Potential buyers want real information about the communities they’re shopping in. And while agents may feel like experts, their answers must always comply with fair housing laws. To help, the National Association of REALTORS® released some advice on handling the type of client questions that might result in biased answers. Mainly, regarding school districts.
It may sound simple, but agents still struggle to comply with the Fair Housing Act.
In 2019, Newsday published extensive research on how agents in New York were swaying homebuyers to choose certain locations based on their race. The practice, called racial steering, is a longstanding issue within the real estate profession and agents must actively work against that impulse — whether it’s intentional or not.
“We never want to direct clients toward or away from certain school districts based on hearsay or impressions,” Alexia Smokler, the director of NAR’s Fair Housing Policy and Program, said in the recent piece from NAR. “Implicit biases about the demographics of the students in a school can affect our perception of what schools are good or bad.”
Instead, agents should remain fully objective, according to NAR. Rather than answer based on their own impression, they can refer clients directly to the school district for information or provide access to NAR’s Realtors Property Resource® (RPR). While many third-party school rankings prioritize test scores — an increasingly outdated stat for judging schools — RPR uses the online education resource Niche. Niche takes a variety of factors, including student-teacher ratios, graduation rates and AP enrollment in addition to test scores.
Agents should also directly familiarize themselves with what’s offered by the local institutions. “Then you can say, ‘Smith Elementary has this music program, or this program for kids with special needs.’ That’s objective information. It’s not your opinion,” Smokler explained.
Agents can also help to facilitate meetings between the inquiring families and the superintendent’s office. The goal is to present yourself as a “source of sources” for homebuyers, NAR says. And in becoming a source of sources, agents are more likely to fall in line with fair housing guidelines. While the simple question of “good” versus “bad” might come up naturally during the homebuying process, agents should shy away from using those adjectives.
To avoid issues, NAR provided a broader list of tips to avoid a fair housing violation. They include:
• Offering listings based solely on clients’ objective criteria, such as architectural style, home size and price range.
• Responding to the client’s use of words like “nice” or “safe” with unbiased questions about their criteria.
• Relay information about neighborhoods solely through third-party sources.