They are the radioactive questions in home real estate, yet many buyers seem to have no idea about their sensitivity. So they ask their real estate agents:
— Is this a “good” neighborhood?
— Is it “safe?”
— Are the schools “good” or “the best”?
— What types of people live here?
— Can you show us a neighborhood with large numbers of Catholics (or Asians, Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans or some other group)?
Though it may come as a surprise to some home shoppers, certain answers by realty agents could trigger federal and state anti-discrimination legal tripwires. As a result, many agents are hesitant to provide specifics. Mimi Foster, managing broker with Epic Real Estate Group in Colorado Springs, told me “almost every buyer” she encounters asks questions of this type. Eighty percent want to know upfront about schools and crime rates.
“Of course everybody wants a ‘safe’ neighborhood,” she said. “Everybody wants ‘good’ schools. But what’s the meaning of ‘safe’? What’s the meaning of ‘good’?” It varies from shopper to shopper. For some, the meanings may have no racial or ethnic connotations whatsoever. But for others these can be coded, “wink wink” queries implying that the agent really knows what “good” means to the shopper.
“We can’t answer,” Foster said. “It’s all too subjective.” Instead, she refers them to online information sources about whatever they’re asking — websites that rate schools, statistical compilations on crime rates and the like.
Foster says she also gets questions that could be troublesome, such as “is this a family-friendly neighborhood?” or others indicating that the shoppers would prefer to be steered away from areas that have lots of kids running around. Either way, though, she considers family-related questions a no-go subject.
Praful Thakkar, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Andover, Massachusetts, faces questions from a different angle. Of Indian descent himself, Thakkar often finds himself guiding around Indian professionals who are considering buying a house in the area.
“It’s a very common question,” he says: “Can you tell us how many other Indian families live on this street?” Even though he thinks he understands the thrust of the question — are there people like us around? — he declines to answer directly. Instead, he supplies them a list of the names of current owners on the street, allowing his clients to decide for themselves whether the names indicate that they are Indian or not.
Agents such as Foster and Thakkar are hyper-sensitive because they don’t want to run afoul of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits any type of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, familial status, disability or handicap. The law is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Penalties for violating fair housing rules can be costly, so many real estate brokerage firms train agents on what constitutes “steering” of home buyer clients as well as what could be interpreted as showing any form of bias against any “protected class.”
Donna Evers, president and broker at Evers & Co. Real Estate in the Washington, D.C., area, says “most” of her firm’s clients avoid asking agents questions with discriminatory overtones, but when they do, “we tell them that there are many sources” for the statistical information they seek. “It’s all on the Internet — crime rates, all sorts of data. We say go look it up.”
But some fair housing advocates are concerned that the online information available today may actually enable a subtle form of racial steering when agents name specific sites that offer highly localized racial and ethnic breakdowns and refer clients to them. Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, a nonprofit group that has fielded teams of white and minority “testers” to detect bias in homes sales, thinks that in the event of fair housing complaints against those agents, the fact that they made such specific referrals could be held against them.
So what are home shoppers supposed to do with all this? First and foremost be aware that any agents you deal with are subject to the Fair Housing Act. Most of the data on schools and crime you’re curious about can readily be found on the Web — it just takes a little searching on any of dozens of sites.
Better to look for the information yourself rather than asking agents. They can’t make judgments for you and most likely won’t give you answers anyway.