Buying a home, especially if it’s your first one, is a truly remarkable feat. You’ve probably got a thousand things to consider and a million questions in mind. Where am I gonna live? What type of house should I buy? Which neighborhood is the best for my lifestyle? How much should I put as a down payment? How much mortgage can I afford? And the list goes on and on.
This is why it’s best to hire a trusted and knowledgeable real estate agent to help you in your house-hunting journey. Expect them to be your go-to person for almost all the advice you’ll need regarding the complicated, and often stressful, homebuying process.
And yet, if you ask them certain questions, you might be puzzled to find them feeling tongue-tied. Be aware that there are some queries that your realtor couldn’t answer legally. This is because some things are off-limits under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law enacted in 1968 that prohibits discrimination in the purchase, sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, sex, skin, color, nationality, or family/economic status.
Real estate agents may be accused of “steering” clients to specific neighborhoods when they answer certain questions or even give out selective information. While these inquiries may be asked innocently or out of curiosity (maybe in the hopes of getting an inside scoop), housing professionals who respond to them can face fines, consequences, and other penalties in court. Here are a couple of such questions—and what you can do to find the answers yourself.
Don’t be surprised if your trusted real estate agent refrains from answering any questions related to the family status of an area. And no matter how much you ask, your agent wouldn’t find you a neighborhood based on any particular family makeup.
Families are a protected class under the FHA. So for agents, answering any inquiries about them can be risky, even if a buyer’s asking out of curiosity. This may include questions such as, “Do families with children live in this area?”, “Is this a good place to raise kids?”, or “Is this a good place for me as a single?” and other similar ones. If an agent says a certain neighborhood is not all that family-friendly, it could imply that families with children aren’t welcome. Similarly, saying that an area is a good place for kids could make buyers without children feel uncomfortable, which can be treated as a form of discrimination.
As a home buyer, it’s best to do your research by visiting the neighborhood at different times of the day to observe the comings and goings of most residents and make your own judgment. If you have a family or are planning to start one in the near future, it’s also best to look into nearby playgrounds, recreational centers, and other things that you may enjoy.
Are you looking to live in a melting pot? Or maybe you want to live near others who have a similar background (e.g. Italian/Spanish/Chinese/Asian) as you? You may be able to ask a friend or anyone living in the neighborhood about the specific nationalities and races that mostly make up a community, but not a real estate agent. Similar to the family-related question, such discussions can come uncomfortably close to “redlining”, which is a form of discrimination in which buyers are steered toward or away from neighborhoods based on the color of their skin.
Instead, a good and cautious agent will tell you to do some legwork by looking at the U.S. Census and other government data to get information about the demographics of a community. They will also urge you to invest some time in the neighborhood and make an assessment of your own. After doing your research, you can then direct your agent to show you homes in a specific geographic location.
Requesting your realtor to find you a “mostly Catholic neighborhood” or a “Mormon neighborhood” because you are one is also impossible because sharing any information concerning religion could also put them in hot water. If you want to know the religious makeup of a community or it’s a concern to you, your realtor can provide you with a complete list of nearby places of worship. You can also do your own research to find out the places of worship around the area, which you can then visit to get a feel of the community.
Agents must always remember that real estate is color-blind and neutral. Whether it be about faith, lifestyle, race, ethnicity, or language, a realtor cannot influence this part of the potential buyer’s decision-making process without running afoul of fair housing laws.
The word “safe” is highly subjective. Besides, there’s no guarantee that there won’t be any crime tomorrow, next month, or anytime in the future in what is considered a “safe” neighborhood. Everyone’s tolerance for crime is also different, so an agent cannot determine what will make someone feel safe and protected, or unsafe and uncomfortable.
Crime statistics can also be interpreted as references to race or ethnicity, which is why prudent realtors will choose their words wisely and direct buyers to reach their own conclusions. Fortunately, crime statistics are a public record and you can certainly look into them on your own. You may visit the nearest local police precinct and check its website, or search online for recent crime reports and any other information related to the safety of the area.
Another question where your agent will keep their lips zipped? Anything regarding a certain school or district, as well as the quality of schools in the area. The racial divide can also run deep in U.S. schools, which is why a realtor has to be very careful. Because similar to the word “safe”, talking about “good” schools can be rightly or wrongly construed as discrimination.
As a buyer, you may have a different concept of what a “good” school is. Do you care more about test scores? Maybe the sports team rankings are important to you? If you want to know more about the schools in the area, your trusted realtor can help you by introducing you to one of many websites that rank schools, such as GreatSchools.org. They may also refer you to school information websites to help with your research. Spend some time perusing their newspapers or reading about the schools in local publications. You may also talk to local teachers and administrators. Best of all, tour the school and see for yourself whether a school is good and appropriate for your children’s education.
As a home buyer, you should know what questions you can expect to not have answered even by your experienced real estate agent, especially when it comes to things that have nothing to do with the house itself. Understand that it’s a good thing when they give you an awkward silence as a response. This also means it’s an opportunity for you to research, explore, and make your assessments before getting your dream home.