Being a Discriminating Seller

When someone says you have discriminating taste, it’s usually meant as a compliment. However, when it comes to being a landlord or selling your house, you should beware which types of discrimination show good taste and which types are against the law. It’s perfectly allowable to discriminate against a potential renter or buyer based on the fact that they’re a loudmouthed jerk. It is not okay to discriminate against someone because they belong to a protected class.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act makes various practices connected to obtaining and financing housing accommodations, among other things, unlawful if those practices discriminate based protected characteristics such as race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.

In the old days, Realtors used to recommend that prospective buyers write letters to sellers detailing just how perfect the sellers’ house was for them, how their children would splash in the backyard pool all summer and the kitchen was perfect for the big family gatherings they had always dreamed of. Buyers would include photos of themselves, thereby revealing a considerable amount of information—their age, their ethnicity, and potentially information about their lifestyle and religion. These letters are now illegal—illegal for Realtors to recommend, illegal for buyers to write, and illegal for sellers to use to identify protected class information and discriminate on that basis.

Also in the old days, landlords used to refuse to rent to young couples if they were not married or to people with disabilities for fear that their seeing-eye dog or wheelchair might damage their property. These reasons no longer fly. Couples may move in together before marriage and people with disabilities are just like everyone else in that if they damage a property, they pay for the damage. People have proven they do not need a seeing-eye dog or a wheelchair to do plenty of property damage.

When it comes to renting, landlords may not discriminate based on the source of a renter’s income, as long as it is a legal, documented source of income. If someone has a Section 8 Housing Voucher, for example, the law says landlords may not refuse to rent to them on that basis. Fun fact: sometimes people don’t rent or sell to lawyers because they have the impression that lawyers are quick to take legal action if there’s a disagreement. I think it depends on the lawyer.

The question landlords and sellers—and by extension their Realtors—should be asking themselves are these: will this person be a good tenant or buyer? Can they afford this place? Will they pay rent or mortgage payments on time? Do they seem like they would be reasonable to deal with if a disagreement arose? Do they appear to take care of their property? Will they make good neighbors?

If you meet someone who comes across as obnoxious or entitled, or if they clearly have unrealistic expectations that seem likely to lead to misunderstandings, you can discriminate all day long. If prospective buyers want to breed pit bulls and the neighbor’s children are deathly afraid of dogs, you can discriminate. If a prospective renter shows up in a car that looks like it was rescued from the demolition derby and drives over the curb to park on the sidewalk, making it hard for pedestrians to get by, you can (and probably should) discriminate.

As long as your reason for refusing a renter or buyer is not tied to one of the protected categories, you’re fine. The laws protecting people from discrimination aren’t foolproof, but at least they provide an important message.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.

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