A good real estate agent is very familiar with the neighborhoods where he or she shows properties. But because of legislation called the Fair Housing Act, the agent can't legally share all of that information with you.
Why the restrictions? The government wants to make sure that home purchase decisions are based on a property's fair market value and not factors such as race, religion or ethnicity. In other words, the law is meant to stop agents from steering clients toward or away from certain neighborhoods.
The Do-Not-Ask List
Household income: Wondering if a neighborhood is considered upscale? Don't bother asking your agent. Klein says he can't discuss economic class with prospective buyers.
But it's relatively easy to find demographic information online, including average household income for a particular area. At Neighborhood Scout, for example, you can get a description of a neighborhood's "look, feel and character" that includes information about residents' age, income level, ethnicity and other factors.
Schools: As with income level, sharing information about schools "might be perceived as steering someone into a certain neighborhood," says Klein. "However, as a Realtor I can direct people to sources of information about education in that area."
Here, too, the web offers prospective home buyers a wealth of information. Buyers can find useful school statistics, including enrollment, class size, and reading and math scores, at sites like School Matters and Great Schools.
Religion: The religious makeup of a neighborhood is another topic that's off-limits for real estate agents to discuss. If a buyer wants to find out about active religious communities in a particular neighborhood, Klein directs them to local houses of worship for information.
Klein also recommends that his clients pay a visit to the local police precinct and walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for it at during different times of the day.
Environmental concerns: A buyer would want to know if, say, a home is located near a Superfund site. In general, a real estate agent isn't going to be much help when it comes to neighborhood environmental issues. Buyers will need to figure this out on their own. One way is to visit the EPA's web site, which includes a database of environmental information, searchable by Zip code.
The one exception to this rule is if there is an environmental problem with a specific home. "If it pertains to that particular property, and it's something I have knowledge of, I am required to disclose that," Klein says.
So why use an agent if you have to do so much information-gathering yourself? An agent can show you homes, guide you through the buying process from start to finish and help you negotiate the best deals with sellers.
Interested in learning more about the home buying process? Check out these AOL Real Estate videos:
- Home Inspections: It Pays to Know What You're Buying
- Can Fixer-Uppers Work for First Timers?
- Common Mistakes Home Buyers Make
- Negotiating Strategies for Buyers
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