Experienced real estate agent Rhonda Wilson joins the show to help the gang have a good conversation about allowable real estate terms. The idea for the show came up while having an internal company conversation about the term “master bedroom”, and whether or not that term should be abandoned in favor of a more PC term.
Rhonda talks about fair housing law, explaining a lot of terms and photos that cannot be used in real estate listings. The gang also talks about the importance of maintaining complete professionalism with all language at all times, and how this can come back to bite you if you don’t.
Reuben also explains why at Structure Tech, we never, ever, ever say that a roof is “shot” anymore.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Bill Oelrich: What can agents actually say when it comes to describing properties and just even in your daily conversations when you’re working with clients? What’s permissible and what’s not permissible, and do you think we’re doing a good job as a whole community of people in the real estate world?
BO: Welcome, everybody, you’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murray, clap clap clap, and Reuben Saltzman, clap clap clap. As always, your pod of podcasters talking all things houses. Today in studio, we have a special guest. Rhonda Wilson is here with us.
Rhonda Wilson: Yes, thank you.
BO: A long-time real estate agent in the Twin Cities market. Welcome.
RW: Thank you, thanks, glad to be here.
BO: Thanks for giving us some time today. We wanted to have a little conversation about the real estate market, but some of the changing things that are going on inside of real estate and the language that’s used around real estate. As a company, recently we’ve made the decision to no longer use the term “master bedroom” when we’re reporting on items. We’re gonna now talk about the primary bedroom, and things of that nature. But it brought up the conversation of, what, Rhonda, and we’re gonna tap into your expertise in this, what can agents actually say when it comes to describing properties and just, even in your daily conversations when you’re working with clients, what’s permissible and what’s not permissible, and do you think we’re doing a good job as a whole community of people in the real estate world policing ourselves and things of that nature? So I’m gonna throw it to you and just give you a minute to introduce yourself.
BO: Tell us about your business, how long you’ve been doing this, where you practice, all that good stuff, and then we’re gonna dive into this conversation about language inside of real estate.
RW: Sure, okay, great. So anyway, I’ve been selling real estate for 25 years. I’ve been with the same company, I don’t know if you want me to say the name or not.
BO: Yes, please.
RW: I’m with Coldwell Banker Realty. We just changed our name from Coldwell Banker Burnett. And so I’m still getting used to saying Coldwell Banker Realty.
Reuben Saltzman: Me too.
Tessa Murray: Yeah.
RW: And I primarily work in the… Well, I started out in the western suburbs, I office in Wayzata, but I’ve been doing it for so long I kind of go everywhere and then I drag you guys along with me and make you do inspections in North Branch and Red Wing and wherever I sell a house or list a house.
RS: We’ll go wherever you go, Rhonda.
RW: So it’s one of those things that just comes with the territory the longer you’ve been in the business, and these terms in real estate have been around, they’ve been prohibited for a long time, and the public doesn’t really know…
RS: Master bedroom?
RW: We can still say master bedroom, as of this date, as far as I know, and master bath too, and family room.
RS: Family room, yeah.
RW: But those could change because things are changing so fast right now, and you have to be so careful what you say, but we all… To keep our licenses, to get your license and to keep it, we have to take Fair Housing classes yearly, and that’s where we learn, we’re supposed to learn, what we can and cannot say and do, and primarily you just cannot discriminate, and some terms have a discriminatory nature. One that’s broadly misused is “family.” You might wanna say in a listing it’s a great family neighborhood, and you can’t say that because you are discriminating against people who don’t have a family. You can’t say “kids”, “great yard for the kids”, we can’t have pictures with people in them for the same reason.
BO: No pictures with people in them?
RW: No. If you have a swimming pool, there’d better be nobody in the pool. The dog could be swimming in the pool, but no people in or around the pool.
BO: That’s interesting.
BO: I didn’t know that.
RW: Yeah, so…
RS: Because these people might be one color, and it might make people of a different color feel differently.
RW: It might have to do with race and color, or…
RW: But it’s also a protected class, is your familial status, if you’re married or have kids or whatever. So it has to just be available to all. There’s a few exceptions in the rule. There are certain group homes that are protected. And then there’s also 55-plus housing, where you have to be 55 to live there, and…
BO: You can openly talk about age in that…
TM: Yeah, you would have to, yeah.
RW: There’s still some things you have to be careful. You always just wanna be cautious. And there’s a lot of agents that maybe fell asleep in the Fair Housing class and…
BO: That’s the most exciting one all the time.
RW: You see a lot of mistakes, I’ll call them mistakes, in listings, where they’re saying the wrong thing and you just wanna pick up the phone and call them…
RW: And we can report each other, there’s a button in MLS to report an issue with this listing if you think somebody is discriminating.
TM: What are some of the most common issues that you see when you’re looking at listings?
RW: We also can’t say that the house is near Starbucks or any… We can’t name… We can’t say it’s close to Home Depot. We can say public places like the name of a park, but we can’t say, I guess I would say, profitable places, places that are not non-profits or open to all.
BO: For-profit businesses cannot be named.
RW: Yeah, yeah.
TM: Can you say close to a shopping center, but not…
RW: Yes, you say close to a coffee shop…
RW: Close to shopping, close… We can’t name churches, we can’t… Not every house of worship is called a church, so if you’re gonna name one, you have to name them all and nobody could ever do that, so…
RS: Could you say “Close to a house of worship”?
RW: Yeah, I think you could say that, but then there might be people who don’t worship, so I don’t, I err on the side of caution.
RS: Okay, okay.
RW: You can name street names and things that are public places that are not stores or somebody making… So that is probably the most common. And they’ll even show pictures of Starbucks as an amenity nearby, and that’s just wrong, we can’t do that.
BO: Oh, really, that’s wrong? Is the Mall of America generic enough to use in your like “located… “
RW: I wouldn’t say it.
RW: Not… I’d use “shopping,” “mega-mall,” something like…
RW: A mega-mall, I might say, yeah.
RS: Something you were talking about, how you can’t have any pictures of people in any of the photos.
RS: And I was trying to scan through the memory banks, and I’m like, yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. I thought it was just taboo, I didn’t know you couldn’t actually do it. But I do specifically remember one home we inspected about a year or two ago where they had a dinosaur. Somebody dressed up in a dinosaur uniform in a couple of photos. Does that violate anything? The costume?
RW: I would say no, because you don’t know, it could be a real dinosaur, you never know, Reuben.
RS: You’re right, okay, all right, all right.
RW: It’s not… And if there were kids around it having fun I’d say, “No, don’t do that.” I would even be careful if there was a family picture on the wall in a house, in one of your photographs that you either… If it’s an up-close picture, you shouldn’t use it. It says that a family lives here.
TM: So what do you do if you have a client who’s from out of state and they’re not familiar with the area, and if they ask you a question that says, “Is this a good family neighborhood? Is it safe?” Can you tell them?
RW: No, you can’t. You say, “You should drive around and look for things that might attract kids, like a… There’s a park. Just drive around yourself and see what you think. If people have play sets in their yards, and vans, and things like that. And come by here, drive by here yourself later in the day at different times of day to try to decide if you think… Or if you want, go knock on the neighbor’s door and they can talk.” We can’t even leave a list in a listing. Let’s say that it’s a neighborhood with an association, and they have a directory that has all the names of the families that live there, and we can’t leave those out and the seller can’t either. They can give it to the buyer at closing, but we are not supposed to leave them out and use it as a marketing tool. And sometimes sellers will write a letter and leave it on their counter and describe their neighborhood. And if I walk in, I don’t do that with my listings because I’m really careful. But if I show a home and it has it there and the buyers just love to read it, then I don’t… I shouldn’t say I don’t report people ’cause then the Department of Commerce might come after me. [laughter]
RS: Nobody listens to this anyway. It’s okay, Rhonda.
RW: But that’s who oversees our industry is the Minnesota Department of Commerce. So yeah, they’re the ones who give the fines. Sometimes it’s hard ’cause you feel like you’re being rude or you’re not helpful or you don’t, maybe she doesn’t know the area, when you know it really well.
RS: Now do you explain that? Do you tell your clients, “Look, I legally can’t answer your question”?
RW: I do, yeah. Yes, yes.
RS: Okay. Alright.
RW: Yes, I do. And then they tend to kind of understand.
RS: Do you sometimes give them a look like, “I legally can’t answer your question. Maybe you’d wanna call the police.” And say it slowly with raised eyebrows? You can’t do that.
RW: Well, yeah I do. I tell them, “If you need to know crime statistics, call the police or go online and find a website that works for you.” And the same goes with school districts. Some people say this school district is really the best in the state, and then we can’t really say that either. It’s called steering, is what the industry term is, if you’re trying to steer somebody from one neighborhood to another because maybe the people of the same race or religious belief or whatever live in that neighborhood. That’s really bad. They need to find that out on their own, absolutely.
RS: Yeah that makes sense.
TM: Reuben, do we have anything through our organizations that certify home inspectors that says that? Like we can’t steer people, we can’t talk about…
TM: ‘Cause I’ve had clients ask me before, during inspection like, “Is this a good neighborhood?” And I think they’re asking because they don’t know. They’re from out of town and their agent can’t tell them.
RW: Yeah. Right.
BO: So what did you say? [laughter]
RS: Yeah, I’m curious what you said.
TM: Well, I can’t remember. I think I was like, “Well, are you from here?” And then it just kinda led to a discussion of what she’s looking. And I think I did talk a little bit about it. There was actually, there were several police cars that did some sort of bust on a house just a few houses down from that inspection during the inspection.
BO: Then it’s all you need to know. [laughter]
TM: So I didn’t really have to say anything. [chuckle] She saw it.
BO: Exhibit A.
TM: Yeah, there we go. Just observe.
RS: I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. If a client asks me, “Is this a good neighborhood?” Or any of that, I just… I’m not answering. That is not what I’m here for. I am not qualified to answer that question. I don’t know the statistics, and I don’t know what’s a good neighborhood in your mind.
BO: I would just, “Defer back to your agent who’s gonna give you nothing.”
TM: Yeah. Same thing.
RW: That’s right. Pretty much.
RW: Yeah, there’s… It’s interesting.
TM: I think that’s an important lesson for us to know though, as home inspectors. We should not be having that discussion.
BO: People are really sensitive ’cause back in the day when I took care of complaints, somebody was pretty wound up one day about some language that was used. The person buying the house was using this sort of language, and I think somebody in the process picked up on it and kind of repeated it. Then they became offended by the fact that somebody else used the language that they were using, and they called to say, “I didn’t appreciate that.” I was like, “Oh, okay. Thank you for letting us know. I had no idea.” And it was harmless enough but it raised the hackles on their neck and they’re like, “Hey, wait a second.”
RS: I know exactly the situation you’re talking about, Bill. That was probably five years ago now. And I still remember what you’re talking about. It was so innocuous, but it stood out enough where we are very cautious. It’s like it doesn’t matter how comfortable you get with your client, what type of language they’re using, you need to maintain utmost professionalism no matter what. Don’t think that you’re ever safe letting your guard down on professionalism.
BO: I feel like if we do this, it’s mostly on accident. In terms of… I don’t believe there’s people actively steering people in and out of neighborhoods or trying to block bust or whatever the terms might be that are associated with discrimination. It seems harmless enough that a lot of this happens, but do you think there’s malice in some of the mistakes you see?
RW: I think that there used to be years ago and that’s why the Board of Realtors was created, and the Minnesota Department of Commerce oversees and we have licensure. I’ve been doing this since ’95 and this was all required way back then, so I’m used to it. I don’t know the exact years that it became, I guess I’d call it the law or regulation, so I think it’s improved so much just because of the education that at least real estate agents are getting.
RS: I wanna ask you about that education. And you said it’s Fair Housing that agents need to take every year, and we kinda know about this just from osmosis ’cause Tess and I teach a bunch of CE classes. And I’ll have a lot of people asking, “Do your classes qualify for Fair Housing?” So, at some point I picked up this is important to people to get.
RW: Yes, right.
RS: What is Fair Housing all about? Does it change every year? Is it so important that there’s new content, or is it the same thing every year?
RW: Oh boy. I’d have to have all of the points in front of me. I should, after all of these years in taking the class, I should have all of the things that are protected under the Fair Housing Law. It’s not only race or religion or familial status, it’s… There’s protected classes that are disabilities and so forth, so don’t make me do that, Reuben.
RS: No, no, no. I’m just wondering, does it change every year? If you need to take this every year, and…
TM: Does the laws change or something?
RS: Yeah, why do you need it every year?
RW: Yeah, I don’t know that it’s… I haven’t heard that it’s changed in any recent memory of mine, that there’s been a new change, but maybe there has been. But they beat it into you and they… ‘Cause you are tested on it. And then everybody’s nervous no matter how long you’ve been in the business. If I fail this and I have to take this class all over again. It is a boring class, ’cause…
RW: But, clearly, people… A lot of them leave there and don’t practice it in their business. I don’t mean to be negative about… And I don’t think anybody intentionally does it.
RW: I hope not.
RS: Well, I can see how just a lot of innocent things like having a picture of a kid in a pool could be bad, and you’re not… Yeah, so ill-intent. But sure, I get it.
BO: I think the last change was actually ADA, when they layered on, you can’t discriminate against disabilities.
RS: How does that work?
BO: Well, in terms of real estate, Rhonny, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but it just means that like in rental housing, if you rent to somebody, they can change your unit to suit them.
BO: Like put in a ramp or do whatever, so they can get in and out of the house. But then after they vacate the house, then they have to return it back.
RW: That reminds me too, of the emotional support animals. That’s newer.
BO: That’s newer in the ADA.
RW: Yeah, that’s newer.
RW: And so that’s another piece of that is you can’t discriminate. In fact, if you have an association that doesn’t allow pets or doesn’t allow a dog, or… It’s not just dogs. I think they’re changing… Somebody had a snake and called it their emotional support…
BO: Service animal. Yeah, or emotional support…
15:48 RS: Wait, I wanted to hear you say that whole phrase. Their emotional support…
RW: Yeah. There’s emotional support and there’s service animals. Don’t quote me on this. But there’s service animals who assist blind people and other people with physical disabilities, and then there’s emotional support animals. And you need a letter from a doctor that says that you need this.
RS: Oh, I’ll get you a letter.
RW: No. It might be abused I’m not really sure, but…
TM: I’m sure.
RW: Yeah. So that would maybe be a newer change. What is the definition and so forth… And if you, if somebody alters their home for someone with a disability, when they leave, I believe they have to pay to have it restored for you. So you don’t bear that expense.
BO: They can’t bear… That burden can’t be transferred.
RW: But you can’t turn them away because they’re disabled. Right.
RS: Let me ask you, what if you had ADA accessible front door, you had ramps going to your front door and all of that stuff, could you use that as a selling feature? Is that a benefit or…
RW: You can say that, if you want.
RS: Or does that discriminate against people who…
RW: No. I know it sounds like reverse discrimination. I had a property… There’s a property, and I won’t name it, ’cause I can’t remember it anyway, but it’s in Crystal. And it’s an apartment building that is for people with disabilities, and somebody wanted to sell it. And I thought, “Am I reverse discriminating by advertising as a place for people with disabilities?
RW: And fortunately, I never had to, I never listed it, because she found a buyer on her own and I was relieved, ’cause I never did find the answer to that.
BO: Reuben, in states where there’s licensing, is there conversation about discriminatory practices for home inspectors?
RS: I don’t know. I’ve participated in a lot of online discussion forums for home inspectors and I have never seen the topic even raised.
BO: That’s interesting. Because, Tessa, I think you stumbled on to something there, that clients might… If they know they can’t get it from here, they might just interview as many people as they can to get as many opinions as they can. I’m not saying they’re trying to throw you, Tessa, under the bus. I’m just saying, “Hey, I’m in town right now. I’m moving here from Denver. I have no idea this crossroad and this crossroad. They look great.”
TM: They’re helplessly trying to get information too, probably.
BO: Right, right. So they’re just putting out feelers all the same way.
RS: I’m sure I’ve shared this story on the podcast before, but I was just reminded of it. It was a long time ago, and this was like 10 years ago. We had one of our inspectors… The client wasn’t there, they were moving from New Jersey. And the roof was… It was shot. It’s time for a new roof. And he put that in his inspection report that it was shot. They thought that there… It was shot by guns.
RW: There were bullets in the roof?
TM: Oh, my gosh.
RS: I don’t remember if the deal didn’t… If it fell apart because of that or what happened, but the client was absolutely freaked out and they were convinced that it was a bad neighborhood.
TM: Oh, my gosh.
RS: And they knew that their agent couldn’t tell them that. And they used this as like, “No, this is not the right house for us.” And that agent was so furious with us for saying shot…
BO: That tells me they were upset about something else, and this is just the good part.
RS: That very well could have been it. But today we don’t… We definitely don’t say “shot”.
BO: I know our inspector who used that terminology, Rhonda, and I know you know him well, too. [chuckle] He’s very good, and he is the best communicator probably on our team, but he just happened to have a bad day that day.
RS: Yeah. Now it’s a good internal joke.
RS: A decade later, we still don’t say “shot”.
RS: Good times.
BO: So do you think, Rhonda, just let’s wrap this up about language inside real estate, do you think there’s any big changes coming down from up on high about how we communicate in and around real estate?
RW: We’re already taught it. Maybe the changes come from the public who… We already know… We already have been taught to be cautious and err on the side of caution. So, I don’t know, maybe some terms that have come up. That’s the problem between generations, is terms that come up when I was a teenager. My kids are like, “Mom, you did not say that.” [chuckle]
BO: I got a 16-year-old who politely reminds me, on a regular basis, what I’m not allowed…
RW: Yeah, so maybe it’s some of that, but I can’t, nothing comes to mind but I’m sure it’s out there. And I’m looking up at this picture on your wall up there, and we couldn’t say that up there.
RS: What does it say?
BO: Oh yeah, there’s… For everybody who can’t see, there’s an article, our producer, Larry is also a pastor and he’s got an article that says “Connecting Christians”. And yeah, so there’s no way that you could use “Christian” in any type of advertising. Not without being rebuked.
TM: Would you say, is it frowned upon, Rhonda, for other agents to kind of report other agents?
RW: Well, it is a self-policing… I understand and I think maybe once we call it “being shopped”, where the actual Department of Commerce does have people that come out and pose as buyers or sellers, and they’re trying to catch us in the act if we are using discriminatory practices. Or there’s a form called Agency, and that’s the other class we have to take is learning about Agency, which is representation in a real estate transaction, and that’s supposed to be the first form that we whip out. And if we don’t, then they busted us right away. And so that’s one of the fears that we live with, and I’ve had a few like, “I think I just got shopped.”
RS: Have you ever known somebody who got shopped? Or got busted?
RW: No, no. No, I don’t. So I don’t know if they… Surely during these times, they’re not doing it, but they tell us, they tell us in class that that happens.
BO: I would love to believe that only those people who have been kind of turned in a couple times for being less than above board players that they get shopped first, so let’s actually bust the people who are out there maliciously causing problems versus someone who just makes a mistake one day.
TM: Accidentally… Yeah.
RW: It’s a tough call because if I’m looking at a listing online and I’m looking at it probably ’cause I have a client who wants to look at it, I’m not gonna sit there and bust the listing agent for something in there. What if my client wants to buy that house?
BO: Right. Then you being the gatekeeper in a different sort of way.
RW: Yeah and it’s supposed to be anonymous but what if it isn’t? And so you kind of have a… I guess that would be, I don’t know if that’s illegal for me to not bust it if I see it. They strongly encourage us to, but you don’t wanna…
BO: Yeah, I would think if it’s just an egregious thing you would say something. That’s the human in us would be like that’s just not right. Where if it’s something less problematic, technically air quotes it’s wrong, but I’m not gonna ruin your day over that.
RW: Yeah. You can always bust them after the fact.
BO: Right like have a private conversation like, “Hey, this was really… I wanted you to know I picked up on that, but I didn’t think it rose to the level of me actually influencing your career in any way, shape, or form.” Interesting stuff. The world is a complicated place, and when you sort through all the details sometimes you end up with things like master bathroom or master bedroom getting kind of removed from the lexicon of at least our professional language at our company, and I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s…
RW: That’s good for you guys to be paying attention ’cause it is.
RS: Change with the times.
TM: Change… Yeah, exactly.
BO: Change with the times. That’s right.
RW: That’s right.
BO: Well, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich alongside Reuben Saltzman and Tessa Murry, and our special guest today was Rhonda Wilson. You can check her out, Rhonda, where? You must have a website or a webpage?
BO: Awesome, that’s easy. Perfect. Rhonda Wilson with Coldwell Banker Realty.
RW: Realty. Right.
BO: The newest real estate company in the Twin Cities, the new old company.
RW: The new name for one of the oldest companies in the Twin Cities. Right. You’re welcome.
BO: Awesome. Thank you for sharing some time with us and we will catch you all next time.