sale or rental.

Worryingly for John Luhrs and his family, “things have gone missing".

"People were here that they didn't know who was here,” he says.

Fair Go has confirmed the online privacy and security breach after its investigation showed how easy it was to follow the details highlighted in a simple Google search of the company’s homes4sale.co.nz website, and to then unlock a vacant apartment in central Christchurch which was listed for sale with the real estate agent.

The details revealed online gave out the codes to the lockboxes – small secure safes placed at the addresses – which contained housekeys for the property mentioned in the online listing.

Some listings also included details of alarm codes and all featured photographs and videos of interiors as sale and rental listings usually do.

Fair Go has alerted Harcourts gold in Papanui, which has since taken down 27 live listings within three hours and declared the problem resolved, having discovered that its website has allowed Google to index information which was not supposed to be public.

“All of the owners were fully informed of the issue and they were satisfied with the steps taken by Harcourts gold to advise them of the position, to remedy the system failure, and to delete the information,” says Harcourts gold managing director Chris Kennedy, in a statement to Fair Go.

Harcourts gold also informed the Privacy Commissioner, as anyone who has caused a potentially serious privacy breach must now do. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner would not discuss the matter beyond confirming they’d been notified.

“Further, the owners of the two properties which had had their alarm codes disclosed were invited by Harcourts gold to have their alarms serviced and the codes changed at Harcourts gold’s expense, but neither took up that offer,” Kennedy’s statement added.

Fair Go has evidence to suggest the problem affected more than the 27 properties, but Kennedy has repeatedly refused to comment on how long the system failure has been occurring and how many other homes and homeowners may have had their security and privacy compromised.

It could include a Christchurch family who were alarmed to discover how many people could get into their home when another lapse in the system was discovered.

John and Virinia Luhrs were marketing their home with Harcourts gold when on two occasions, they found evidence someone entered the property and left a small mess and other traces of a visit which the company could not explain.

Some months later the family moved back in, they discovered clothes worth over $1000 new were missing.

“We thought, 'Well the only time that it could have been taken was when we had it listed with Harcourts gold and we had a lockbox security system at the front door,'” says John Luhrs.

He also thought that the house key he’d left in his Harcourts gold lockbox attached to his front door was for 30-40 people in that business.

“We subsequently found that it's every Harcourts agent in Christchurch. Over 600 of them do have access to the codes.”

That’s commonplace, according to the Real Estate Institute.

“It’s been happening for years and years and years,” chief executive Bindi Norwell says.

“What they're doing is sharing the ability to sell a property as part of that brand, so they get maximum impact and viewings for that particular vendor… and get the best price for their property.”

Whether clients are aware of the extent to which their homes are open is another matter – but Norwell says those agents are not solely responsible for looking after your open home.

“It's a joint responsibility. You’re letting people into your home. You have an obligation too to make sure that you put away valuables… that you can lock doors and that you can keep your own property secure. It's very common-sense.”

Short of putting locks on the wardrobe or emptying out the contents of their home, what more could John and Virinia Luhrs have done — and what does that mean for the rest of us? Especially since REINZ says that 70-90,00 homes sell each year and 90 percent of them utilise an open home to do it. What happens if the something goes wrong?

The Insurance Council represents many big-name insurers and it says claims related to open homes can be tricky especially because people may not notice something missing for a while, which can lead to multiple claims and multiple excess charges.

ICNZ says you are likely covered if you do suffer a loss or damage during an open home, but there are some big ifs – starting with if you’ve taken ‘reasonable care’ to safeguard your belongings.

That could mean if you’re selling your home, put expensive or portable items out of site, lock them away or put them into storage and be sure to check with your insurer they are covered while in storage, or take-out additional cover for that.

ICNZ suggests people make sure a policy doesn’t contain any special requirements over the standard of care required. For example, you might be required to have expensive jewellery in a safe if you are not at home.

There’s also what’s called a duty of disclosure – you are responsible to disclose certain things to your insurer – including if you’re going to be away, or your house will be empty, for an extended length of time. ICNZ says check the ‘unoccupied’ clause in your policy as this can vary from 30-60 days.

And check your contract with your agent to understand their responsibilities during an open home – because if they let you down your insurer may go into bat for you.

In John and Virinia Luhrs’ case, they didn’t claim because they didn’t think its right - that this was one for the real estate company to sort out.

Chris Kennedy has repeated an offer to Fair Go, to make a no-fault goodwill payment of $1000 to the Luhrs, but the couple declined it when they learned it would come out of the pocket of their listing agent.

They say she did nothing wrong and it’s the Harcourts gold system that failed.

John Luhrs says that still needs to be fixed.

“They’ve got a system that they say is a secure lockbox; think it's both misleading and also it’s not fit for purpose.”