Will Your Clever Ad Pass Fair Housing Muster?

Ideal as a house may be for an empty nester, saying so in your ads could plunge you into legal hot water. Watchdog organizations could, and frequently do, claim that such ads discriminate against families with children.

April 1, 1999

The U.S. Fair Housing Act (which refers to Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and its 1988 amendments) makes it illegal to imply a bias against a certain type of buyer in a broad range of categories. It prohibits the making, printing, and publishing of advertisements that state a preference, limitation, or discrimination on the basis of:

  • Race, color, or national origin—Referring to the ethnicity of a home or neighborhood (“white” or “Irish,” for example) is an absolute no-no. But according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policy statement released on Jan. 9, 1995, ads may contain such previously questioned phrases as “master bedroom” and “desirable neighborhood.”
  • Sex, age, or marital status—Although the act provides an exception for seniors-only housing that meets certain requirements, using terms like adults only and singles preferred may land you before a judge. However, because of their usage as architectural descriptors, “mother-in-law suite,” “bachelor apartment,” and similar phrases are commonly accepted by the courts.
  • Familial status—Can you say a property is “ideal for couples without children”? Nope. Stick with ads that describe features and neighborhoods rather than people.
  • Religion—Avoid such phrases as “near Lutheran church,” which might imply a religious preference. Instead, try something like “near various houses of worship,” or avoid the religious angle.
  • Handicap—Housing councils have generally conceded that such phrases as “walk-in closet” and “great views” don’t discriminate. Nor do ads that describe accessibility features (“wheelchair ramp”).

One practitioner was sued for running an ad on Easter illustrated with a bunny and eggs; the complainant claimed the ad violated her beliefs by showing a Christian preference. A judge disagreed, but it goes to show that all your advertising deserves scrutiny. Take care, and when in doubt, check with an attorney.

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