What a Real Estate Agent Can or Cannot Do for You
It's Against the Law to Violate the Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act governs the actions of real estate agents, whether agents agree or not. Some agents openly try to defy the Fair Housing Act, either because they don't understand it or they don't agree with it, neither of which is an excuse. To understand a real estate agent's scope of duties and what an agent and can and cannot do for you, look first to federal and state regulations. Here are a few of the entities that govern or affect a real estate agent's actions:
The Fair Housing Act is easy for agents to overlook yet it is essential to an agent's practice. Basically, the Fair Housing Act was created and made law to prevent discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 contained the Fair Housing Act legislation, which was later modified by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988. There are seven classes protected by the Federal Fair Housing Act. They are:
- National Origin
- Familial Status
The state of California, for example, expanded the protected classes in its own Fair Housing legislation. Many states have passed their own laws regarding discrimination. In case you're wondering, the protected classes under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, stem from the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959 and prohibit discrimination based on:
- Arbitrary discrimination
- Gender expression or Gender identity
- Genetic Information
- Marital Status
- Medical Condition
- Sexual Orientation
- Source of Income
Neighborhoods Populated by Protected Classes
It comes as a shock to many people when they learn that a real estate agent absolutely cannot address some requests because it is against the law. For example, if a newly married Jewish couple asks a real estate agent to find them a home close to a synagogue in an "adults only" community, the agent can't accommodate that request. Nor can the agent take into consideration the request to be located near any specific church. The agent can't so much as advertise that her listing is around the corner from a parish.
An agent cannot answer questions about the ethnic make-up of a neighborhood. For example, buyers should not expect an agent to show homes in neighborhoods comprised of primarily Latinos, African-Americans, American Indians or any other ethnicity or race. If a buyer was adamant and said, "Tony said I need to buy in an Italian neighborhood or else," the agent must refuse, regardless.
Discrimination in Listing Advertising
In advertising, agents must refrain from using words deemed to represent any protected classes. For example, none of these words is appropriate and many of them could violate Fair Housing laws. Do not ask your agent to use these words:
- Bachelor Apartment
- Mother-in-Law Quarters
- Singles Only
- Gentleman's Farm
- Golden Agers
- Section 8
- Children Welcome
Demands for School Districts & Safe Neighborhoods
Because of lawsuits, there are many other types of requests that smart real estate agents will not address. For example, in California, there is no guarantee that homeowners who live within certain school districts will be able to enroll their children in that school. If a client asks to find them a home in a particular school district, it helps for them to provide the boundaries for the search. It helps to explain that their children might not get accepted into the school of their choice. Guaranteeing a certain school district is not within the scope of an agent's fiduciary duties and could also be construed as a violation of Fair Housing.
Ditto on discussing crime in neighborhoods. If a buyer wants to know the crime statistics of an area, smart agents will direct buyers to the police department or other sources of information. An agent should never ever disclose crime stats or say a neighborhood is a relatively safe place to live even if she believes it to be true.
At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.