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posted: 1/31/2014 12:57 AM

Real estate advertisements becoming more 'politically correct'

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A growing number of builders and realty agents are avoiding some traditional marketing words or phrases, fearing their use could offend a sensitive homebuyer and trigger a lawsuit.

Q. My friend says the federal government has outlawed the term "master bedroom" in all real estate advertisements. Is this true?

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A. No, it's not true. Federal Fair Housing laws ban a handful of phrases that suggest illegal real estate business practices -- "whites only" and "Jewish community" are near the top of the list -- but "master bedroom" can still be used.

The rumor your friend passed along to you probably is based on a story that appeared in a business publication last spring, which reported that some homebuilders around the nation's capital had dropped the term "master bedroom" from their ads because of its "underlying racial connotations." Other builders and even some real estate agents have since followed suit, substituting the (supposedly) more politically correct "owner's suite" instead.

In a way, builders and agents can't be blamed for being skittish about the verbiage they use in their ads and other marketing materials. After passage of the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968, Congress amended the law to allow virtually anyone who is offended by an ad's wording to sue for money damages. Housing professionals who publish such an ad can face tens of thousands of dollars in legal payments and attorney fees, the suspension of their business license and even jail time.

There are many other terms that some housing pros are avoiding. They include "his-and-hers closets" because it might offend same-sex buyers; "handyman's dream," for it may suggest that women aren't good with hammers and nails; and "safe neighborhood," because there's no guarantee a buyer or renter will not eventually get assaulted or robbed.

"Ideal bachelor pad" and "great for newlyweds" also are going by the wayside. So is the classic "walking distance to " because most old folks walk slower than younger ones, and those in wheelchairs can sue because they can't walk at all.

Q. What is a "catslide" home?

A. Catslide homes, alternatively called "saltboxes," are most prevalent in the Southern states. They typically have two or three stories, with a very steep roof that's longer in the back than it is in the front. The result of this unusual design is that you'll see the two or three stories as you approach the front door, but only one if you view it from the back.

No one is quite sure how catslide homes got their nickname, but some real estate historians suggest it's because even a tree-climbing cat couldn't hang on to the steeply pitched roof on the backside of the property.

Q. We want to replace the rickety old fence that separates our backyard from our neighbor's yard with a new one. Do we have to get our neighbor's permission first? Would he be required to pay half of the cost? Also, how tall could the new fence be?

A. You would have to get your neighbor's permission to tear down the fence and build a new one if it straddles the property line. If you have a survey that shows the fence is clearly on your side of the property's boundary, you probably can move forward without first gaining his approval.

Either way, your neighbor is likely under no legal obligation to pay half the cost -- though an exception might be made if, say, the fence is indeed on the boundary and poses a danger to your family or the general public. If the fence is in good shape but you're simply tired of looking at it, expect to foot the bill for its replacement by yourself, unless the person next store shares your opinion.

You'll have to call your local building department to find out how high the new fence or wall can rise. Most cities and counties limit their height to 6 feet in backyards and 4 feet in the front. An exception, or "variance," is sometimes allowed under certain circumstances: One friend of mine was allowed to build a 10-foot-tall cement wall after a busy convenience store opened just beyond the rear of her property, and another was allowed to build an 8-foot-tall fence in his front yard after suffering a series of burglaries and vandalism.

Real estate trivia: Wealthy technology investor Tim Draper has promised to donate millions of dollars to get a proposition on an upcoming California ballot that would split the state into six separate ones, claiming it would give 38 million Californians more control over regional issues and better representation in Washington, D.C.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Trust, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2013, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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