I help people from all over the country move to our little southeastern town. They all have one thing in common: they’re making a huge cross country move to live the lifestyle they’ve been imagine for themselves.
They also all have very little knowledge or understanding of how our town is laid out, what the people are like, and how they can find the best spot for themselves to be.
And that means they have a lot of questions.
But inevitably I’m going to get to the part of the phone call where I have to say, “I’m sorry, as a real estate agent I’m bound by Fair Housing Laws and cannot answer that question for you.”
Have you heard of Fair Housing Laws? You probably have without realizing it. If you learned about how it was common practice for real estate agents and mortgage brokers to allow their racial biases impact how they served the community, then you’ve heard about Fair Housing Laws.
One common practice, called steering, meant that agents were actively attempting to control where different people would live. They would steer white home shoppers to the “white parts of town” and non-white home shoppers away from those same parts of town. Another practice is called redlining, and it’s when real estate industry providers will not serve people who reside in certain parts of town. You guessed it- it’s the parts of town where minority homeowners live.
The Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 to prevent discriminatory practices like steering and redlining from happening. And while there’s still work to be done, real estate brokers and mortgage lenders can no longer practice this way without breaking the law.
Here are some (surprising) questions you probably have that real estate agents aren’t allowed to answer in order to comply with Fair Housing Laws.
Real estate agents can answer a lot of questions for you, but they can’t tell you whether or not a certain neighborhood or section of town is “safe”
There are two main reasons for this. For one, the word “safe” can be very subjective. Every person has unique experiences and tendencies, and what one person might consider to be “safe”, another would view as an immediate threat to their safety.
The more important reason is that to answer this question based on the realtor’s own subjective opinion, would be steering a prospective buyer away from a certain area. At worst, real estate agents could purposely steer minority clients towards or away from a certain part of town under the guise of “safety.” At best, agents could allow their unconscious bias to steer people away from parts of town they consider “unsafe”.
So how can you, a complete newbie to town, figure out which areas you would feel safe living in? Your most trusted ally is unfortunately of no help here. Not only is it unethical for agents to answer this questions, they also would be putting their license on the line to do so.
Here’s what I have advised my relocation clients to do to help them get a better understanding of safety:
Contact your local public safety office, and be prepared to ask them about specific neighborhoods or even specific addresses you’re interested in. As public servants, they are not bound by fair housing laws, and will be able to let you know their objective opinion of safety based on the data.
I.e. we head out to this neighborhood every weekend for violent crime calls.
Yep, another question you will probably be wondering but can’t ask your REALTOR® about.
This seems harmless, right?
It totally is a natural question for someone new to the area to be asking. The problem with this one goes back to steering and subjectiveness.
A good school to me might be about state test scores, but a good school to you might be about athletics and extra curricular opportunities. There are so many different ways to measure a school’s “goodness”, and when an agent answers this question with an opinion, they are doing their clients a disservice.
As a home shopper, it’s important for you to become clear on what matters to you in a school district. Decide which factors are the most important to you, and then do some research on which schools seem to have the best reputation for those things. The best place to start is on your state’s department of education website. They often have objective rankings of schools using a variety of different data points. If your state doesn’t offer a school report card like this, there are many sites out there that do like greatschools.org and publicschoolreview.com.
When working with your real estate agent, remember they are not allowed (by law) to direct you towards a specific school district. So instead of saying, “I would like to see homes in the best school district” you will need to more specifically say, “I’ve decided I would only like to see homes zoned in the Forest School District.” This way, your agent can make sure they’re showing you homes that match your preferences and not showing you homes in school districts that you do not plan on living in.
Did you know that familial status is a protected class? This means that just like it’s illegal to discriminate housing opportunities to people based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. it is also illegal to discriminate housing opportunities based on the status of a family.
Whether you have children, don’t have children, are married, or single, you have the right to find and purchase any home in any area.
It is illegal for real estate agents to steer families to or away from any particular part of town. Even if it has a playground. Even if every family on the block has kids. Your real estate agent who practices according to Fair Housing Laws **ahem if they don’t- find one who does** will not be able to answer this question for you.
Their response should be, “what does your family need from a neighborhood?” to which you may respond, “we don’t like street parking because our kids like to dart out from behind cars.”
Now your agent knows that you would like to live in a community where either the local laws or community HOA prohibits cars from street parking.
This objective fact (street parking) is not only perfectly legal to sort and filter potential listings through, it makes your agent a better advocate for your needs. The more specific you can be with what matters the most to you, the better service your real estate professional can give to you.
If you’re making a big move to a new place soon- I want to help make sure you get connected with a real estate professional who can handle all of these additional challenges for you. With relocation clients, it’s not as simple as opening a door and writing a contract. There’s so much you don’t know, and the right professional can fill those gaps for you.
I’m Laura- a real estate agent matchmaker in any town. I want to get you connected with an agent who specializes in relocation… and it doesn’t cost you anything to use my services! Click the button below to get started.