Tips for Ensuring Your Advertisements are Compliant with FHA

Tips for Ensuring Your Advertisements are Compliant with FHA

One of the most common topics that the Legal Line receives questions about is advertisements. REALTORS® are concerned with making sure their advertisements comply with all applicable laws, including both Alabama real estate license law and federal and state fair housing laws, in addition to the REALTOR® Code of Ethics.

Oftentimes, licensees can spot fair housing violations that were made with bad intentions. However, sometimes fair housing violations can happen even with the best of intentions, and they can be hard to spot without careful consideration of fair housing laws. Below are some common well-intentioned violations alongside better methods of getting the message across.

Reminder: There are 9 protected classes: 7 federally protected classes and 2 additional REALTOR®-protected classes. The protected classes are race, national origin, skin color, disability status, sex, religion, familial status, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Fair housing laws (along with other civil rights laws) prohibit discrimination in housing based on any of these protected classes.


#1: "Active Living"

Many advertisements, especially those for housing for older persons, state that they are housing for “active seniors,” “those with an active lifestyle,” or the like. The intent behind this phrase is to attract people who will appreciate the property’s features. However, phrases like this also have the unintentional effect of appearing to state a preference for those who are active (and not those who are not active because of, for example, a disability). It is better to instead describe the feature itself that you think will draw people in. For example, “This property contains a 24-hour on-site work out space and sauna. The centrally located green space also features a 1.5-mile nature path perfect for soaking in the Alabama sun.”


#2: "Perfect for Families"

Another major source of fair housing violations are advertisements targeted toward families. Families account for a significant portion of the population, so wanting to advertise to them makes sense. However, when a property goes out of its way to advertise to families, it can give the appearance that those without children aren’t welcome. Rather than explicitly advertising to families, try describing the features that you think families will appreciate. For example, “This neighborhood is located 5 minutes from the county elementary school and 10 minutes from the county high school. The community space has a large pool that’s perfect for hosting a summer poolside lunch, a clubhouse stocked with games for all ages, and a newly renovated playground and sports field.”


#3: "No Animals Whatsoever"

Property managers are absolutely permitted to prohibit tenants from having pets in their homes. However, property managers may not have a blanket prohibition against service animals or emotional support animals. Instead, property managers must consider whether the request for the service or emotional support animal is reasonable. Phrases like “no animals whatsoever” can appear to exclude even legally protected animals. It is better to use a clearer phrase such as “no pets allowed.” If you have questions about whether an animal is a service animal or emotional support animal, check out this guide by AAR's Legal Team for basic information on assistance animals. 


#4: Crosses and Other Religious Imagery

Some people like to include Christian crosses or other religious imagery in their personal correspondence outside of work. Of course, personal expressions of religion are absolutely allowed and protected by the First Amendment. However, those types of symbols are inappropriate to include in advertisements for your business or properties. There is an exception to this rule, however. If a property is being advertised for a religious organization, and the religious organization requires all prospective tenants to be members of the organization, it is permissible to state that limitation. Even so, licensees should be careful with wording; “This housing is only available to retired members of <insert name of organization>” is likely permissible, but “this housing is for Christians only” (or similar) is certainly not permissible.


#5: Images of People

Licensees should exercise caution when including images of people in their advertisements. It is difficult to generate an image that is inclusive of all people and all protected classes. As a result, the image might indicate a preference for one group over another. The best practice is to avoid including images of people in your advertisements when possible. This rule of thumb does not apply to photos of you, though – feel free to include your own picture in your advertisements.


Questions? We're here to help.

If you have general questions regarding fair housing compliance and are a REALTOR® member, we would love to help. Please contact us using the Legal Line. Unfortunately, we are unable to review examples of advertisements to determine whether they are compliant with fair housing laws.