A good real estate agent is very familiar with the neighborhoods where he or she shows properties. But because of legislation called the Fair Housing Act, the agent can’t legally share all of that information with you.
Why the restrictions? The government wants to make sure that home purchase decisions are based on a property’s fair market value and not factors such as race, religion or ethnicity. In other words, the law is meant to stop agents from steering clients toward or away from certain neighborhoods.
What can’t a real estate agent discuss with a buyer? We asked Scott Klein, an agent based in New York City, to give us a rundown on the topics that are off-limits.
The Do-Not-Ask List Neighborhood Scout, for example, you can get a description of a neighborhood’s “look, feel and character” that includes information about residents’ age, income level, ethnicity and other factors.
Household income: Wondering if a neighborhood is considered upscale? Don’t bother asking your agent. Klein says he can’t discuss economic class with prospective buyers.
But it’s relatively easy to find demographic information online, including average household income for a particular area. At
Schools: As with income level, sharing information about schools “might be perceived as steering someone into a certain neighborhood,” says Klein. “However, as a Realtor I can direct people to sources of information about education in that area.”
Here, too, the web offers prospective home buyers a wealth of information. Buyers can find useful school statistics, including enrollment, class size, and reading and math scores, at sites like School Matters and Great Schools.
Religion: The religious makeup of a neighborhood is another topic that’s off-limits for real estate agents to discuss. If a buyer wants to find out about active religious communities in a particular neighborhood, Klein directs them to local houses of worship for information.
Crime statistics: Surely an agent can answer questions about local crime statistics, right? That’s pretty public information. But it turns out that even this data is considered a sensitive topic under the Fair Housing Act.
Once again, buyers have to do their own research to find out if a certain neighborhood is considered safe. Homebuyers can find crime statistics online, including where sex offenders live, by logging onto Family Watchdog.
Klein also recommends that his clients pay a visit to the local police precinct and walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for it at during different times of the day.
Environmental concerns: A buyer would want to know if, say, a home is located near a Superfund site. In general, a real estate agent isn’t going to be much help when it comes to neighborhood environmental issues. Buyers will need to figure this out on their own. One way is to visit the EPA’s web site, which includes a database of environmental information, searchable by Zip code.
The one exception to this rule is if there is an environmental problem with a specific home. “If it pertains to that particular property, and it’s something I have knowledge of, I am required to disclose that,” Klein says.
So why use an agent if you have to do so much information-gathering yourself? An agent can show you homes, guide you through the buying process from start to finish and help you negotiate the best deals with sellers.