Real Estate Advertising Part I: Choose Your Words Carefully

The PAR Legal Hotline frequently receives inquiries from real estate professionals about what an advertisement must contain with respect to things like names, addresses and telephone numbers. However, we are asked less frequently whether a particular word or property description is discriminatory and in violation of a fair housing law. This may simply be a reflection of the type of advertising that most agents are doing. I would hope that it is not a reflection that most agents are not familiar with issues related to fair housing law.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Federal Fair Housing Act and other Federal fair housing laws are focused on avoiding discriminatory language and practices. These laws prohibit discrimination or preferences based on race, color, religion, sex, handicaps/disabilities, familial status, national origin and use of service animals.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission publishes a list of more than 60 "bad words" or phrases that should be avoided or used very carefully. Some examples include, Asian, black, children, couple, "empty nester", "ideal for …" , immigrants, "mixed community" or retired. HUD publishes a similar list of words that may convey overt or tacit discriminatory preferences, including words or phrases like Catholic, Puerto Rican, "physically fit", singles, exclusive or traditional.

It is important to keep in mind that driving directions or other written descriptions may be construed as having a discriminatory impact or intent. For example, references to landmarks or locations that may be associated with a particular race or religion also should not be used. Descriptions that make reference to facilities or organizations that are used exclusively by one sex also may indicate a preference that is prohibited under fair housing law. Selective use or distribution of advertising also could result in illegal discrimination. Selective geographic advertisements by way of a limited area of distribution or selective placement location may be discriminatory.

Selective use of the equal opportunity slogan or logo may be discriminatory, such that advertising that disproportionately impacts consumers of certain races and religions does or does not include the slogan or logo as a general practice. Selective use of human models in advertising materials may be discriminatory, such as exclusively using members of one race or sex, or only including children for certain neighborhoods.

The key is to be aware of the general categories or types of words or uses that may be discriminatory and to seek help when you aren't sure in a particular situation.

Attorney with Caldwell & Kearns, which serves as general counsel to PAR. He routinely provides advice and counsel to real estate licensees as one of the voices of the PAR Legal Hotline. A substantial portion of his practice is dedicated to providing counsel on real estate matters and representing real estate salespersons and brokers in civil lawsuits. He may be reached at