Real estate agents often become the go-to for all the advice their clients need during the house-hunting process. Some become more like therapists than salespeople, with buyers especially, but renters too, needing immense support through the understandably stressful process.
But, due to federal, state and city fair housing laws, which are put in place to prevent discrimination in real estate and designate protected classes (for example, race and gender are covered by the federal Fair Housing Act), there are several questions that agents legally cannot answer. These inquiries may be asked innocently, but brokers can face fines and other penalties for responding to them. Here are a few examples:
1. What kind of people live in the building or neighborhood?
Real estate agents cannot legally profile the “type” of person who lives in an area or building, as that would violate fair housing laws, warns Michael J. Franco of Compass. “For instance, I would never say ‘this is a family building,’ or, ‘very few families live in this building.’”
Answering this question results in “steering,” explains Jeremy Kamm of Warburg Realty. “By virtue of stereotyping a neighborhood or a property, I am in fact discriminating against said neighborhood or property,” he says. “As agents, we cannot in any way aid in a decision that has the ability to be discriminatory.”
Instead, “the best response would be to encourage the person to spend some time in the building’s lobby (or in neighborhood) to get a feel of their own,” advises Michael Romer, managing partner at the New York City law firm Romer Debbas LLP.
2. Is this a good place to raise a family?
Speaking of families, agents answering any questions about them can be hazardous, since they are a protected class under the Federal Fair Housing Act.
“Buyers are often surprised to learn that their real estate agent cannot answer the question: Do families with children live in this apartment building?” says Susan Abrams , also of Warburg. However, “the buyer is welcome to observe the comings and goings of the residents in the building and make their own determination,” she notes. Clients may also inquire about a development’s amenities, which may include a children’s playroom.
3. Is this a safe neighborhood?
An agent cannot determine what will make someone feel safe and comfortable or unsafe and uncomfortable, Romer says. “Also, you never truly know the intent of the person asking the question,” he adds. “The best advice here is to let the client spend some time in the neighborhood and come to their own conclusion.” Agents may also refer clients to the nearest police precinct and its website.
4. How are the schools here?
“Agents need to be very careful to avoid steering to or from a certain school or district,” Romer advises, especially since they don’t know if the client is looking for demographics or graduation rates. It’s best to refer clients to school information websites. “Let them decide for themselves whether the school is appropriate for their children,” he says.
5) Can you show me a neighborhood with a large “X” population ?
Although some clients may want to live near others that have a similar background, whether it be faith, lifestyle or language, a real agent cannot influence this part of the potential buyer’s decision making process without running afoul of fair housing laws, Romer says. Agents can direct buyers to census and demographic data websites, but should avoid offering their own observation. “Real estate agents must always bear in mind that real estate is color bind and neutral,” he concludes.