I’ve been amazed at the number of letter writers who’ve taken time out of their busy schedules to comment on my column from last week, which wondered whether the presence of an Islamic mosque needed to be disclosed to a home buyer.

It’s particularly interesting to note that about half the letters that Inman News has published say such a disclosure is required, while the other half suggest that it’s not only unnecessary but might even violate federal fair-housing laws.

So, if even veteran real estate agents can’t agree on what types of things must be disclosed, what’s a home seller supposed to do in order to stay out of trouble?

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I’m just a “rookie Realtor,” trying to make it through my first year of the business. And so far, nothing has perplexed me (or most of the other new agents I hang out with) than the basic question of what needs to be disclosed and what does not.

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When I was in real estate school with other newbies a year ago, our professor taught us that a “defect” had to be disclosed only if it had a “material effect” on the property’s value.

Got a leaky roof? The buyer must be told about it. Does a nearby dump send noxious odors in your home’s direction when the wind blows just right? You have to disclose that, too.

Yet, even in states with the toughest disclosure laws, there’s a lot of “gray area” when it comes to deciding what a buyer must be told about and what the seller can keep a secret.

I don’t think any realty professional, or even seller, would argue that a potential buyer shouldn’t be told about a leaky roof or foul-smelling dumpsite.

But there’s a host of other issues–such as the presence of the Islamic mosque that I wrote about last week–that some buyers feel they should know about and other buyers couldn’t care less about.

Let’s face it: There are a lot of buyers out there who didn’t know anything about Islam and Muslims until Sept. 11, 2001.

Had they purchased their home on Sept. 10, the day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, they probably wouldn’t have been concerned whether their neighbor was a Muslim, Catholic, Jew or agnostic.

But 48 hours later, on Sept. 12, lots of folks began thinking that living next to a Muslim was a dangerous proposition that would clearly affect a home’s resale value and therefore would need to be disclosed to a prospective buyer.

When I wondered last week whether disclosure of a local mosque was required, a Realtor from Texas quickly wrote in to say that it was absolutely warranted. The mere presence of a Muslim place of worship would discourage some buyers from making an offer on the home, the Realtor said, which automatically suggests the need for disclosure.

But a California Realtor soon disagreed with her Texan counterpart: She sent an e-mail saying that federal law actually prohibits such a disclosure because it would violate the mandate against mentioning religion, gender, race or even sexual preference in a realty transaction.

He said, she said, and now we’re all back in the same bed–of disclosure dilemmas.

Maybe the best solution to such problems came from an agent in my own office, who recommended inserting a “back-door” disclosure into the sale contract.

Rather than risk a fair-housing violation by flatly stating that there’s a mosque in the neighborhood, the agent suggested using terminology like, “Buyer is aware that traffic on the street may increase on Friday nights and other times of the week, when the Islamic mosque on the corner holds prayer services.”

By using such careful verbiage, both the agent and seller would meet their legal obligation to disclose a common traffic problem–and also let the buyer know about the presence of the mosque without opening themselves up to claims of religious discrimination.

Perhaps utilizing such a back-door disclosure about the mosque isn’t a perfect solution.

But so far, it’s the best one that I’ve heard.

***

Got tips, ideas or advice for the Rookie Realtor? Send them to Rookie@inman.com.

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