This time of year I encounter buyers who are relocating, and first-time homebuyers. Buyers often have questions about neighborhoods, and they expect answers. But I cannot legally answer some of their questions because of our fair housing laws.
Buyers tell me that they want an affordable home in a decent neighborhood, or they ask me if a particular neighborhood is good or bad. This is the type of information the buyers really want, and sometimes expect Realtors to supply. We cannot say that a neighborhood is good or bad, and even if we could our answers would be subjective.
Homebuyers get frustrated with me. They feel as though I am not helping them because they know that I know the city very well and that I know each neighborhood in the city, but I refuse to answer the "good neighborhood/bad neighborhood" question.
They want what they think is some kind of an inside scoop. There isn’t any inside scoop and there isn’t an answer to the good neighborhood/bad neighborhood question.
Buyers ask me to recommend a neighborhood and I can’t do that either. I tell them that I can answer specific questions or show them where and how to get the information they seek. I sometimes suggest they ask their friends how they like the neighborhood they live in.
Buyers are often interested in the crime rates in a neighborhood, which is easy for them to look up. They want to know about the schools, and I can help them with that. Some want to know more about the demographic makeup of the neighborhood.
I am working with a single father who wants to make sure that there are children in the neighborhood for his son to play with. One simple thing parents can do is look for swingsets. If there are swingsets, there are probably children to go with them. If I encouraged him to live in a neighborhood with a large population of children, I would be guilty of steering.
The last time I took my required fair housing training, I took it online and I flunked the test and had to take it twice. I kept breaking the law — at least on the test. I support fair housing and I understand it and I understand why we have the laws. It is the language and the rules for following fair housing laws that I struggle with.
That language can be confusing. I cannot advertise a home as a family home or as a great place to raise a family, but on our multiple listing service homes are put in categories. They are labeled as single-family homes or multiple-family homes, condos or townhouses.
Some of my listings have two living rooms — in the historic homes we can call them parlors. The second living room is always called a "family room." I don’t understand why the term family room is not a violation of fair housing language.
We also use the term "master bedroom." I don’t even know where to start with that term. Are the other bedrooms for servants? Usually a master bedroom is the largest bedroom in the house. It doesn’t need to be called the master bedroom. It could be called the owner’s bedroom, or simply the biggest bedroom.
I have to keep fair housing in mind when I write my blog. I have found comments on it left by the friendly folks at the federal Fair Housing Administration. Apparently they do some monitoring. I have heard tales of undercover fair housing agents visiting open houses. I am convinced that is an urban myth, but I am not sure.
Craigslist is a popular place to advertise homes for sale or apartments for rent. The site does post reminders and warnings about following fair housing rules. Craigslist was sued in February 2006 by a Chicago lawyers’ group, which charged the site with violating fair housing laws by allowing discriminatory language in postings of the site’s users. Craigslist was ultimately found to be just a "messenger," and not liable for the actions of its users.
But in a separate ruling, a federal district judge found that another site, Roommates.com, could be held liable for Fair Housing Act violations because it required users to disclose details such as gender and sexual orientation and family status, and allowed others to use such information in selecting roommates.
I am due to take my mandatory fair housing class again this year. I plan on taking it online like I did last time. It is likely that I will have to take the test a couple of times before I pass it.
The idea of fair housing and what it means is easy to understand — it’s the language that trips me up. And sometimes my clients trip me up by asking questions that I cannot legally answer.