How to Handle Client Questions About Schools and Neighborhoods

Clients often ask questions about neighborhoods and schools when shopping for a home. Brokers and agents should take care when answering to avoid fair housing violations.
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When deciding on a property, many home buyers tend to be influenced by the neighborhood and the local school district. Questions about school districts and neighborhoods are often fielded by real estate professionals, and for good reason. The salesperson is often seen as the community expert.

Answering these questions can be tricky, and agents should start by making sure they’re up to date in their REALTOR® Code of Ethics training and have a firm understanding of fair housing laws before providing answers. These two resources provide foundational directives for real estate professionals, which enables an agent to share information about schools in a way that best serves the client while adhering to regulations.

To avoid inadvertently steering clients in one direction over another, real estate professionals can also offer resources—objective data from school board websites, for example. Doing so comports with a real estate professional’s obligations and positions them as a trusted resource to clients.

When Ron Phipps, principal broker at Phipps Realty in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, meets with new clients and they start asking about schools or neighborhoods, he explains that he is their “source of sources,” meaning he can direct clients to a variety of sources that will give them more objective and reliable information so clients can make decisions for themselves about whether a particular school or neighborhood meets their desired criteria.

Rather than give out opinion-based information about a neighborhood or school, real estate professionals can ask their clients to define what they want and then provide the client with the reliable resources to help them make their own decisions.

For example, if clients ask whether ABC Elementary School is a good school, the best response you can provide is to guide them to third-party information, such as the school district’s website, so the clients can learn more on their own and come to their own conclusion. You can also build relationships with local schools, so you know where to direct your clients' inquiries. The key is to give buyers the resources they need to make the decision for themselves. Let objective information, not subjective information, be the guide.

Understanding the Legal Side

In 2014, the National Association of REALTORS® issued guidance about steering buyers.

Steering occurs when an agent directs a buyer toward or away from a neighborhood because of the buyer’s race, national origin, religion or other characteristic protected under the Fair Housing Act. One way such “directing” can occur is when an agent expresses his or her own positive or negative views about communities or schools, the purpose of which is to direct a buyer of a particular identity toward or away from a community. In that instance, the agent may be stating a housing preference based on race, national origin, or another protected characteristic, which violates the Fair Housing Act and the REALTOR® Code of Ethics.

In 2019, Newsday published a multiyear, multiplatform investigation which unveiled extensive racial steering by real estate agents in New York, who directed homebuyers to specific homes and locations based on their race. The exposé also reported that real estate professionals subjected buyers of color to more strenuous eligibility criteria than their white counterparts. Though the Newsday piece focused on one state, it opened up questions about the industry as a whole.

The reality is that most agents likely have good intentions behind answering client questions about neighborhoods and schools. Intentions, good or otherwise, matter little though when bias might be at play.

“Unfortunately, it’s very easy for a real estate professional to begin down a slippery slope of a potential Fair Housing violation when answering questions about schools or neighborhoods,” says Natalie Davis, at The Evolution Group powered by Keller Williams Downtown Denver LLC.

An expert in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) space, Davis co-facilitates a training called Bias Override alongside industry professionals like Phipps. During the three-hour training, attendees learn how implicit bias might inadvertently lead to fair housing violations.

Being a Source of Sources

Schools have long been a difficult fair housing topic, says Alexia Smokler, Director of NAR’s Fair Housing Policy & Program in Washington, D.C. Questions about schools come up all the time, and even with buyers who don’t have kids since living within a specific district could affect resale.

“We never want to direct clients toward or away from certain school districts based on hearsay or impressions. Implicit biases about the demographics of the students in a school can affect our perception of what schools are good or bad,” she adds.

Many agents opt to point their clients to third-party sources, but many of these sources rate schools based on test scores alone, which presents its own set of issues.

“Test scores don’t measure the quality of the teaching in schools. They also don’t measure if the school has a program designed for your child. When you are a parent and are looking at schools, you want particular things such as special needs, sports, science or music programs. Test scores don't give any of that.”

This is why it’s important to “Have your clients get information about local schools directly from the source,” she says.

In addition to directing clients to the school district for information, agents can also use NAR’s RPR® (Realtors Property Resource®). RPR® uses a tool called Niche, which captures more information about schools than just test scores, she says.

Smokler also encourages agents to become knowledgeable by going to the district’s website and learning directly from the source about the various schools and their offerings. When talking to clients, it’s important to focus the conversation on what the school offers rather than whether it’s a “good” or “bad” school.

Then you can say “Smith Elementary has this music program, or this program for kids with special needs. That’s objective information. It’s not your opinion,” she explains

Phipps says it’s valuable for clients to go visit the schools themselves and real estate professionals can help ease these meetings and doing so is a way to demonstrate value but avoid providing.

“I call the superintendent’s office or one of the public affairs people to meet with the relocating family,” he says. “Our job is to direct them to resources so they can make a decision, but not to make that decision for them,” he adds.

Partnering to Provide Factual Information

Real estate professionals have a unique opportunity to provide clients with properly cultivated and objective information, which helps combat misinformation when it comes to school districts. One example is the Pasadena Schools Initiative in Pasadena, Calif.

In the 1970s, a federal court ordered the desegregation of the Pasadena, Calif., Unified School District, and “as a result, many white people pulled their children out of the public schools and sent them to private schools,” Smokler states.

Community consensus was that Pasadena schools were underfunded and performed poorly. Over time, though, the Pasadena school district had made major investments and grown to be top notch. Still, real estate professionals at the time passed outdated information about the district on to their clients, which informed the client’s decision on where to buy a home.

Frustrated with the negative perception of their district, the Pasadena Educational Foundation met with local real estate professionals, which led to the creation of the Pasadena Schools Initiative.

“The schools brought real estate professionals into the schools, made them principal for the day, and encouraged them to read to students and engage with the teachers,” Smokler says. “They even created a certification course so that they could get certified as experts in their local school district.”

The rather unique initiative provided the local real estate industry with an inside look at the school district. Rather than spreading misinformation based on a long-held but incorrect belief, professionals in the industry were now armed with concrete and factual information about the district.

Avoiding a Fair Housing Violation

Just like other agents, the question of “good” or “bad” schools and neighborhoods has come up in conversations between Davis and her clients.

“And I will more than likely be posed with these questions again in the future,” she says. “I think the easiest way a broker can assist their agents is to have equal service to the client by providing information that can be easily distributed with every client.”

To do this, brokers can create templates, inserts and printed information to be used with every client. That way, all clients receive the same information and agents have access to the tools they need to help their clients gather that information. A broker can create a physical “source of sources” like a flyer, that provides clients with the various information—school board websites, phone numbers, etc.,—they need to do their own research. When an agent is asked about a particular school or district, they can provide the flyer to their client.

“This ensures that the consumer is getting the exact same objective information from whomever they’re working with,” Davis states.

Check out NAR’s resources and publications about the Fair Housing Act. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Offer listings to your clients based solely on their objective criteria.
  • When a client uses ambiguous words like “nice,” “good,” or “safe,” ask unbiased questions to better understand what they are looking for. For example, you can ask about the physical characteristics they want in their next home. You can also ask about price range.
  • Only communicate objective information about neighborhoods and guide clients to third-party sources with neighborhood-specific information.
  • Learn to pay attention to and uncover your unconscious biases. Any time you direct a client to a home because you think it would be good for them, rather than directing them to it based on what they’ve asked for, unconscious bias and personal opinion might have entered the equation. Instead, make every effort to provide options based on the information they give you like, “we need a ranch house with one level and no steps” or “we want to avoid anything near the interstate because of the noise.”

When Davis facilitates the Bias Override training or gives talks on DEI, Davis emphasizes that everyone has some bias. It’s part of human nature. The way in which we view the outside world is shaped by several factors including where we grew up, our families, friends, workspaces, socioeconomic status and much more. It’s impossible not to filter the world through our own individual experiences.

In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s perfectly natural. The key though, is to be aware of how our biases might shape the way we interact with others.

“If we know and understand that our biases then feed our understood stereotypes, we can then recognize how they impact our behavior,” she says.

Awareness and understanding can make the difference in how real estate professionals interact with clients. Davis hopes the result will be a real estate industry transformation. The goal, she says, is that the consumer receives equal and fair representation in the buying, selling and investing process.

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