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Lockboxes: security or liability?

THOUSANDS of homeowners each week must decide whether to allow a broker to place a lockbox on their listed house. A lockbox is a device that contains the key to a house and can be opened only with a special key carried by MLS (Multiple Listing Service) members, or with a combination known only by them.

For a homeowner who needs to make a sale as quickly as possible, and who for work or other reasons may not be at home much of the time, a lockbox could mean the difference between an immediate sale or a much longer listing period.

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But the question of security for houses on which a lockbox has been placed has concerned homeowners and brokers ever since the concept was first implemented in the early 1960s. While in the majority of cases the use of a lockbox has expedited the sale of a house, there have also been cases where lockboxes have been used by intruders to enter and burglarize a house.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) and state realtor associations have now become involved in the issue, studying and recommending certain procedures that are designed to minimize the security risks. Special committees and study groups have been formed to focus on the problem and make their recommendations to realtor boards and MLS operations.

During this time marketing needs and the demands for effective lockbox devices continue to grow. The Sonoma County, Calif., Multiple Listing Service has voted to buy newly designed lockboxes for use by its members. To enter the box, a broker must satisfy a two-step process:

Use a special key that cannot be duplicated.

Enter his ``personal identification number.''

The new lockbox, designed and manufactured by Supra Products Inc., records the number of each broker or salesperson who enters the house and, at the same time, automatically marks ID numbers on a tamperproof foil tape as an added security measure.

The Sonoma County MLS, based in Santa Rosa, Calif., is one of the first such boards in the United States to use this new generation of lockboxes. An even more sophisticated lockbox now being designed by Supra, the largest manufacturer of such devices, uses a system of computerized ``electronic access control.'' It will soon be appearing on the doors of MLS-listed houses.

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The new state-of-the-art device contains an electronic chip that remembers the 57 most recent accesses and identifies the broker or salesperson, board of realtors, or MLS, including the precise time and date of entry.

With this type of documentation and control, homeowners will probably feel more secure in permitting the use of a lockbox on their listed house. Broker organizations also will be less apprehensive about liability dangers associated with the use of such devices.

A possible plan for the future would interface a computerized lockbox with a home's total burglar-alarm system, which, it is believed, would deliver maximum security for a listed house.

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