Buying a home is a big step. Especially if it’s your first home, you probably have a billion and one questions about the houses you see, the neighborhoods you visit, and the process you’re experiencing. If you have a good real estate agent and experienced real estate attorney, they’ll be happy to answer your questions and make the journey a pleasant one.
But be aware that there are some questions that they can’t answer – not legally, anyway. And while you may expect a real estate agent to be able to spill all the beans about a location, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) means some things are off-limits.
By Federal law, your agent can’t disclose details of a neighborhood related to race, color, religion, nationality, sex, disability, and familial status. New Jersey law specifically states, in part, that disclosures can’t be made about gender identity or expression, marital status, sexual orientation, or ancestry.
All of that is designed to prevent discrimination by expressly prohibiting real estate agents from “steering” clients to specific neighborhoods based on any of these criteria.
As a buyer, you should know what questions you can expect to not have answered so that you can research, explore, and make your own assessments.
These are some of the things your agent absolutely cannot (and should not) tell you.
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1. If The Schools Are Good
Even if it was legal to share this information, that’s a loaded question. What does “good” mean to you? Test scores? Access to a library? Rankings of sports teams? And even if a school is “good” by your objective standards, who’s to say it won’t decline?
Legally, sharing information about the quality of a school has ties to segregation, so you can see how talking about “good” schools can be (rightly or wrongly) construed as discrimination.
If you want to know about the schools in the area, define what “good” means to you and then do some research. Visit the schools’ websites and read their newspapers. Talk to teachers and administrators. Ask neighbors. Read about the schools in local publications. Best of all, take a tour of the school and see for yourself.
2. If The Neighborhood Is Safe
Much like “good”, “safe” is subjective and everyone’s tolerance for crime is different. You may consider a neighborhood safe even if car theft is high as long as home invasions are low. It just depends on the criteria you use.
Plus, there’s no guarantee that even in a “safe” neighborhood, crime won’t jump tomorrow or next week or next month.
Crime statistics can also be references to race, which is why they’re on the do-not-discuss list. But they’re also public record, so you can certainly look into crime statistics on your own. Visit local police departments or search online for crime reports instead.
3. If It’s Catholic/Jewish/Muslim/[Insert Religion Here]
Not only can’t real estate agents tell you what the religious makeup of a community is but they can’t steer you toward a specific one even if you ask. Asking your agent to find you a “mostly Mormon neighborhood”, for example, just won’t fly.
Your agent can, however, provide you with a complete list of houses of worship in an area, or take you to see a neighborhood that you specify by geographic location (if you know there’s a church on a certain street, for example, you can ask to see a house on that street.)
Or you can do your own research to find out what houses of worship are nearby. Visit them to get a feel for the community, talk to the people, attend a service, and make your own assessments. If you find a place you particularly like, ask your agent to show you a house in that location.
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4. What The Ethnic Makeup Is
The rules for race are similar to those for religion. A real estate agent can neither tell you what the ethnic makeup of a community is, nor take you to a specific one at your request.
You can probably see how steering clients to neighborhoods based on specific nationalities and races can be seen as discrimination, regardless of personal preference.
If it’s important that you live in an Italian/Brazilian/Lebanese/etc. neighborhood then it’s up to you to do some legwork and make that assessment on your own. You can also check the Census Bureau website for a breakdown of racial and ethnic makeup. Then you can direct your agent to show you homes in a specific geographic location.
5. If It’s A Good Neighborhood For Families/Singles/Same Sex Partners/Etc.
You may simply want your kids to have some friends to play with, but your real estate agent cannot legally disclose the family status of an area – or take you to a neighborhood with (or without!) kids. Nor can your agent find you a neighborhood based on any particular family makeup.
Besides, we’re back to the subjective “good”. Just because there are a gaggle of teenagers on the block doesn’t mean it will be good for yours.
If you want to know whether a neighborhood will be a good environment for you and your family, take a look at the local playgrounds, gyms, restaurants, community centers, libraries, etc. Visit their websites and follow their Instagrams. See what kind of amenities are available and what kind of activities the town hosts.
You can learn a lot about a place through its local events, businesses and publications.
Right about now you may be wondering what you can ask that your agent can answer. Believe it or not, a lot! There’s more to a neighborhood – and you – than some of the details we mentioned here. Do you love hiking? Are you an avid scrapbooker? Do you have a dog? Would you just die if you couldn’t have a burger every Tuesday?
Your real estate agent will happily (and legally!) steer you toward neighborhoods with walking paths, dog parks, hobby stores and burger joints (just don’t ask if they’re “good” burgers!)
Even so, you’ll want to check it all out on your own. Buying a new home is a big step, and you’ll want to consider your decision carefully. Not even the best real estate agent can read your mind or truly know what will make you happy. Between the internet and your real-life explorations, you’ll be that much closer to finding a home – and neighborhood – you’ll love.
Need a real estate attorney to guide you through the legal complexities? Let us know!