What a real estate agent can and can't tell you
Ask a real estate agent about schools, and you might get nothing more than a pained smile and a school-information website or two.
"I list homes in a neighborhood that boasts the highest rated schools in the country and I can't even say it!!!" one Virginia agent wrote on Trulia, in response to a frustrated buyer who wants to know why Realtors won't "answer questions regarding where the best schools are" near Bel Air.
Agents are afraid they're going to get into trouble with the federal Fair Housing Act, that's why. The law aims to stop housing discrimination, including the steering of people to or away from neighborhoods based on factors like race, gender and religion.
The National Fair Housing Alliance, putting agents to the test during the housing boom, filed complaints against real estate companies for allegedly telling white clients -- but not minority clients -- to avoid certain neighborhoods because of the schools.
"'Good schools’ and ‘bad schools’ are the new code words used by some real estate agents to discourage Whites from considering integrated neighborhoods," the alliance said in a 2006 press release.
Such testing -- and federal-complaint-filing -- has not gone unnoticed by agents. When I interviewed Realtors for today's story about the impact of school test scores on such non-classroom matters as home values, there was some squirming over the phone line.
One agent wouldn't even say on the record what school districts parents were often asking him to show them homes in, even though it was their request and not his suggestion. Another agent said he's pressed by out-of-town clients to tell them which schools are good, but he's not about to do it because they could be testers for all he knows.
I wondered what agents really can say on the subject of schools. So I asked John Trasviña, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Are agents prevented from telling clients objective facts such as test scores?
"There's a different way of looking at it that I think will be a more broad answer to your question, and that is that real estate agents ought to share information with clients on an even-handed basis,"Trasviña said. "The question isn't what can they say, but whether they say is said to everybody."
He added: "If a real estate agent is only saying to white prospective renters or owners, 'Oh, you don't want to look over in that area, the schools are terrible,' that would be a problem. But if they told everyone, 'Here are the test scores over here, here are the test scores over there,' that would be appropriate. That would not be a violation of the law. And the same would be true on crime data."
So, agents, you can talk about test scores. Whether you can say "the schools in that neighborhood are terrible" as long as you say that to everyone -- well, that's apparently not so clear-cut.
"I can't give you a blanket assurance one way or another," Trasviña said. "But if an agent says 'schools in this area are terrible,' they're probably not going to do much business in that area. They can restrict their business to a certain community as long as they are treating everybody the same."
What's handy about the Internet, Trasviña said, is that agents can put school information on their websites and then by definition are telling everyone the same thing.
(Got a question or complaint related to the fair-housing law? Trasviña says to call HUD's housing discrimination hot line at 800-669-9777.)
Dominic Cantalupo, an associate broker at Champion Realty in Pasadena, noted something last week that gets forgotten in all the angst about whether agents can reveal test scores: You can't necessarily tell what a school is like from its stats. Or whether it will be a good fit for your children.