6 Ways to Avoid Illegal Steering

Make sure you don't inadvertently violate the Fair Housing Act by steering a customer to or from certain neighborhoods.

April 1, 2009

When buyers ask you to recommend neighborhoods, be careful how you respond. It’s possible to inadvertently violate the Fair Housing Act by steering a customer to or from certain areas. Here’s how to help clients find their dream community without crossing the line.

Ask about hobbies.

This will often elicit information that helps you determine properties in neighborhoods that fit their lifestyle without your having to get into questions of religion, ethnicity, or other sensitive matters. Swimmers might want to be near a park with a pool, while biking enthusiasts might prefer proximity to a nature preserve.

Offer school district resources.

When buyers ask questions about schools, point them to the school district’s Web site and encourage them to schedule a visit to the schools. You can help them locate the district boundaries to ensure they’ll be purchasing within the school district they choose. But don’t say anything yourself about the quality of the schools.

Direct them to the police.

If buyers want to get a picture of the area’s crime rate, direct them to the police department or other sources of information. Don’t disclose crime statistics or say a neighborhood is a safe place to live even if you believe it to be true.

Make a list of spiritual places.

Develop a list of all houses of worship in the neighborhoods you serve and provide that as a resource to buyers.

Get to know the Census Bureau.

If buyers want to know the demographics of the area, refer them to the "fact finder" section of the U.S. Census Bureau Web site, where they can find racial, ethnic, and income breakdowns. If buyers want to dig deeper, refer them to the city government or local nonprofits.

Stick to the rules.

If buyers persist in asking questions that could result in a charge of steering against you, be polite but firm in telling them: "I’m sorry, but I can’t provide that information. Fair housing laws prevent me from steering people away from or toward a certain neighborhood based on race, color, or other protected categories." Help buyers get their own information.

April is Fair Housing month. Download a free "Fair Housing Focus" publication, produced by  the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

Source: Marcus A. Wally, CIPS, GRI, is a real estate instructor and founding broker of New World Realty and Property Management Inc. in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached at marcuswally@comcast.net.