Ask an Agent: What is the Deal With Fair Housing Laws?

by Mark Wellborn


In this week’s installment of Ask An Agent, a reader wonders why real estate agents cannot answer basic questions about neighborhood crime levels and schools. W.C. & A.N. Miler’s Pamela Wye offers up some insight.

Question: A friend recently told me that her real estate agent was not allowed to describe the neighborhoods where she was interested in buying and the types of people that tend to live in them because of “fair housing” laws. What are these laws and why do they prevent agents from answering these basic questions?

Answer: Your agent was correct in telling you that she cannot answer these types of questions. Questions like “Will I find other young, single professionals in this neighborhood?” or “Does this neighborhood have a crime problem?” make real estate agents cringe.

While these inquiries seem fairly innocent and obvious, real estate agents are barred from responding as it would be in violation of The Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act was passed in the late 1960s to prevent discrimination in real estate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap and familiar status. The goal of the law was to give Americans equal access to the housing of their choice and to prevent “steering”, which is when real estate agents guide their buyers toward or away from certain properties and neighborhoods based on any of the factors mentioned above.

While the intention of the law is good, the tight-lipped policy can often leave buyers frustrated and wondering why the person working for them will not answer basic questions about buildings and neighborhoods. As there is no way around this, buyers should do all the neighborhood research they can on their own before purchasing in a certain area. There are a variety of new tools and sites on the internet that make this process easy.

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See other articles related to: pamela wye, fair housing, ask an agent

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/ask_an_agent_what_is_the_deal_with_fair_housing_laws/1548


  1. OutinShaw said at 10:02 am on Wednesday November 25, 2009:

    Thanks for the info. It seems to me like there should be some sort of middle ground here, as the law is too restrictive. The fact that an agent can’t tell a client that a neighborhood is popular for 20 and 30-somethings is just silly.

  1. usethenet said at 12:21 pm on Wednesday November 25, 2009:

    There are plenty of resources besides your realtor.  There are plenty of neighborhood specific blogs in DC.  The police districts, wards, and many neighborhoods have listservs you can join and review.  Sit in on the ANC and/or police community meetings, which have schedules posted online.  You can also just go hang out in the neighborhood and see for yourself.  Granted, that’s more involved than asking a question.  However, no one knows your comfort level better than you and that’s what this comes down to.

  1. Richko said at 3:12 pm on Wednesday November 25, 2009:

    I know plenty about neighborhoods I would consider living in before I would even look at properties there. But this law evidently applies to individual buildings, too.  A few months ago on a lark I went to check out some units at The Watergate.  Having heard that the building seemed to be inhabited mostly by older folks with even older money, I asked the agent if many young people lived there.  The agent indicated that was an out-of-bounds question.  How is one supposed to research that, short of staking out the place?  (I guess it’s not that big a deal unless you don’t have a life already and are hoping your new neighbors will create one for you.)

  1. name withheld said at 1:20 am on Friday November 27, 2009:

    The law bans REFUSING to sell or show a property based on protected status.  And it bans COERCING, THREATENING, OR INTIMIDATING a buyer.

    But simply answering a question initiated by the buyer is not a violation of FHA laws.  Maybe some agents are acting out of an overabundance of caution, but I think most just don’t want to have to do any legwork to be informed about a property or neighborhood.  The job is just so much easier when you don’t have to know anything other than what is listed on the flier.

  1. anon said at 9:54 am on Saturday November 28, 2009:

    Name Withheld, you’re over simplifying the concept and then arriving at the conclusion that real estate agents are lazy.

    Get your real estate license (assuming you don’t have one) and it will be drilled in to your head that licensed agents should avoid answering these questions at the risk of violating the law and facing stiff consequences.  An agent might answer a question that seems harmless, but in doing so unintentionally violate the law, lose their license, be sued, etc.

    You might think this is an agent being lazy, but really they are just protecting their business.  Errors & Omissions (E&O) insurance does not cover fair housing violation either.

  1. Doug Francis said at 4:47 pm on Friday December 4, 2009:

    After a prospect asked me questions about crime rates around a listing of mine, I thought, why should he trust me? I am trying to get the home sold… and a less ethical person may say anything to get the sale. Who really knows what goes on in any neighborhood? Really, it is beyond the scope of any reasonable person to assume a real estate agent knows crime stats.

    You really need to find the best source possible.

    After that incident (sound like police jargon, no?)I wrote a post with links to Northern Virginia PD’s in case it came up again. And if that doesn’t work for you, meet some of your new neighbors before you make an offer.

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