Now more than ever, the home-buying process can be frustrating and stressful. For most people, their home is the largest financial investment they ever make. Buyers want to ensure they get the most home for their money and desire great schools and a neighborhood with low crime. What can make it more frustrating is when your REALTOR can’t answer these types of questions about a home because of federal, state, and local fair housing laws.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), family status, and disability. In addition, the city of Columbia has added protected classes, including ancestry, marital status, receipt of government assistance, citizenship status, victims of sexual or domestic violence, order of protection status, and, more recently, source of income.
To comply with fair housing laws, REALTORS, sellers, and mortgage lenders must avoid steering or influencing a buyer(s) to purchase or avert purchasing a home in certain areas to avoid populations consisting of protected classes.
When it comes to schools, peoples’ opinions vary, and those opinions can inadvertently violate fair housing laws — even answering the most basic questions. When questions about schools come up, REALTORS can provide resources for buyers to do their own research, such as the Columbia Public Schools (CPS) website.
CPS’s site offers district financial information, test scores, and demographics, to name a few. The Missouri Department of Primary and Secondary Education also compiles statistical data on school districts across Missouri. Another recommendation is to meet with the school principals, tour the schools, and ask questions about specific programs your child is interested in (sports, band, theater, clubs, etc.).
Questions involving neighborhoods can lead to fair housing violations. Simple questions such as, “What type of people live here?” or “How far is it to church?” can violate fair housing laws regarding race, family status, and religion.
Buyers need to do their own research, such as walking around the neighborhood in the evening, paying attention to the noise level, amount of traffic, or neighbors enjoying outside activities. There are many internet resources available to homebuyers. You can even find walkability scores from sites like walkscore.com.
Asking your REALTOR about crime activity may also inadvertently create fair housing violations, especially with the added protected classes in Columbia. The internet is your best source of information to find crime statistics. The Missouri Highway Patrol’s website has crime data based on local police departments. Other sites like crimegrade.com have data broken down by counties and municipalities. Columbia has police activity information you can search by street name, and the Boone County Sheriff’s Office provides crime data in the county.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was historic housing legislation that made it possible for segments of the population to have equal rights when buying or renting a home. REALTORS are required to obey fair housing laws. However, they can still be a trusted advisor for questions about schools, neighborhoods, and crime by supplying resources for buyers to research and make decisions about where they want to live.
Some reports can be purchased from sites such as Neighborhood Scout that contain information about all three subjects. However, you’ll want to use multiple sources to verify the information. Most of the answers to these questions are subjective and can be misinterpreted.
Brian Toohey is the chief executive officer for the Columbia Board of REALTORS