Anyone involved in any phase of a residential real estate transaction – especially any professional – should be familiar with the Fair Housing Act. This is the federal law that prohibits discrimination against potential buyers on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, disability or other legally protected class. In New York, age is also a protected class.
Whether you’re a mortgage lender, a property manager or a real estate agent or broker, it’s easier than you might think to be accused of housing discrimination. The head of a Long Island fair housing advocacy group says, “People get into trouble for discriminatory advertising all the time. Any time you are putting something into writing or saying something to someone who knocks on your door, what you say can be a problem. My advice is to stick to simpler descriptions—about how many bedrooms, square footage and amenities.”
One real estate attorney says that some people try to exploit the law and almost always end up getting a settlement. He says that real estate professionals and home sellers can avoid being accused wrongfully of discrimination or giving the impression that they’re discriminating by having a “paper trail that memorializes and makes a record of non-discriminatory preferences for the transaction.”
For example, “If the seller doesn’t want to deal with a buyer who has a mortgage contingency, it needs to be written down from the beginning so any potential lawsuit down the road is useless.”
It’s wise for sellers to not discuss any “preferences” for whom they’d like to see buy their home. Maybe those preferences are fairly innocent – like someone wanting to sell their home to a couple with children. However, the attorney advises never discussing demographics and focusing on who can give you the best offer. He says, “Sellers and brokers should look at buyers like they are dancing dollar bills. This isn’t a marriage — it’s a transaction.” Except in a community for people 55 and up, age and other demographic traits should never be discussed or questioned.
Discrimination suits can be costly in money and reputation. If you’re a homeowner or real estate professional facing a discrimination suit, it’s essential to seek legal guidance immediately.