The 5 Areas Where People Violate the Fair Housing Act The Most (And How to Avoid Them!)

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Investing in real estate is not without its share of potential hazards or pitfalls along the way.

One such set of regulations that all investors should be keenly aware of are those relating to the Fair Housing Act. The act states that a bona fide offer on a property that is for sale or rent cannot be rejected on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.

It also states that discrimination when creating terms of the agreement or in advertising that shows preference to any race, color, religion, sexual orientation, familial status, or national origin is illegal.

That said, there are some myths associated with what you can and cannot do when it comes to your advertising efforts that can be dispelled easily enough.

The 5 Areas Where People Violate the Fair Housing Act The Most

Be sure that you keep the purpose of the ad in mind when creating your advertisements. While it’s not rocket science, it’s important to watch how your ads are worded … especially if you’re trying to market to a specific segment of the population.

1. National Origin, Race or Color

While it is unacceptable to use language that describes the housing, neighborhood or neighbors in a racial way or using ethnic terms, it is acceptable to use words such as “master bedroom”, “desirable neighborhood” and “exceptional find” in your advertising.

These terms are factual without being influential as to describing the people in the area and will not warrant the filing of a claim from a potential tenant or buyer.

2. Sex

You can use terms that describe the property such as “master suite”, “mother-in-law” suite and “bachelor apartment” when creating your advertising.

However, it would not be okay to use terms like “straight couple” or “men only.” Choosing verbiage that clearly discriminates against a particular gender or those with a specific sexual orientation is not acceptable.

3. Religion

It is perfectly acceptable to use description words about the property that are religious in nature such as “facility has a chapel” or “property has a cafeteria with kosher food available”.

You cannot, however, state that a particular religion is excluded … terms like “No Muslims” or “Catholics preferred” in your advertising.

4. Familial Status

Describing the property such as a “two bedroom”, “family room”, “nursery” or anything else that describes the property itself is acceptable.

Outright statements that prohibit unmarried individuals or individuals that are married to same sex partners are prohibited. It is also important that you are careful when discussing ages that are acceptable in the building unless it is designated as such a way that it is for seniors only.

Related: How to Market Properties without Violating the Fair Housing Act

5. Handicap

You can use descriptions of the property such as “second floor walk up”, “walk-in closets”, “close to hiking and jogging trails”, and “easy walk to public transportation” without violating the Act.

You cannot use terms such as “no wheel chairs” or terms that directly discriminate against an individual.

Use Caution with Your Questions

There are some basic things you also want to consider when you are leasing or listing a property.

When meeting with a prospective tenant you want to avoid certain types of questions or statements that may be taken as derogatory in nature.

Wording and tone are very important when speaking directly to a potential tenant. Questions such as “Just how many children do you have?” or “Where do you worship?”

You also want to make sure to avoid comments about a persons’ age or sexual orientation. Your personal beliefs should be reined in during any and all potential tenant interviews and when showing the property.

A slip up during a conversation or questioning can be misinterpreted as discriminatory in nature and may provide the foundation for a potential complaint.

One way to avoid using terminology that could be conceived as discriminatory is by making a template for your visit with tenants or buyers. This will allow you to have more structure to your conversation and avoid any problems that you might run into in how you are asking the questions.

Related: Managing Tenants, Part Two: Steering Clear of the Fair Housing Act

If you are unsure about a particular question or guideline relating to the fair act, you may want to take the time to read through the actual act: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/3604

When it comes to advertising your property or talking to potential tenants, use common sense to make sure you are not violating the law. Take some time to look over your advertising and double check that it meets these criteria before publishing.

Ultimately, your ability to avoid possible complaints will come down to being cautious and sensible in your conversations and advertising.

Have you ever run into trouble with the Fair Housing Act?

Be sure to leave your comments below!

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About Author

Ken Corsini G+ is the founder of Georgia Residential Partners, LLC - a real estate investing firm based in Atlanta, Ga focused on creating turn-key investments for investors all over the country. He's been investing in real estate since 2005 with hundreds of real estate transactions.

10 Comments

  1. Fair Housing is a good thing, but I have seen many ads that violate it too. Charging by the number of occupants, rather than just the ones 18+. Even saying “Quiet Building” could be viewed as discriminatory.

    have set criteria, based on credit score, income, criminal record and rental history and you cannot go wrong.

    I have written about this extensively on my blog.

  2. Ken
    Thanks for taking the time to post this. it is always good to get reinforced on the proper way to do business.

  3. I really like the “can” and “cannot” approach to this topic, which frankly, has been written about a few times on BP, but this format is very helpful. I think people need to be careful of advertising a maximum number of occupants or even asking that question, as in some jurisdictions, you can get into hot water.

  4. I have recently run into an issue with service animals, which is also covered under the Fair Housing Act. Landlords cannot decline an applicant on the basis of their service or companion animals. Be aware: service animals are not considered pets and must be allowed – even if you have a No Pets policy!

  5. Can discrimination be claimed if kids are involved? Example: a couple with 4 kids wanting to rent a small 2BR/1BA apartment?

    • Mehran Kamari on

      Here in LA, you can have a max of 2 people per room I believe. So that couple with 4 kids could be denied for having too many. Check out your local laws for that one.

      • Was going to comment on Sharon’s post above in regards to number of occupants but Mehran nailed it on checking the local laws for something like that.

        For example while that might be a clear cut way to deny in LA that would NOT be the case in Boston, or MA in general. You might be able to do it but it isn’t as simple as 2/BR.
        The state sanitary code defines the minimum amount of SQFT needed of total living space per person and total needed in each bedroom per person in it.
        I had a small 2BR condo, 668sqft, that I was renting and the first well qualified application was from a guy that was going to be there with his wife and 3 young kids. It seemed nuts to me that they wanted to live in such a small space and I couldn’t imagine they could but when I looked up the code the total was well within the guideline, but the only way the BRs could work was to have the kids in the big one and the couple could share the spacious 9.5×10 2nd one.
        Signed the lease with an addendum saying as much with a copy of the page of the code with it boldly circled with it.

        (Spoiler alert they have been awesome residents so I’m actually glad that I didn’t have any reason to reject them)

  6. Mehran Kamari on

    Great article Ken! I like the idea of having a template to streamline the process and keep things on track. I try and do that for everything I do frequently and it helps a lot!

  7. I’m curious if anyone has experience with this: would offering preferential terms (smaller deposit, etc.) to military members be discriminatory? While it seems reasonable, many laws aren’t reasonable. It is common practice in my area, but I’d hate to run afoul of the law.

    For that matter, (playing the devil’s advocate here), would only advertising a property on certain sites be considered discriminatory? It is an interesting question.

  8. Good article.
    I tend to agree with you, but I recently heard a Fair Housing talk at a REIA near here and they were saying pretty much everything you said you can say could be a violation.

    Something is “walking distance”? Just discriminated against those that can’t walk.
    “Beautiful views”? Not if you are blind.
    Calling a room a nursery is steering towards families.
    I think you can easily call something an in-law apartment as that is the recognized name for that kind of room, but I’d say In-law and not Mother-In-Law to avoid the sexual issue.
    These guys would also crucify you on “Bachelor Pad”. The “sexual” discrimination is probably a little weak, there is a much stronger argument for possible steering away of families, or even couples and roommates.

    Again I am more on your common sense approach.
    I assume I never discriminate since I really don’t care about any of the things Fair Housing protects against.
    However other people interpret things differently and will be much more cautious because of it.

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