Carol and I get asked all the time: What is this neighborhood like? How are the schools in the area? But because of the Fair Housing Laws, don’t be surprised if we just can’t say.
Here’s a hypothetical example of why:
Janice just got her real estate license and she’s excited to meet with her first clients, a family of four looking to buy their first home. The Kyle family has two children ages 5 and 8, they’re looking for a home with great schools in a neighborhood or town home development with children close to the same ages.
Janice is showing them the first property. She tells them, “You will love this place, it’s very family friendly, the schools are said to be some of the best in the area and there are several churches in the area.” In order to get to know her clients she also asks the husband what his line of work is and if the wife works.
What Janice doesn’t realize is she has just broken several federal, state and local Fair Housing Laws.
What are the Fair Housing Laws?
In 1968, the federal government passed a law called the Fair Housing Act which prohibits landlords, real estate agents, home sellers, and banks from discriminating against people based on certain characteristics. Many states adopted and added to these laws to give consumers further protections.
Housing discrimination can occur in a variety of ways. Listed below are some housing practices which are considered illegal if they are based on a home seeker’s race, color, national origin, sex, religion, familial status, or disability:
- Refusing to rent or sell a house.
- Falsely denying that a house is available for inspection, sale, or rent.
- Offering different terms, conditions, or privileges for certain people.
- Intimidating, interfering with, or coercing people to prevent them from buying or leasing a dwelling.
- Advertising or posting notices about the sale or rental of a dwelling where the ad or notice indicates preference, limitation, or discrimination.
- Discriminating against someone through financing or broker’s services.
- “Steering” of clients by real estate agents to or from certain neighborhoods and of tenants by landlords to or from certain areas of the complex.
Because of these laws, there are numerous things an agent cannot say when selling or renting a property. Using the term ‘family friendly’ is actually one of those. According to the Fair Housing Laws prohibit real estate agents from using terms or ask questions that could be considered encouraging a buyer or renter to choose a particular area based on preferences or limited conditions – such as being “family friendly” or an “adult only” neighborhood. Even asking a client what they do for a living (trying to know their source of income) is also a no-no in many states!
Even if the client wants to know the quality of schools in the district, whether or not there are children close to the ages as their own, we can’t give specific information. If a client is looking only for a home/resident in an ‘adult’ community an agent is not allowed to steer them towards places who may have those limitation or information by verbally telling them of the preferences.
Sellers or landlords are not allowed to limit or use preferences based on race, color, sex or sexual orientation, national origin, religion, familial status, or disability or handicap in deciding who to sell or rent to. This means agents are breaking the law and opening themselves up to a lawsuit should they try to answer questions from clients regarding any of those subjects. It also means any seller or landlord who sets limits or preferences based on them is in violation of the law.
If a client asks about schools in the area, the only thing we can legally tell them is the name of the school and the school district. We must explain we aren’t allowed to give any more specific information than that. We can suggest they do their own research on the schools, but that’s about our limit.
If a seller is trying to sell a property in a neighborhood that has no children, legally he or she cannot refuse to sell to a family with children. We also cannot mention whether there are children in the neighborhood or building in our advertising.
So how can clients satisfy their curiosity or concerns about neighborhoods and schools? We often suggest clients visit the neighborhood during different days and times to see for themselves. If a client asks about percentages of a particular race, national origin, or whether or not on particular religious group lives in the neighborhood or surrounding area, we suggest clients conduct their own research online and through other resources.
The bottom line for us: We want all of our clients to treat others and be treated fairly. Please don’t put us in a compromising position by asking us questions which could lead to our losing our real estate license (or worse)! If you’re thinking of buying or selling real estate, please contact us today. We’ll be happy to answer all the questions you have… as long as answering them doesn’t violate any laws.