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How to Market Properties without Violating the Fair Housing Act

by Molly Castelazo on October 16, 2009 · 4 comments

  

Equal Housing Opportunity LogoYou’re sitting down to write a property listing.  You know my first rule of marketing: Make it personal.  But how do you do that – and stay within Fair Housing guidelines?

The Fair Housing Act, explained

The purpose of the Fair Housing Act is to ensure that a person can buy or rent a house or apartment wherever they want regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religious preference, disability, family status or national origin. In some areas, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is also prohibited.

Unfortunately the Fair Housing Act doesn’t actually list the words you are and are not allowed to use in your marketing communications. The language you can and cannot use while remaining faithful to the spirit of the Act is up for interpretation. A good rule of thumb is to avoid exclusionary words like “no” or “only” except when the exclusion is clearly allowed by law (e.g. “no drugs” or “no smoking”).

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you can’t say “Great Hispanic neighborhood” in your listing, even if the home is in a neighborhood populated largely by Hispanics (and even though that kind of language does make the listing targeted and personal).  You might not be surprise to learn that you can’t say “Ideal for the busy executive” even if the property is a furnished one-bedroom apartment downtown.

Have your cake and eat it, too

Some say that the safest bet is to describe the property and nearby amenities – not the potential buyer – when advertising. Unfortunately, if you are blind to your potential buyer when you’re crafting your advertising message, that message will be less effective. But with some creative thinking, you can adhere to the Fair Housing rules and effectively highlight the property’s benefits to your prospective buyers.

Take the following plain-vanilla listing:

1234 Main St., Anywhere, US 12345

  • 4-bd, 2.5-ba, 2600 sq. ft.
  • Custom tile throughout
  • Updated kitchen w/ stainless steel appliances
  • Gorgeous backyard w/ built-in grill and pool

It is a typical property listing that describes the features of the property — totally safe within the bounds of the Fair Housing Act, but also pretty boring and not at all targeted to potential buyers or renters.

When I sat down to modify the listing, I wanted to say “Perfect for a growing family” because that’s the target prospect – an upper-middle income, young family.  But my client and I decided that kind of language, however good from the targeting perspective, might be walking too close to the Fair Housing line.

To keep the listing targeted to the homebuyer who wants a big enough house to grow her family into, I came up with “Room to grow” – which has the same connotation as “Perfect for a growing family” but doesn’t raise the same potential Fair Housing questions.  With that language, I wasn’t excluding anyone not part of a “growing family.”

The ad as I rewrote it:

1234 Main St., Anywhere, US 12345 – low-maintenance luxury with room to grow

  • Sized just right, with room to grow – 4-bd, 2.5-ba, 2600 sq. ft. – so you won’t have to move again in 5 years
  • Easy-to-clean luxury that’s kid- and pet-friendly – custom tile throughout
  • The perfect kitchen for rainy-day cookie baking – updated w/ stainless steel appliances
  • Enjoy endless days of budget-friendly summer fun in the easy-maintenance backyard with built-in bbq and pool

I have to say that I’m not a lawyer and none of this should be construed as legal advice. To be sure that your marketing messages conform to the Fair Housing Act, check with your attorney.

Onward and upward.

Molly Castelazo

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Smith October 16, 2009 at 9:21 am

It is amazing how PC everything is today. I understand the need to protect people, but when legislation dictates that someone can’t say that a property is perfect for a family because it may be discriminatory against single people, don’t you think we’ve just gone way too far?

Sounds pretty stupid to me!

Reply

Ox October 16, 2009 at 10:49 am

I recently received a sheet while attending a Real Estate Investment Club meeting where Bruce Norris spoke. Bruce provided the sheet that had 20 property listing titles, with only one that conformed to the FHA standards. It was pretty tough to pick the only valid title out of the bunch, but it was there. It is amazing what you can and cannot say.

I do think it is tough to follow all the rules out there that need to be followed to allow fair treatment of all prospective end users, but I also think that it is justified.

As my wife always says, “Celebrate Diversity”.

Reply

Molly Castelazo October 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Tim – Maybe. It makes a marketer’s life more difficult, no doubt. But whatever we think about the Fair Housing rules, they are what they are and we must abide by them. . .

Ox – Thanks for your comment. What’s especially difficult is following the rules without making the listing sound lame. It’s a balancing act. . .

Reply

Jonathan October 16, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Although I understand your thought process here Molly, what you have done is still illegal. From HUD’s website (http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/FHLaws/yourrights.cfm):

It is illegal for anyone to:
Advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap. This prohibition against discriminatory advertising applies to single-family and owner-occupied housing that is otherwise exempt from the Fair Housing Act.

I am a landlord in Charlotte and am reasonably familiar with the laws, although I have thankfully never had a problem.

In the eyes of the law, you are advertising a preference for buyers who have children, which is explicitly illegal even if you would happily sell to someone without kids. It doesn’t matter what your intentions were; there exists de facto discrimination with your wording.

Thanks for your post Molly and good luck.

Reply

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