“Is the Gypsy Next Door an Illegal Alien” and Other Questions Your Agent Cannot Legally Answer
There are things that you, as a home buyer, want to know about a prospective new neighborhood. Are the schools top shelf? Is there shopping nearby? Do the neighbors hold a semi-annual Scott Baio look-alike contest? For the most part, your agent can help you find the answers to your questions (though determining a victor in that last one seems dubious given it has been a couple of decades since Charles was last seen in charge). There are some matters which may be pertinent to your purchasing decision that I cannot field, however.
Fair housing doctrine is the result of a noble pursuit to ensure that all consumers enjoy shared basic rights and equal housing opportunity. The so-called protected classes against which housing discrimination is strictly prohibited include race, color, religion, gender, national origin, persons with disabilities and familial status (having children under 18 years of age).
(Note omissions such as job description and political affiliation from that grouping. Don’t like Realtors? Democrats? You don’t have to sell your house to one. Of course, green is the only color that should matter to a home seller, and rejecting any potential suitor for a reason other than unacceptable contract terms is not only foolish, but an invitation for trouble. Protected class or not, this is America. You can sue or be sued for virtually anything.)
Now that we have established who cannot be barred from housing opportunities for no other reason than certain personal attributes, let’s take it a step further. A frequent criticism of Realtors is that we won’t answer your direct questions when you are trying to get the skinny on an area. Your pointed questions are met with milquetoast answers such as, “There are all types of people in this community,” or “You should go to the police department website to research that on your own.”
It’s not because we don’t want to be helpful. We do. Believe me. Many times, we are constrained by overbearing legalities that make it difficult to effectively advise our clients. While laudable, fair housing doctrine in practice can be maddeningly frustrating, too. I cannot tell you how many Christian families live in the neighborhood. I can’t tell you if a subdivision is kid friendly. I can’t tell you if an area you have inquired about is a “bad part of town” or not. I can’t give you the wink and a nudge as I drone on about not being permitted to discuss such matters.
When you, as an unknowing consumer, stray into the no-fly zone, the exchanges often go something like this.
Q: “Are there a lot of minorities in this area?”
A: “There are people of all kinds in this neighborhood. I am not at liberty to discuss such things. Please get out of my car you intolerant ape.”
Q: “Are there more families or singles that live in this neighborhood?”
A: “There are people of all kinds in this neighborhood. I am not at liberty to discuss such things. If you are trolling for a date, I suggest the local pub … maybe Facebook.”
Q: “Is there a lot of crime here?”
A: “That depends on whether you consider vice a victimless crime … er, I mean, you would need to check the local PD’s website to review those statistics.”
Q: “Are there any agnostic Madagascan women who walk with a limp and have six adopted Inuit kids nearby?”
The thing to remember is that we agents deal in properties, not people. Ask me about the community amenities, the builders, the values. Shoot, you can ask me for the square root of the Pythagorean Theorem for that matter (the answer is “F,” by the way). Just don’t ask me to lay out the area demographics for you. There are resources available to you should you wish to perform your own investigations, but as a licensed agent, I cannot steer you to or from a particular area based on criteria that either closely treads or firmly stomps on a protected class.
Of course, it would be naive to assert that no agent has ever flaunted these guidelines to provide a client with the information sought. Were it me in the consumer’s shoes, I’d worry where else said agent would be willing to bend the ethical spoon, but I digress.
Are there times when I feel constrained from fully doing my job and properly advising my clients about both the positives and negatives in a community? Absolutely. As a safeguard that prevents agents from feeding into arcane prejudices and stereotypes, however, it is necessary to ensure that we don’t artificially impact values or deny opportunities. You can, and should, do all pertinent investigations regarding the property you aim to call home for the next who knows how many years. You are not restricted from obtaining the information you seek. Just know that your helpful agent will not be able to abet certain fact-finding missions.
You can ask me if the house is far enough away from the meth lab down the street to withstand the inevitable explosion (it’s not). Just don’t ask me to speculate whether the aspiring chemist within is here legally or not.