Watch your language: Words brokers shouldn't be using in 2020

Commonly used phrases in home-selling are getting phased out as their origins and exclusionary assumptions gain scrutiny

Mar.March 03, 2020 12:00 PM

UPDATED March 6, 3:13 p.m.: You’re in the middle of a home showing, in the master bathroom, and you catch yourself about to say to your clients, a same-sex couple, “Here you’ll find ‘his-and-hers’ sinks.”

Oops.

And what about calling it a “master” bathroom in the first place? It’s a term that historically referred to the head of a plantation who enslaved people on the property.   

These words aren’t just impolite. Some are illegal to use, and there’s a big gray area when it comes to other verbiage that could be deemed discriminatory, noted Michael Romer, a partner at the Midtown law firm Romer Debbas LLP. Romer has taught about fair housing laws for more than 10 years as a real estate agent instructor and is a consultant on discrimination laws for several brokerages in New York City.

“The test from an agent’s perspective is, will the words that they use offend the person who hears them?” he said.

Phrases that can be considered discriminatory risk violating fair housing laws, which designate specific protected classes of people. If a buyer or seller reports a broker’s use of offensive terms, it can result in fines, license suspensions or revocations and even lawsuits if brokers are suspected to have steered buyers to certain listings. A bombshell report Newsday published in November 2019 revealed that many Long Island brokerages were guilty of steering and other fair housing violations.

“My reaction to the expose has made me hyper-aware of any words and actions I do within my life both professionally and personally,” said Linda Cawley of Signature Premier Properties in Dix Hills, Long Island.

For starters, avoid making any assumptions about your clients, said Robin Kencel, a Compass broker in Greenwich, Conn. “If a man and woman come to view a property, I don’t ask questions like, ‘What does your husband think of the property size?’” she said.

Below, Romer and tri-state-area agents review a few terms that are going extinct.

Past: his-and-hers
Present: dual or double

In New York, referring to double sinks as “his-and-hers” (or “Jack-and-Jill”) is a violation of New York state’s fair housing laws, Romer notes. “It’s out of the vocabulary completely,” he said. However, in New Jersey and Connecticut, it is legal to use.

Regardless of the law, the term is limited to gender norms and could imply that the property is intended for a heterosexual couple, New York City Corcoran agent Molly Franklin said. Rather than saying “his-and-his,” “hers-and-hers” or “theirs-and-theirs,” swapping in “dual” or “double” eliminates the problem, she said.

While agents in the greater tri-state area are moving away from the phrase, it takes time to change old habits, said William Burch, a Douglas Elliman agent in Northern New Jersey.

“I’ve opened a closet filled with women’s clothing only to have, ‘This is hers,’ pop out of my mouth, followed immediately by, ‘Not for long!’ or something similar,” he said. “We should know and respect our clients and look at the home with their eyes, not ours.”

Past: maid’s room or nursery
Present: extra or flexible space

The nursery and the maid’s room are getting reclassified under the same new names. The old terms are not illegal, but they may come off as distasteful, Romer said.

In New York, the term maid’s room comes from pre-war, “classic” sixes and sevens apartments, explained Martin Eiden of Compass. It refers to a bedroom that can only fit a twin-sized bed and is typically located off the kitchen.

“While 99 percent of buyers [today] would not use it as a maid’s room, some brokers still like to use the term to exude Old World charm,” Eiden said. “Others just call it a bedroom.”

But not everyone agrees with him. Small, spare rooms now are being referred to as simply that.

“Those terms that were used in co-ops that have rooms that were commonly designated for staff back in the day, that has all changed,” New York City Warburg agent Kemdi Anosike said. He calls it an extra or flexible room, or refers to the apartment as being a “convertible.”

But nursery is an even touchier term, Franklin noted.

“It can be a sore subject for a couple with fertility issues, or who have their parents bugging them to have kids and they don’t want that,” she said. Plus, “anytime you limit the room, you are narrowing your audience.”

Past: master bedroom
Present: en-suite bath, largest bedroom

One particularly stubborn holdover is the use of the word “master,” whether it describes a bedroom, bathroom or suite, experts say.

“Of all the terms, I see this one staying the longest,” Eiden said. Since en-suite baths have become common for other bedrooms besides the largest one in a home, there is no other way to succinctly denote the property owner’s bedroom, he explained.

The word “master” typically refers to the biggest bedroom or the one with a private bathroom. It’s typically large enough to fit a queen or king-sized bed. Merriam-Webster cites the first known use of “master bedroom” as being in 1925, and the word master is used to signify something dominant in many areas (think “master beam” or “master-at-arms”). But in real estate, it’s rumored to be coined during slavery.

“Everything means so much more than it meant back in the day,” Anosike said. “Especially with Black Lives Matter and some conversations about reparations coming into play, terms that could trigger a buyer’s feelings or emotions are things that I’m seeing being taken away.”

Burch agrees that it’s best to play it safe and use something like “primary” bedroom instead — but Kencel argued that changing this one may be overdoing it.

“I don’t change terms just for the sake of changing terms, or to where it becomes obtuse as to what I’m referring to,” she said. “The ‘master’ for me still refers to the room where the head or heads of the household reside.”

— Judy Messina contributed reporting

This article has been amended to reflect that Robin Kencel is a broker, not an agent. 


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