Steering is a form of housing discrimination that limits the options available to homebuyers from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Even though the practice — common throughout history — was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, steering still persists in real estate.
Here’s a closer look at how to know if you’re being steered — and what to do if you are.
Steering is where real estate agents guide homebuyers toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race, skin color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, familial status, disability, or other characteristics protected by the Fair Housing Act. As a result, white homebuyers are given more options and steered away from diverse neighborhoods, while minority homebuyers are given fewer options and often only shown listings in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by people of their same race.
“Real estate agents and brokers may attempt to steer potential buyers to specific neighborhoods, often those that are predominantly inhabited by members of the same race or ethnicity as the buyer,” says Jon Sanborn, co-founder of SD House Guys, a real estate company in San Diego. “They might provide false information about availability in other areas, omit certain neighborhoods from their list of options, or pass over properties in desirable but diverse locations. In some cases, they might even advise buyers against purchasing homes in certain areas.”
Common Examples of Steering
Here are some of the ways that steering can manifest during the homebuying process:
- White homebuyers are given access to more listings than nonwhite homebuyers.
- Agents only show their client neighborhoods that are populated by people of their same race.
- White homebuyers are told that nonwhite neighborhoods are less safe.
- Nonwhite neighborhoods are depicted as having inferior schools.
- Agents discourage white homebuyers from purchasing a home in a diverse neighborhood.
How To Know If You’re Being Steered
Because steering can come in subtle or hidden ways, it’s not always obvious or easy to catch. However, there are warning signs you should look out for.
“If you are looking for a new home, it can be difficult to spot signs of steering,” Sanborn says. “Some common warning signs include sudden changes in availability or pricing when searching for homes in certain areas, as well as agents who only provide information about certain neighborhoods.”
If you haven’t specified the area or neighborhood where you’d like to purchase a home, be mindful of any assumptions your real estate agent makes or any patterns in the listings they are — or aren’t — sending you.
“To spot steering, potential homebuyers should look for signs that their real estate agent or broker is attempting to influence them to buy or rent a property in a specific area or neighborhood,” says Scott Rubzin, founder of Tiffany Property Investments in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Here are some red flags to keep an eye out for:
- You’re only being shown listings in neighborhoods populated mostly by people of your same race.
- Your agent has made assumptions about your preferences and priorities based on your ethnic background.
- Your agent is showing you limited listing options.
- Your agent refuses to show you listings in certain areas.
- Your agent has made disparaging remarks about certain neighborhoods based on race or another protected characteristic.
What To Do If You’re Being Steered
If you suspect that you’re a victim of steering, then you should know that there are actions you can take to protect yourself.
“If you think you’re being steered, it’s important to understand your rights as a potential homebuyer,” Rubzin says. “You should be able to choose a home based on your own criteria, such as location, amenities, size, and price. If you feel that your real estate agent or broker is attempting to steer you, you should first discuss your concerns with them directly. If the issue persists, you may wish to contact your state’s real estate commission or department of housing to file a complaint.”
You can file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Be sure to document any communications that seem suspicious. According to HUD, you’ll need to file your complaint within one year of the last date of the discrimination.
Here are answers to frequently asked questions about how to spot steering in real estate.