We can't answer these questions...and that's a good thing

01/28/19  |  Ellie Botshon

The US Fair Housing Act of 1988 prohibits us from speaking about certain protected classes: Race, Color, Religion, Sex, Handicap, Familial Status, and National

The process of buying a home can feel daunting, especially for the first time. What seems like dozens of factors can influence a buyer’s decision about a particular home, from the size of the yard to the number of bathrooms. Then there’s the general location, including the town or city itself, the feel of the neighborhood, and proximity to schools and public transportation. Liz and I pride ourselves on knowing the local neighborhoods and understanding the real estate market in and around Boston, so, we are able to answer nearly all of our buyers’ questions. Notice how I said “nearly?” Well, there are certain kinds of questions it would be unethical for us to answer; our responses may be meant with the best of intentions, but by their very nature are steeped in the complicated race and class history of America. The US Fair Housing Act of 1988 prohibits us from speaking about certain protected classes: Race, Color, Religion, Sex, Handicap, Familial Status, and National Origin.
Buyers might have questions such as:
  • Is this neighborhood safe?
  • Is this town a good place to raise a family?
  • What kind of people live here?
Last year we wrote a blog on the history of housing discrimination, and we urge you to read that first if you’re not sure how those questions fall into areas of ethics for us real estate agents. Now, I’ll break down the above questions and explain why we can’t, and absolutely shouldn’t, answer them.
Is this neighborhood safe?
My concept of “safe” may be very different from my client’s. Perhaps a certain area had a reputation for being dangerous in the past, but is actually showing strong signs of improvement. Or, maybe there has been a spike in criminal activity that I don’t know about yet. Perhaps there are few drug-related crimes, but several sex offenders in the area. To avoid any confusion, I advise potential buyers to contact the local police department, or do research on websites like Neighborhood Scout and the Massachusetts Sex Offenders Registry Board. These provide the best and most up-to-date data, which my clients can use to make an informed decision about a particular neighborhood.
Is this town a good place to raise a family?
I will never answer this question. Why? Let’s run through a few scenarios: If I say, “Yes, it’s a great place to raise a family,” I have just made a judgment about what that family needs and wants in order to have a good life. I have also inadvertently implied that families without kids wouldn’t fit into the neighborhood. And if I say, “No, it’s not great for families,” I have dropped a hint that the neighborhood isn’t welcoming (or safe, or nurturing) for people with children. Both of these answers violate the Fair Housing laws we must follow. Remember, back in the time of redlining, if a neighborhood were predominantly black, many real estate agents would tell white families that it was not a good place for families, and vice-versa. We recommend that our clients spend some time in the neighborhood if possible, and look up local family-friendly businesses such as YMCAs, sports programs, or a child’s particular interests.
What kind of people live here?
This seems like an innocuous question, doesn’t it? The home buyer wants to get a feel for the neighborhood—are there lots new residents, or is this a place where people spend their whole lives? Are there many families here, or is it mostly singles just out of college? Is this more of a blue-collar neighborhood, or is it more white-collar? No matter how innocent it seems, answering this question would violate my ethical standards. I would be giving my opinion, and my answer would then guide that home buyer’s decision. Now think about every real estate agent answering this question over decades and decades. We would have the ultimate power to shape the very neighborhoods we’re helping our clients buy and sell in, which is how housing discrimination happened in the first place. So, I keep quiet when asked this question and instead direct my clients to sites such as the US Census Bureau. And again, I suggest that they spend time in the neighborhood to decide for themselves if they want to live there.
We love answering questions from our home buyers. It’s so exciting to help them find the right place to live. But we want this very personal and life-altering decision to be based on our clients’ own values, goals, and lifestyle without influence from us. And that’s why sometimes, no matter what, we won’t answer their questions.
Ready to start looking? Contact us and let’s get going!

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With their complementary communication styles, responsiveness, competence, and ability to truly listen, Ellie and Liz enable their clients to feel at ease throughout any real estate transaction. They would welcome the opportunity to be your next real estate advisors.

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