Real estate agents often receive difficult questions about properties owned by clients. Here’s some guidance on how to give satisfactory answers and relieve the stress of getting stumped.

The nitty-gritty real estate questions

Every real estate agent recalls a time when a buyer’s question stopped them in their tracks. Whether it’s a tricky inquiry about local demographics or a tough sell due to a less-than-ideal location or property conditions, seller’s agents who mentally prepare in anticipation of improper discriminatory inquires or negative observations can deliver a solid response — and maintain the buyer’s interest in their client’s property.

Here are some of the tricky questions real estate agents are asked in the course of their business, and ways to prepare ready responses.

“Are there a lot of kids here? What’s the age group in this neighborhood?”

This question can be easy to answer depending on the specific property for sale. For example, when a home is located a block or two away from a school, you may mention the school’s proximity. Then the buyer assumes the presence of children in the neighborhood.

However, you may not know neighborhood age demographics, though the information is available in census reports. Suggest your client drive around the neighborhood during the afternoon, evening or the weekend to take in the area’s personality and decide for themselves whether they feel comfortable with the company. This also prevents you from inadvertently contributing to biases and prejudices, as buyers may be looking for, or to avoid, elderly or youthful age groups.

“Are there a lot of minorities here?”

This question is improper for buyers to ask, and decidedly dangerous for agents to answer. The Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) explicitly prohibits negative action — intentional or otherwise — based on race in real estate-related transactions. [42 United States Code §§3601, et seq.]

You need to carefully consider your response to avoid where the buyer is trying to take you in this situation. Your seemingly inconsequential statements estimating whether “a lot” or “a few” people of a certain race live in an area can easily backfire. Leading buyers on such an inquiry to different areas to avoid minorities is a form of blockbusting: an unlawful redirection of residents known to perpetuate segregated housing patterns and further balkanize a community.

Instead, it is best to give an alternative answer (“I don’t know what the census reports say about that”) and invite the buyer to visit the neighborhood themselves during afternoon hours or on the weekend. Let buyers – who bring up classifications the subject of unlawful discriminatory situations – check things out themselves.

Editor’s note — For more detailed information about the FFHA and real estate practice, see the “Fair Housing” section in Agency, Fair Housing, Trust Funds, Ethics and Risk Management, available through the first tuesday Realtipedia.

“Why is the seller moving out?”

Sellers have many reasons for leaving a home, and usually more than one reason contributes to their decision. Sellers might simply be:

  • downsizing empty-nesters;
  • upgrading to start a family; or
  • relocating for a new job.

Then there are the negative reasons for a seller to move: disputes with neighbors, issues with the property or criminal activity in the area. When these issues adversely affect the value of the property they are material facts, mandated to be disclosed to prospective buyers when negotiations begin.

When a buyer asks why a homeowner is selling, you are only obligated to disclose material facts which might affect a prudent buyer’s decision. For example, when a seller wants to get rid of a home due to its faulty septic system, you need to inform the buyer of those plumbing problems. The same goes for excessive noise in the neighborhood, property line or encroachment disputes and other mandatory disclosures the seller and seller’s agents must disclose in the seller’s Transfer Disclosure Statement (TDS) handed to prospective buyers at the outset of negotiations. [Calif. Civil Code §2079; see RPI Form 304]

However, when personal reasons motive the seller — like climate, health or wanting to be closer to family — you may not even know the reason.  Typically, a seller’s motivation for moving is useless to the buyer except to sense a better bargain due to urgency.

“Isn’t this kind of a rough neighborhood?”

When a home you have listed is less than appealing, you may find it difficult to stick to the pitch covering the positive attributes in the property if a buyer comments on conditions. You (and the seller) are obligated to disclose material facts about the condition of the home and its location — whether or not it reduces your chance of a sale. Conditions mandated to be disclosed come with the listing employment you voluntarily accepted. [CC §2709]

Try to offset the edgier aspects of a neighborhood by bringing clients to the home via the most pleasant route available. The quickest way to a home isn’t always the most attractive, especially when the route takes the buyer right past an unpleasant waste facility or deteriorated buildings. You are still required to inform the buyer these elements are present in the area when they adversely affect the value of the listed property, but you don’t necessarily have to put the buyer’s nose to them.

Also, do some research on the area to find positive aspects to share with buyers. Be prepared with a rebuttal to potential inquiries; all situations have another side and countervailing perspective. For example, a rundown neighborhood might have improvements scheduled for the local school, park or streets. Use positive local governmental activities to emphasize the property’s potential to offset observable economic flaws.  Real estate is always in a state of flux and rarely static.

Familiarity with agent duties

To ensure you’re ready to handle these types of questions from clients, brush up on your duty to disclose and fair housing laws. Knowing what you have to disclose to prospective buyers will help set the boundaries for dealing with difficult questions.

Agents: What other questions have you come across in real estate encounters? How did you answer them? Share your experience in the comments!