Licensees do not just serve their clients, but they serve the public - that is the purpose of licensing, after all.
Short and sweet: if you provide an opinion of real property based on the protected classes enumerated in the Fair Housing Act, you're a violator. End of story.
And it is construed very liberally, so don't think you can get away with sophistries.
For example, when a client is looking at a property and asks a friend what he thinks. His friend is free to share his opinion - his friend can say, for example, "I don't like the neighborhood - too many neighbors". I can't.
His friend can share his opinion regarding the price of the house. When I say the price seems low, fair or high, I better be backed up by real data, not just my "gut-feeling".
If your question were about crime I would suggest calling the police in the area or searching on line.
It's about steering and all of my clients receive the same information. Changing answers, because of someones race or financial status is a bad idea.
See the difference?
We are taught in our real estate classes to avoid any such types of conversations for liability reasons and to simply say we cannot answer those types of questions. But then that makes us look pretty clueless, doesn't it? We absolutely CAN answer those types of questions, we just have to make sure that we don't say or do anything based on our client's race, color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status or disability. If my client is a wealthy caucasian male, saying that Lower Suburbia is a ghetto would not be discriminating against my client in any way. If my client were a minority, then they may feel differently about my comment and it may be a fair housing violation. I might not have a high opinion of Lower Suburbia for being a ghetto, but the people who live there are not my clients and I am not doing anything to try to alter the makeup of that or another neighborhood simply by stating an opinion to my client when asked.
For the same reason as the above, there is also nothing wrong in saying "it's my impression that crime may be an issue in this neighborhood, but you'll want to check to make sure". However, checking crime statistics for our clients is not something most agents are willing to do because it puts liability on us for making representations about crime in certain neighborhoods. It's no different than if a buyer asked me "what are the permitting requirements in this town for me to build a house?" I could go and get that information for them, but I won't because I could be held liable for the information provided. Quoting crime statistics has nothing to do with steering and fair housing - it's purely a liability issue.
As pointed out, your understanding of the rules is correct. If you want to compare neighborhoods, your agent can provide reports from which you can draw your own conclusions. There is also plenty of resources online. You can look at many different demographics to compare areas.
Driving the neighborhoods and spending sometime there can be a real eye opener. Checking out local markets can give you a feel for the people that live in the area. This does not work for out of town investors buying sight unseen. However, a detailed discussion of objectives can help the agent provide information to make an informed decision.
There are also other web sites not frequented by agents that have active discussions on specific areas or neighborhoods. Contact me directly and I'll point you to where you can find some open discussions.
You are right, there are many ways to get opinions. But steering is a very specific term and as licensed agents, that is an illegal act. While the buyer in question in the previous thread was asking to for an opinion of areas that might be best, which is not steering, it is still a no no by fair housing laws. A definition of steering is the illegal funneling of home buyers to a particular area based on the desire to keep the makeup of that neighborhood the same or intentionally change it. So, if a buyer says they only want to by in an area with green people, or don't want to be near any green people, an agent can't provide that information. The buyer's advisory that is provided by the Arizona Dept. of Real Estate and AAR, is an excellent tool for any buyer to find the resources to research and answer their questions, when an agent is forbidden to do so. You can see it here http://www.aaronline.com/documents/buy_advis.pdf
The only restrictions are on us as professional Brokers and Realtors. By law we can not steer a client to any specific area(s). Which is completely undestandable.
You are right, these rules are generally for those that have a license and are regulated to follow. There is nothing preventing a buyer from asking questions of the general public and even asking questions of neighbors that would give you insight that we as agents may be prevented from answering.