- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Silver Spring Realtor Natasha Engelhoff, who has a gentle Eastern European accent, has made many a buyer feel at home with her real estate expertise, but Ms. Engelhoff says she would be reluctant to seek out clients with a common cultural heritage because she would be afraid of violating the Fair Housing Act.

"It would be against all rules and regulations," she says. "No, no, no, no. That would be giving preference."

Just where does preference end and good customer service begin? That's a tightrope walk that more and more real estate professionals have been taking.

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In the 34 years since the federal Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sex, national origin or familial status, agents have absorbed the mantra: Treat each client with the same handshake, the same smile, the same respectful consideration. In the mid-1990s, however, it became clear that clients were changing, becoming more diverse.

According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, minorities were responsible for 42 percent of the overall rise in homeownership between 1994 and 1997. Recent Census data found that half of first-time home buyers are immigrants.

Yet, according to Fairfax real estate lawyer and agent Nathan Booth, "Realtors are still being taught to treat everyone like vanilla."

In August 1998, the National Association of Realtors teamed up with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create "At Home With Diversity," a certification program aimed at teaching real estate professionals to work with buyers of different minority groups, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

The training, built on the letter and spirit of the Fair Housing Act, provides participants with tools to help them approach clients of various cultures.

One tool the demographic study was taboo in real estate.

"A decade ago, you couldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," Mr. Booth says.

Once associated with racist practices such as panic peddling and block busting, which sought to scare minority homeowners out of a neighborhood, demographics are now touted as a new way for agents to get to know their market.

Agents are also encouraged to advertise in niche publications, appear at community functions and even advertise their commonalities, such as the ability to speak other languages or that they have translators available, should language be an issue.

"I try to get as many pictures out there as I can," says Maxine Jennings, whose status as a black, female, senior citizen has brought her a steady stream of clients from similar backgrounds. "I think we should be prepared to work with everyone, but why not let these groups know you're out there?"

Indeed, what the NAR program is saying is that diversity is good service or, as Mr. Booth puts it: "Minorities have huge buying power."

While creating a niche in a minority market is potentially profitable, it is also difficult.

"It's a tricky Fair Housing thing to do," says Cynthia Yockey of Coldwell Banker Realty Pros in the Washington area, who would like to capitalize on her experience in serving homosexuals and people with disabilities, but doesn't wish to alienate the general public. "I don't know how anyone would get the idea that I wouldn't want to serve someone without disabilities, but it might come off that way."

Ms. Yockey says she heeds the Fair Housing mantra as a means of protecting herself.

"You set up systems so you are dealing with all your clients the same way so no client can say he or she was singled out," Ms. Yockey says.

Of course, some clients and professionals choose to stay away from the murky waters of preferential treatment by using the Internet. Many agencies list foreign languages in their agents' online bios, along with certification and other credentials.

Ruben Garcia, president and chief operating officer of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, says that of the almost 500,000 hits his Web site receives each month, half come from people who are searching in Spanish.

"What that tells me is that people want to do these very complicated transactions in their native tongue," says Mr. Garcia, whose organization is based in San Diego.

Offline, however, clients and agents are usually brought together by the random orchestrations of "desk time," those hours at the real estate agency's front desk when an agent usually snares most of his business.

Ms. Jennings, a Pleasanton, Calif., resident and outgoing president of the Women's Council of Realtors, says that desk time frequently presents agents with clients whose cultural background is at opposite ends from their own. That, she said, is one of the great challenges and much of the fun of the job.

"It sometimes appears that women buyers tend to relate better, or bond, working with women Realtors. Particularly, single moms like to work with like kind. But real estate is building relationships," she says. "Anyone can sell a house, but to find out more about them, what hobbies they like, whether they're private, or religious all these things go into play when you try to be of service."

Sometimes, the relationship doesn't click and the client leaves, she says, "but usually you know before that happens that you're not going to the bank with this one."

Before the client leaves, however, an agent should do everything possible to bridge a cultural chasm, Mr. Booth says.

"Why turn over a potential buyer to someone else?" asks Mr. Booth, who says he would find a bilingual agent to help him through negotiations before he would let the client walk away. "Offer compensation to someone to help you, but don't be afraid of a language barrier."

For Mr. Booth, that has led to becoming a certified international property specialist. The designation teaches in-depth sensitivity to various cultures.

Still, Mr. Booth says, there is nothing he can do to help a client who comes into his office demanding to work only with a man because his religion prevents him from working with women. That, Mr. Booth explains, would be preferential and, thus, illegal.

"That might be OK in his country, but when he's in our ballpark, he can't break our Fair Housing rules," Mr. Booth says.

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