Lawful Targeting: Marketing to Foreign Buyers Without Breaking the Law

It’s a well-established marketing principle that narrowing the segment of prospective customers you want to attract lets you create a more effective targeted message and ultimately yields you a better bottom line.

But the Fair Housing Act says it’s unlawful to discriminate against members of certain protected classes in providing real estate services, even if these groups don’t fit in with your targeting strategy. More specifically, you can’t “make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published, any notice, statement or advertisement with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”

Whew – talk about “limitations”! Let’s start with what we know is against the law:

1.    Don’t base your marketing strategies on prospective clients’ membership – or nonmembership – in any of the classes protected by the federal Fair Housing Act or by your state’s fair housing laws.
This means you can’t focus your business plan or advertising tactics only on Hispanics or Arab Americans and exclude African Americans, Asians, or Caucasians, for example.

2.    Don’t market your services only in Christian-oriented publications or on television (Fair Housing Act actually applies to all forms of print and electronic media), even if you’d prefer to target only those who want a Christian salesperson.

3. Same rules apply to specialists in senior housing, retirement, or reverse mortgages.
Unless a community is qualified as senior housing under HUD regulations, you must never refuse or forget to show families with children properties just because many seniors live there.

4.    These rules apply even if the protected class is one you belong to.
The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for anyone in a brokerage office to be designated as the associate who automatically services all clients who are of the same ethnic or racial background as the associate.

So how can you create an effective marketing plan that focuses on your niche population without violating the Fair Housing Act?

1.    Focus on your skills, such as language
You can let buyers know that you are fluent in the language they speak. So long as you pitch your services to the population at large, not just to those who speak your language, it’s fine to market your language skills.

2.    Focus on a property-related niche
A niche marketing plan that’s based on any of the following property types is perfectly lawful and can be quite effective:

-       Fixer-uppers
-       Condominiums
-       Single-family homes
-       Resort housing
-       Properties in foreclosure
-       Environment-friendly buildings
-       Golf course communities
-       Homes on the historic register

3.    Focus on individuals’ specific needs that are not covered by fair housing, such as:

-       Relocation
-       Interest in living near particular hobbies or sports offerings
-       First-time buyers (just don’t make any assumptions about the “likelihood” of a specific groups – such as immigrants – being first time buyers).

Your best bet is to always be inclusive in your marketing, allowing prospective clients to choose whether they want you to represent them. For questions not yet answered by HUD or the courts, play it safe and abide by clear-cut rules. NAR's At Home With Diversity course is a great resource for do's and don'ts of Fair Housing, cultural awareness, and inclusive marketing - and the in-classroom discussions are lively and fun!