"Two-bedroom, two-bath ranch in quiet, integrated neighborhood. Perfect for empty nesters wanting to scale down a bit. Brick exterior, hardwood floors, new carpet. City park within walking distance and several churches nearby."
That sounds like a nice place to live. But beware: what you think is smart marketing or clever wording in an ad could possibly lead to thousands of dollars in penalties and a court-issued freeze on the sale of your home.
You might be thinking, "I’m not a bigot. Why should I worry about violating fair housing laws in selling my house?" Well, even if you don’t intend to discriminate, you might do something that could be perceived as discriminatory. And what matters is the effect of your actions, not the intensions behind them. For example, several phrases in the innocent sounding listing above could be proven to be violations of fair housing laws.
Federal fair housing laws protect against discrimination based upon seven classes or characteristics: race, color, religion, sex, disability, national origin and familial status.
Common violations include refusal to rent, sell or negotiate, falsely denying housing is available or setting different terms and conditions to a person or family in a protected class - such as asking for a larger earnest money deposit from a member of a protected class. Fair housing also prohibits all advertisements expressing preference, limitation or discrimination toward a protective class.
In the case of our sample listing, the seller is probably unaware that the ad might be perceived as discriminatory because it includes several trigger phrases for discrimination by race ("integrated neighborhood"), by familial status ("empty nesters") and by religion ("several churches nearby"). This is just one example. There are many other words and phrases to avoid in advertising your home for sale. Check with your realtor for more information.
Violations of fair housing carry heavy penalties including paying compensation for expenses, actual and punitive damages and psychological conditions, civil penalties and attorney fees. The violator may be ordered to freeze the sale of the property, correct prior discrimination and/or make housing available to the injured party.
To better protect yourself against possible violations, always avoid alluding to a protected class in listings. For example, "no alcoholics" and "independent living" both pertain to the disabled. "Jewish" or "mosque" pertains to religion. "Adult community," "two children" and "single professional" can be violations against familial status. "Bachelor apartment" implies a preferred sex. And advertising doesn’t have to be blatant to discriminate against race, color or nationality. Avoid using "integrated," "diverse" and, of course, all references to skin color, ethnicity or country of origin.
In general, focus on describing the property in the ad, not the potential buyer, seller or neighbors. Even if the property is perfect for a specific type of person or family, leave it out of the ad.
Where you advertise is also important. What you think is target marketing - placing a listing in one publication that is sure to be read by the type of person most likely to be interested in your property - can be a violation. Be sure to place listings in publications with a broad readership, not only niche ones such as religious or cultural publications.
To further protect yourself, be sure to discuss fair housing with your realtor. Your realtor should be able to answer any questions you have and ensure you are not inadvertently violating fair housing laws.