hen you see something you don’t like, just toss your safe word into casual conversation and your agent will know it’s time to get out.


It could be anything from “cornucopia” to “tarpaulin” — just make sure it’s memorable (and that your real estate agent is in on the plan).

Open houses are totally fun. You get to walk around in someone else’s place and pretend it’s your own. You’re not thinking about mortgage payments or roof repairs. You’re there in the moment — dreaming of the possibilities and just loving the current owner’s choice of decor.

However, it’s not always all floating bookshelves and Eames rockers. What do you do if you show up and the house is a hellscape of living nightmares? As much as you’d like to, you can’t just say, “Forget this noise,” hop in your muscle car, and spin doughnuts in the yard on the way out of there.

No, you need something subtle and elegant: a safe word.

Better safe word than sorry

A safe word is a single word (or phrase) that you and your agent agree to drop when you see a deal breaker and need to hit the eject button. The word can’t be “bedroom,” “fireplace,” “pied-à-terre,” or anything you might normally say when walking through an open house. Instead, think unusual or even exotic, like “cornucopia,” “miasmas,” or “tarpaulin.”

Here’s how it works: When you see something you don’t like, just toss your safe word into casual conversation and your agent will know it’s time to get out. It doesn’t matter if what you don’t like is decor, layout, smells, or even vibes. Your reason is your own.

The important part is that your agent will hear you and then start the fancy footwork needed to make a quick escape. Once you’re safely in your car making your getaway, you can talk over the whys and wherefores.

For example: “Say, is that a tarpaulin I see tucked under the deck?” or “This living room layout really presents a cornucopia of options.” Or even “Miasmas is a word that is difficult to use in a sentence.”

Because you made your safe-word plan of action beforehand, your agent will hear the word and execute the escape.

Make it memorable — and unmistakable

When I was house hunting, I used “rutabaga” for my safe word. In case you don’t know, a rutabaga is a root vegetable that’s pretty much just a weird turnip. It’s memorable and fun to say, which makes it the perfect safe word. Plus, I get to sound like I know a lot about obscure vegetables when I tell my agent, “I certainly would not turn down a turnip right now — in particular, a rutabaga.”

That short statement got me out of all kinds of harrowing house horrors and I’m glad to have had it in my arsenal. The desire to put your time to good use is pretty universal, but never is it more important than in the pressure-packed, time-sensitive world of house hunting.

Ultimately, the seller doesn’t want you wasting time in their house any more than you want to be wasting time in a house you’re definitely not going to buy. A safe word is an easy way to maximize your limited house-hunting time — without hurting a single feeling.

So grab a dictionary, a thesaurus, or maybe the random article button on Wikipedia and start scouring. You’re going to want a good one.

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