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One Question You Should NEVER Ask Your Tenants or Buyers

by Paula Pant on January 10, 2014 · 25 comments

  

When I go to parties, conferences, or networking events, people frequently ask about my ethnic background.

People use this question as an icebreaker, just like “How’s the weather?” or “How was traffic?”

Me: “Hi, My name is Paula.”
Them: “Hi Paula! Are you Indian?”

(They usually follow with: “I love Indian food!”)

Of course, it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes people phrase the question indirectly.

Them: “Where’s your family from?”
Me: “Ohio.”
Them: “I mean, where did they come from originally?”
Me: “Um, Pittsburgh?”

On occasion, people will wait for me to raise the name of a country before they pop the question.

Me: “This one time, I was vacationing in Egypt …”
Them: “Oh, is that where you’re from?”

You’re probably wondering where this is going. Did you accidentally stumble upon the wrong website? Isn’t this supposed to be about real estate?

Yes.

You see, there are some questions that sound common to our ears. They’re the questions that we use in normal daily conversations.

• “Are you married?”
• “Do you have any kids?”
• “Are you from (insert country here)?”

These sound like incredibly normal questions, ones that I’ve heard throughout my life. I’m used to hearing these questions frequently in social situations. There’s nothing unusual about it.

But if you’re in real estate, beware.

Just because a question sounds “normal” or “conversational” doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily allowed to ask it.

When you’re talking to tenants or buyers, you shouldn’t ask them about their race, their skin color, their religion, their sex or gender, their nationality, their marital status or anything else that may potentially be interpreted as a violation of Fair Housing Laws.

“Whoa, whoa, violation?! I was just making friendly conversation!”

I understand: You have great intentions.

You may be searching for an icebreaker, so that you can jump-start a conversation. Or you may genuinely be curious about someone, and you want to learn more about that person in order to connect with them at a deeper level.

That’s awesome. I get it.

But in order to protect yourself from any potential legal problems down the road, you should refrain from expressing any curiosity or interest about the person’s background, national origin, race, religion or any other factors covered by Fair Housing.

In the real estate world, you have to operate under a new set of social rules. Questions that you might ask someone at a friend’s backyard BBQ aren’t permitted when you’re speaking to prospective tenants or buyers.

Regardless of your natural curiosity, that question – “Are you from (insert country here)?” – needs to be the elephant in the room.

(P.S. And by the way, the answer is “Nepalese.” Thanks for asking.)   :-)

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Gibbons January 10, 2014 at 5:36 am

Hi Paula,

I love this!

CYA in Housing Discrimination, always a good idea!

I like how you conveyed the dialogue too!

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Paula Pant January 10, 2014 at 11:18 am

Thanks Brian!! I love using dialogue in my posts … I hope it makes it more entertaining. :-)

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Joe Foster January 10, 2014 at 5:51 am

Paula,
Nice article and great points. I do have to say that it is a shame that these laws have to be in place. MLK put it best “…a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Same for hiring talented individuals, I don’t care what color your skin is, where you came from, or if you are XX or XY. I do care if you are creative, passionate, intelligent, hardworking, personable and have integrity.

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J. Money January 10, 2014 at 6:43 am

Haha… The whole time I was reading this I was like, “Damn I love this girl’s style. Reminds me of someone else I know… who is it?” And then I realized it was you!

Brilliant read, as always my friend. Never knew you were Nepalese :) Am I allowed to quote Something About Mary here, or is that also a no-no? Haha…

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Paula Pant January 10, 2014 at 11:17 am

Haha, thanks J. Money!! Fun fact: Tourism to Nepal skyrocketed after the movie Something About Mary came out :-)

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Justin January 10, 2014 at 8:18 am

My buddy who’s an agent was telling me of all the ways agents get into trouble inadvertantly. Like you can’t say “walking distance” because its discriminating against handicapped individuals.

I have a great solution to asking a tenant about their background, DO IT AFTER THEY ARE A TENANT (not discriminating).

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Paula Pant January 14, 2014 at 10:02 am

You can’t say “walking distance?” I didn’t know that. Noted … I’ll stop saying that! Legal prevention, here I come!

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Paul January 10, 2014 at 8:52 am

Great article. I get this question alot and I realize that most people are decent and are asking to make conversation but its the one percent of skunks that ruin it for everyone else. I met one such skunk when my brother and I were looking for an apartment about 10 years ago. We went to an apartment complex, rental manager was not there but the maintenance guy was and he was happy to show us several vacant apartments to get an idea the size and layout. He asked us to come in the next day to fill out an application with the rental manager, when we showed up the next day, the manager told us that he had no vacant apartments. It took us a few minutes to figure out that we were not wanted in this complex so we moved on. Moral of the story, while most people are nice and decent and would not turn anyone away simply because they detect an accent or see a skin color they don’t like, skunks do exist and you may ask questions that get you on the skunk list.

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Martin Cortez January 10, 2014 at 9:49 am

I believe there is one exception to the Fair Housing Act that actually ALLOWS you to discriminate. If you own a multi-family unit such as a fourplex, and you live in one of the units, then you are allowed to pick and choose who may live in your property. Fair Housing laws do not apply.

Please let me know if I am wrong. It has been a decade since I took my real estate courses.

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Kyle Hipp January 11, 2014 at 4:15 am

I think that only applies to renting out rooms in your own living space. So if I rent out 2 rooms in my 4 bedroom personal reaidence then I have more leeway. Not adjoining uniting in the same building that you live.

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Seth January 10, 2014 at 9:57 am

I hate to be the critical voice in this thread. But I would NEVER let people move into my properties without understanding the relationship dynamic between the tenets. Married? Great! Gay Partners? Who cares! Boyfriend/Girlfriend? Wonderful! Platonic friends, raising someone else’s child? Good on you! I will understand who these people are (where they work, their credit, their criminal record, their income, their disabilities that may need consideration, their family dynamic, etc.) and what they are about. That DOES NOT mean I will discriminate based on this, but I will know who these people are.

So far as @Justin says that you can’t say that the property is within ‘walking distance’ give me a break! It is a common expression and does not show a discriminatory action. What should I say ‘within rolling distance’. It is absurd!

Ultimately, as a property owner I don’t care where you are from, or what you do, who you sleep with, so long as you don’t cause problems and pay your rent on time you are more than welcome to any of my properties, and I will make that very, very clear.

Finally, Paula Plant people are inherently curious about people that may descend from exotic locations. If they are offending you say so, but when your picture is that of you riding an elephant, people may ask some questions.

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Paula Pant January 14, 2014 at 10:06 am

@Seth — Nobody is offending me. In fact, I welcome that conversation.

You’ve misinterpreted the point of this post.

The point is that you need to legally protect yourself. There are tenants/buyers in this world who will file a lawsuit about anything and everything. And even if a tenant files a frivolous lawsuit against you, you’ll still have to deal with the time, expense and hassle of managing the situation.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Tom Mole May 28, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Hi @Paula, I’m so glad you cleared up where you are from in your article. I would not have guessed Ohio from the elephant and I was a bit too timid to ask you directly. (Whew!)
You made a great point. (Is it still legal to hate needing to be P.C.?) I think @Seth has a good point too, although I wouldn’t pry into tenant background in the “danger” areas myself. You’re right. Tenants don’t need any extra ammo for their lawsuit cannons. When I’m at Seth’s experience level as a landlord I may make some adjustments. I’d rather live in Seth’s world than this P.C. one. I mean really, saying “walking distance” could get me into trouble? I believe it, though I despise having to.
Great article, @Paula. Excellent counterpoint, @Seth.

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Jay Orlauski January 10, 2014 at 12:33 pm

I’ve always been very curious abut why people want to know where “my family is from” as soon as they hear my last name. It’s like – um , the USA ? I’ve never been offended by it – but I always wondered why people even care – here we are about to do some business and the first thing they want to know is my family nationality – Unless it’s a social call, I don’t really feel like trying to explain my family history to strangers and quite honestly, it’s none of their business anyway. It has no relevance to anything at hand – maybe like you say , they are looking for a groundbreaker – but how about – “so , what do you do for a living?” (if they must know about me) Great article – I always assumed this was a given, but I’ve dealt with enough people to know that the subject does come up more often that one would realize. Don’t get me wrong , I am a people person and enjoy gabbing it up – but sometimes when my nationality comes up, I just feel like until your my friend , you have reason to know where my family is from or what my nationality is and it does seem a little rude to blast that out to somebody as your first point of contact.

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Mike Bryant January 10, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Great article, Paula – very well presented. As a former HR manager in the corporate world, I got to learn first hand how things we may think are “normal” conversation can get us into a lawsuit. Although some of the replies listed here are objecting to your premise, it doesn’t matter. Go ahead and ask whatever questions you want, just know that you could be in a difficult position of trying to defend yourself in court! Hiring employees is very similar, I can’t ask if someone is available to work on Friday nights, because it may cause me to discover they have a religious reason not to me, and if I don’t hire them, I could be subject to a lawsuit! Crazy but true!! The Fair Housing laws are clear-cut – and we will all be wise to know them when we are screening our tenants. We CAN and SHOULD discriminate, but only on the basis of credit score, income, job verification, or just a gut feeling. Just be sure you don’t give any ammunition to someone to sue you!

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Paula Pant January 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

Exactly, Mike!! Beautifully stated … I couldn’t have phrased it any better myself.

“Don’t give any ammunition to someone to sue you!”

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Lindsay January 12, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Has anyone ever had this come up as an issue significantly after the fact? Like you meet somebody in an ordinary social setting, so you either talked about one of these things in conversation or the setting itself gave away something about the person and then later either you found out they were looking for a place or they found out you had one available and they accused you of not wanting to rent to them because of the protected reason when really you had some other completely legal reason?

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Shari Posey January 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm

I almost always ask people who have an accent where they are from originally. I love to talk about travel and usually this leads to a conversation about that. Fortunately, I can’t think of a time someone was upset by it.

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Paula Pant January 20, 2014 at 7:37 pm

@Shari — To be clear: I’m not discussing a “normal” social situation (like a friend’s backyard BBQ or a dinner party). At those types of social events, it’s normal to ask about someone’s accent, or ask whether or not they have children, etc.

I’m specifically urging investors — who have a lot to lose! — to proceed with caution when they’re in a business setting. Don’t give anyone ammunition to sue you … stay on the safe side.

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Gene Rampenthal January 12, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Often asking “How many people will be living with you?” will bring people to not only tell how many, but include relationships without you asking directly. Use open-ended questions and be an attentive listener. It encourages people to talk more and volunteer information without your asking those questions.

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K Budd January 12, 2014 at 7:14 pm

I will often ask about one’s country of origin simply out of curiosity. It seems that most times people are glad to talk about their families and experiences coming here. I can’t recall any time where the person I was talking with seemed taken back or offended. (Perhaps I’m just ignorant!)

It is always great to learn of different cultures and perhaps we can craft a better society with respect and understanding of all people.

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Paula Pant January 14, 2014 at 10:10 am

I think that’s totally fine in a normal, social conversation.

I’m just urging caution when you’re talking to a tenant.

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Alan Mackenthun January 13, 2014 at 12:30 am

If I’m going to sell real estate to or for someone, I need to know their marital status as well as most of the info here verboten. I’ve no intention to discriminate unfairly, but to represent a client I need to know some personal details and their motivations. Don’t discriminate, but ask about all you need to know. If someone chooses to take offense, they can go find someone else to help them who really dosn’t care to know who they are.

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Dennis Burgess July 18, 2014 at 1:54 am

http://massrealestatelawblog.com/2014/01/26/asking-where-are-you-from-results-in-60000-discrimination-penalty/

I’ve been a “Where are you from?”-type person for as long as I can remember. Call me crazy- go ahead…, but I find where folks are from very interesting. Having been in the Navy and around the world a few times, it’s interesting to discover that someone is from a place at or near where I was stationed. I learned a good bit about India’s history, it’s naval ports and its battle with Pakistan over the Kashmir region. Suspecting someone’s from either India or Pakistan and asking about it has absolutely nothing to do with me wanting to discriminate against anyone- it’s just a matter of wanting to have a bit of conversation that’s a little more interesting than starting out with “Man, sure is hot today” and “Yeah- this is Florida”.
This story from Massachusetts (or Wackychusetts if things keep going down this path) a while back would make me change my ways in a heartbeat, though. It discusses a Massachusetts state law which actually makes it illegal to ask the “Where are you from?” question…and I surely wouldn’t enjoy getting sued for asking it!

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Jerry Kaidor July 18, 2014 at 11:35 am

I have one question in that vein that I ask occasionally:

Prefiere hablar espanol?

If the answer is the affirmative, we continue in that language. Vindicating yet again the 500+ hours I spent listening and repeating in the pauses.

Haven’t been sued for it yet.

– Jerry Kaidor

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