Fair Housing Laws and What Your Agent Can’t Tell You

Before shopping for a home, learn about Fair Housing Laws and how they affect what your agent can and cannot tell you about a neighborhood.

A realtor talks with a homebuyer.

By: Kris Berg

“Is this a good neighborhood?” is a question we consistently get from our buyer clients. Alas, it is not a question I or any agent can be expected to answer. Legally, it is not a question we should ever attempt to answer, at least not if we want to keep our licenses.

We are all different

First, there is the argument that “good” is entirely subjective. Some people like the wide open spaces. Freedom to park the family Winnebago on the front lawn or to paint their home pink may for them constitute a good neighborhood. For others, neighborhood rules of decorum enforced by an active, even militant, homeowners’ association are a thing of joy. A community of cul-de-sacs may appeal to one buyer, while another may find streets laid out in a grid pattern more livable. Are the schools good? Define “good.” Streets crawling with little ones and decorated with basketball hoops and sidewalk chalk, or streets where you can shoot a cannon without incident -- Which is the better neighborhood?

One man’s good is another’s not-so-much, and your agent can’t be reasonably expected to write the definition for you. That’s the practical reason that, when searching for a home, you need to do your own research. Then, there are the legal reasons. We call them the Fair Housing Laws.

Fair Housing Laws

Every real estate agent is familiar with the term “steering.” The definition of steering is the illegal funneling of homebuyers to a particular area based on the desire to keep the makeup of that neighborhood the same or intentionally change it. Most of the time, we think of steering in terms of race, but Fair Housing Laws define many protected classes:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religious preference
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Handicaps

If you ask your agent if a community has a lot of purple polka-dot people living there, he can’t tell you, even if he can see the spots. If you want to know if there are a lot of young families in the area or whether there are more Episcopalians versus devil worshippers, he can’t spill, even if he leads the Sunday sermons. To do so would be breaking the law.

Fair housing is serious business, and yet I see so many homes advertised as being in “safe” neighborhoods, on “family-friendly” streets, or “walking distance to” a lot of things. All of these statements are fair housing violations. (As far as the latter is concerned, not everyone can walk, so this has been interpreted as being discriminatory to certain disabled people.) Overkill? Maybe. But, you can’t be too careful where discrimination is concerned.

What your agent can tell you

That doesn’t mean that your agent should be relegated to the role of a door-opening mime during your home search. On the contrary, a good agent can point you to many resources which will help you to learn more about a given area and allow you to draw your own conclusions. Your agent can and should share factual information and act as a valuable resource, but if he begins using that information to perform an interpretive dance, be wary.

The laws were in large part intended to ensure that your rights to make informed housing decisions are not frustrated by a potentially biased third party. I like spicy foods; you may not. And if all of my clients shared my same tastes and values when it came to housing, they would all be living in my guest room. They don’t, and (thank goodness) they aren’t.

The home buying process is a collaborative one, and while there is a lot that your agent can do to assist you in finding your perfect home, they cannot make your decisions for you. Where the subjective issues are concerned, discovery and evaluation are your responsibilities alone. It’s the law.

Kris Berg is Broker/Owner of San Diego Castles Realty in San Diego, Calif. Visit her Web site at www.SanDiegoCastles.com and read her blog at www.SanDiegoHomeBlog.com.

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