What Are Lockboxes and How Do Lockboxes Work?

Is it safe to put your house keys in a lockbox?

••• © Big Stock Photo

Long, long ago, way before lockboxes were used, like, in the days of Leave It to Beaver, few homeowners even locked their doors. Neighbors walked into your house without knocking. Back then, entire subdivisions didn't empty out during the day, and most people knew everybody who lived on their block. Not so anymore.

But back in the 1950s, when listing a home for sale, home sellers readily handed over their house keys to an agent, which hung on a hook in the brokerage office. If you subscribed to a phone service with a party line, your neighbors probably knew when an agent called to show your home and kept an eye out for monkey business.

But then came the lockbox.

Like a fake rock, lockboxes hold house keys, but unlike a fake rock, lockboxes attach to a door handle, gas meter or gate, much like a bicycle lock. Sometimes you will spot a lockbox attached to a solid chain wrapped around a tree.


Brief History of Lockboxes

Older lockboxes, dating to the 1970s, were opened by a small silver key, hence the name "lockbox key." Many agents who have been in the business a while still call an electronic display key a lockbox key. Then came the contractor/combo lockboxes. These released by engaging a manual lever in conjunction with depressing the right button numbers in the right order on the front of the lockbox.

By the 1990s, electronic lockboxes were introduced across most of the country. This system recorded access by each agent. The agent would enter a specific code on the display key and then snap the key into place on the front of the box which, when synced, would release the keys.

Nowadays, some agents use a blue Supra box (called an iBox), which is manufactured by GE. These lockboxes operate on an infraRed system, so no key is required. The iBox release mechanism is triggered by pointing an electronic display key or, in some cases, a synchronized cell phone, at the sensor. The sensor records the user's information and releases the bottom of the lockbox, which contains the keys.

I love the lockbox system we use because Supra sends me an email to let me know who accessed the lockbox. I get the agent's name, contact information and I know when the agent opened the lockbox. I can also contact the agent to obtain buyer feedback, which I pass along to my sellers.

Other agents use lockboxes manufactured by Sentrilock, which is owned by the National Association of Realtors and manufactured in the United States. Some agents believe the Sentrilock are superior lockboxes because they contain features not available on the Supra. One such feature is a one-day code the listing agent can remotely program for the seller to use when the seller locks herself out of the house, which happens more often than you would think.

Fact: Homes with a lockbox get more showings. If you're wondering about a lockbox vs. appointment, you'll probably get more buyers to see your home if you choose the lockbox.

How much do lockboxes cost?

Local Realtor associations and/ or multiple listing services charge varying fees, but they range around $100 each, plus sales tax. That does not include the rental for a display key or right to use an eKey. Pam Erickson, a suburban Minneapolis agent at Coldwell Banker Burnet, spends a small fortune on lockboxes because her association issues lockboxes that need to be replaced after 72 months. Agent Erickson laments, "Every six years, I have to buy 30 lockboxes!" On the other hand, our MetroList service in Sacramento sells Supra lockboxes, which also expire, can malfunction and, in my opinion, are not as advanced as the Sentrilock.

Your guess is as good as ours as to why associations promote one type of lockbox over another. The focus probably is on profit margins and affiliated business relationships.

Full-service real estate agents will provide a lockbox for sellers completely free of charge. Agents who discount services might charge sellers extra for using a lockbox.


Is it really safe to put keys into lockboxes?

  • Restricted Hours
    Bear in mind that many lockboxes operate during certain hours. For example, my lockboxes do not open after 9 PM nor before 7 AM. This lessens the chance that an unscrupulous agent will host all-night parties in an empty house. There is rarely a reason to gain access to a property outside of regular business hours.
  • Periodic Placement
    Some sellers feel more secure if the lockbox is not attached to the house. These sellers set out the lockbox in an agreed-upon location after leaving the home or upon a scheduled appointment time. The problem with this method is it's very easy for a stranger to snatch the box and run away with it.
  • Outdoor Placement
    Other agents feel it is better to put a lockbox on the side of the house, for example, on a gas meter, or on the back-door handle, the garage or a gate. The reasoning is nobody will see it. However, if you have a large real estate sign in your yard, even the dim-witted crooks will figure out that you probably have a lockbox on the side of the house or in the backyard.
  • Most sellers feel more comfortable with the lockbox in plain sight on the front door. The main reason to hang a lockbox in another location is if the lockbox interferes with opening and closing the door. If a thug wants to break into your home, please realize that most burglars do not want to call attention to themselves at the front door. They prefer a more concealed entry.

    In conclusion, use common sense and make sure the location of your lockbox is easily accessible by an agent. Please don't make female agents walk through mud in high heels, or force tall agents to scoot under low-hanging trees or cause an agent to fight through a mess of overgrown rose thorns to find the lockbox. Some agents won't preview -- much less show -- a home under those conditions.

    At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.