You can steer boats and cars – but not buyers

Buyers have wish lists – like four bedrooms, a pool, granite countertops and “near good schools” – and it’s a Realtor’s job to make those wishes come true.

However, real estate agents need to avoid “steering” – the use of words or actions that influence a buyer into making a housing decision – because it could be a violation of the fair housing provisions that prohibit discrimination of certain protected classes in the sale or rental of housing.

Buyers have a lot of questions, and while buyers may ask any question they wish, Realtors’ hands can be tied with providing certain answers. That sometimes creates awkward situations if agents don’t have a way to handle it.

The textbook example of illegal steering is showing only homes in predominantly black neighborhoods to black buyers. But in the real world, steering is often subtle. A neighborhood’s crime statistics, for example, could be a code word for steering clients to “safe neighborhoods.”

In general, Realtors can sidestep answering questions that could violate the Fair Housing Act by giving buyers a way to research information directly. You should not tell buyers the demographic breakdown of specific neighborhoods, but the U.S. Census Bureau knows that information and posts it online. You should not say which neighborhoods have high crime rates, but a number of online providers and local sheriff offices can do that for buyers.

The National Association of Realtors® created a list of acceptable behaviors that Realtors may legally do without potentially violating the Fair Housing Act.

  • Ask about hobbies
    This information can help you find a locale that fits their lifestyle. Someone who likes to run may want to be near a park or running trail; someone who loves to fish may want to be closer to an ocean, lake or inlet.
  • Don’t discuss local schools
    If buyers want extensive school information, refer them to the school district’s website. Don’t offer personal opinions on a school’s quality or rating.
  • Avoid opinions about crime rates
    “Is this a safe neighborhood?” is a perfectly valid question for buyers to ask. But instead of answering, point buyers to the local police department for further information on area crime statistics. Once again, don’t offer personal opinions.
  • Don’t talk about demographics
    A buyer could easily ask, “Are there a lot of young families here?” They may be trying to determine if it’s a good option because they’re also a young family – or they may be trying to avoid areas with a high percentage of retirees. Their reasons are unimportant under the Fair Housing Act, however. It’s important that Realtors don’t offer demographic advice. Instead, suggest they visit the website of the U.S. Census Bureau if they’re interested in further information on things like age, racial, ethnic and income statistics.

What do you do if a buyer asks a question that you think may violate the Fair Housing Act and won’t take “no” for an answer?

Stand firm in your position. It’s fine to tell these buyers that it’s illegal for you to steer potential buyers toward or away from a neighborhood based on Fair Housing Act protected classes. Instead, gather a reference list of outside resources buyers can use to get their questions answered. It shows that their agent is there to assist them, even if not directly answering the questions.

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