You could ask your real estate agent, “Is this a good neighborhood?” But don't expect a straight answer.
Your agent isn't purposely giving you the run-around. Certain details about a neighborhood or community can violate the Fair Housing Act, which was enacted in 1968 to eliminate housing discrimination. The law protects against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or family status. In particular, it prohibits any real estate professional from steering prospective homebuyers or renters toward or away from a community based on any of the classes under federal protection.
Essentially, Fair Housing aims to provide equal access to housing for all groups of people and safeguard from discrimination. But even with the good it does, it can be frustrating for prospective homebuyers who get tight-lipped answers from agents.
Voicing an opinion about a neighborhood, even done unconsciously, can violate the law. For example, an agent might say, “This neighborhood is great for young families.” The comment implies the neighborhood demographic consists of parents and kids. Unmarried individuals or older couples may be inclined to pass on a house because they feel the neighborhood doesn’t cater to their lifestyle. If that was the case, the agent would be violating fair housing laws.
John Relman, a real estate attorney and managing partner of Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC in the District of Columbia, explains real estate agents often give vague descriptions and answers to avoid violating the law. "[An agent] could say something and not intend to indicate a preference," Relman says, but if a homebuyer interprets the comment another way, the agent could be violating the law.
Crime statistics and details about schools can be interpreted as references to race – a violation of the Fair Housing Act – which is why Relman says a real estate agent won't tell you about crime in a neighborhood.
The law also applies to selling a home. For instance, a real estate agent cannot cater to homebuyers of a certain race or religion, even if the seller requests it. If the agent does, with or without the instruction of the seller, both parties are liable for fair housing violation, Relman says. If found guilty of violating the law, you could end up paying the victim to compensate for damages and housing, the government for civil penalties and the attorney for fees and costs.
What You Shouldn’t Hear from an Agent or Landlord
|Comments From Agent||Class Violation|
|“This neighborhood wouldn’t work for you. Too many [insert group] people live here.”||Race, National Origin|
|Advertisement stating, “No pets, no kids.”||Family Status|
|“The seller would like a nice family to put roots down here.”||Family status|
|“That’s a pretty high-crime neighborhood.”||Race|
|“To get to the house, turn left on Pine Street. If you pass the church you’ve gone too far.”||Religion|
|"This house might be a little much for a single woman to handle."||Sex|
|"Since you're in a wheelchair you won't want the second-floor unit. I can show you the ground-level unit instead."||Disability|
How to Help Your Agent Help You
Real estate agents can easily find themselves having to explain why they can’t narrow down homes on the market based on the client’s preferences because the requests touch on the protected classes. Babs De Lay, broker and owner of Urban Utah Homes and Estates real estate agency in Salt Lake City, says she worked with friends a few years ago who said they were looking for the “most Jewish, democratic neighborhood” in the area.
“I said, ‘You know I can’t [point out that neighborhood] because of fair housing laws, so you’re going to have to tell me where that is,” De Lay says.
The friends contacted a local synagogue and local democratic groups for advice, and could then provide De Lay with geographic details concerning where they wanted to live. “When we went out that weekend, they said, ‘This is where we want to be – within these blocks and in this ZIP code,'” De Lay says.
When helping a homebuyer find proximity to a religious institution, Relman explains De Lay’s strategy appropriately avoided the gray areas of the law, “It’s a dangerous road to be going down. It is far, far better to say, ‘Religion is a protected category under the Fair Housing Act. I’m not really permitted to start making decisions or suggesting to you based on where houses of worship are located, or where similar people live.’”
How to Find the Neighborhood for You
While real estate agents can't (and don't want) to decide which neighborhood or house is best for you, they can provide the tools and resources to find the community that meets your needs, says Stephanie Wilson-Evans, founding partner of Three Oaks Realty Company in Savannah, Georgia.
For instance, the Georgia Association of Realtors created pamphlets real estate agents can give clients. The pamphlets, “Protect Yourself When Buying a Home” and “Protect Yourself When Selling a House," offer resources for house hunters and sellers , and avoid the potential for bias, since they're recommended by a third party.
De Lay says finding information about a neighborhood is also easier than in the past because the Internet offers resources homebuyers couldn't previously access. “In a couple of clicks you’ll be there, and you can tell me where you want to live,” she says.
Wilson-Evans adds that a few old-fashioned visits to the neighborhood at different times of the day can help you know if it’s right for you, especially if you stop to chat with the residents in the area. “People will be surprised about how forthcoming neighbors are about their community – good or bad – and they’ll share their experience and what it’s like to live in the community,” Wilson-Evans says.
Corrected on Dec. 14, 2015: An earlier version of this story misidentified class violation in the chart.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.