Opinion

You can't say that ... in a real estate ad!

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Gabriella Morrongiello,Freedom of Speech,Political Correctness

Looking to sell your family-friendly, two-bedroom condominium within walking distance of the local grocery store? Don’t expect your real estate agent to advertise it as such.

The push to eradicate words and phrases from commercial vernacular that might be considered remotely insensitive has appeared once more with the folly of political correctness now spreading to real estate advertising.

The regulatory impact on marketing in real estate became apparent last April when a Washington Business Journal survey revealed that major homebuilders in the Washington, D.C. area had ditched the term “master bedroom” due to its racist connotation and replaced it with the more neutral “owner’s suite.”

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned the use of discriminatory phrases like “whites only” or “Jewish community” and was amended in 1988 to include families and handicapped individuals on its list of protected classes.

The 1988 amendments also enabled individuals who found an ad offensive to take legal action by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The obvious cases of race and class discrimination that the FHA once targeted for elimination have now been replaced by a level of censorship that borders on the absurd.

“You can say ‘family room,’ but not ‘family home.’ We avoid anything gender-specific like ‘his-and-her’s closets or baths,” said Beth Brody, a licensed Realtor in Marin County, Calif.

According to Brody, her agency has “mandatory risk management three or four times a year” during which appropriate advertising is occasionally addressed. Furthermore, her agency now has its own advertising department that monitors the language of its Realtors’ listings.

“When I decide to place an ad, if there’s something offensive, he’ll give it back to me and say ‘you’re not allowed to use that,’ ” Brody said.

Brody said the list of potentially offensive buzzwords has expanded over the years and partially attributes this to the FHA’s addition of disabled persons as a protected class and “the many changes in what defines a family.”

Although a memorandum issued by HUD in 1995 listed phrases like ‘bachelor pad’ and ‘mother-in-law unit’ as non-violations of the FHA, political correctness and hypersensitivity now indicate otherwise.

This past August, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling and awarded the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center a new trial in a federal discrimination lawsuit over an Ohio apartment listing for a “bachelor pad.”

According to the most recent Annual Report on Fair Housing for Fiscal Year 2011, “HUD charged the highest number of cases (55) in a single year since FY 2002, despite a 25 percent reduction in its fair housing staff during the previous two years.”

“We have become an extremely litigious society. People will find anything to create a suit and there are attorneys out there who are more than happy to accommodate them,” said Randy Haak, an agent with the national real estate agency Better Homes and Gardens.

Lesley Walker, associate counsel at the National Association of Realtors, believes that since “our culture and society are now more in tune with the sensitivities of more groups of people,” the room for interpretation has certainly increased.

“I think we’re more aware and educated and so [we are] taking more precautions not to inadvertently or expressly discriminate against a specific class of people,” said Walker.

Although HUD has never issued an official list of terms to avoid, the Northwest Multiple Listings Service — an online portal of property listings available to real estate agents — issued a list of “potentially offensive words” developed by its attorneys that provide further examples of the aforementioned “precautions.”

Some of the words and descriptions that “should never be used in a listing” include, but are not limited to: newlyweds, country club nearby, handyman’s dream, safe neighborhood, secure, and walking distance to.

“We have an agent in town who will get up at MLS meetings and challenge someone who has listed something as being “close to the plaza,” because one person’s idea of close is not the same as another’s,” said Haak, adding that “agents have now been trained to say, ‘three blocks to the plaza,’ since ‘walking distance’ could be prejudicial against someone in a wheelchair.”

Additionally, some real estate agents are now advising their clients to remove the American flag when photographing a listing.

“For my company, that’s a precautionary action. We want to neutralize the house to appeal to the greatest pool of buyers, so we want to keep the focus on the house and not be distracted by anything political and an American flag could be political,” said Brody.

Should we really be removing the stars and stripes when homeownership has always been central to the American dream?

Gabriella Morrongiello is a former Washington Examiner intern.
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