From real estate agents to interior designers, real estate industry professionals are making a push to stop referring to the largest bedroom in a home as the “master bedroom.”
In the grand scheme of homebuying and selling, the way you refer to a bedroom in a home may seem like a small detail, but it’s a change many welcome. As you consider removing “master bedroom” from your real estate vocabulary, take the time to consider the ongoing issue of racial bias and discrimination in housing. Here’s what you need to know about the move away from master bedrooms and toward alternatives.
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Why the Change?
Real estate professionals and trade associations regularly examine whether a term commonly used in real estate advertising or that is part of the lexicon is appropriate with the room, feature or property it’s associated with.
The Houston Association of Realtors, for example, has considered removing “master” from the local multiple listing service, where properties are advertised, every couple of years within the last decade or so, explains Chaille Ralph, a real estate broker and vice chair of the Houston Realtors Information Service, the arm of the Houston Association of Realtors that oversees the local multiple listing service. In past years, other changes to the MLS had taken priority, which Ralph says is fairly common as the voting body considers whether a term properly describes a room or feature.
But in 2020 the HRIS convened at roughly the same time as worldwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in late May. The protests launched discussion in many industries about systemic racism and potentially offensive words used in a professional setting.
The vote to get rid of “master bedroom” in the Houston MLS wasn’t going to solve bigger issues, but it wasn’t something to try to hold onto, either, Ralph explains. “A lot of it had to do more with: Does it matter? But could it offend somebody, and if it could offend somebody, why should we keep using it?” she says.
Other real estate bodies and brokerages throughout the U.S. were making similar moves. For Cynthia Keskinkaya, a licensed associate real estate broker at Douglas Elliman in New York City, the choice to change how she referred to primary bedrooms was simple and a starting point for discussions about systemic racism. “In real estate, as a community, how can we get a dialogue going … and at least take away offensive words,” Keskinkaya says.
What’s a Better Name for This Room?
The most popular choice throughout the real estate industry to replace “master bedroom” is “primary bedroom,” which notes the room’s prominence.
Keskinkaya says she hears people correcting themselves as they work to break the habit of what they call the main bedroom of a home. “They’ll say, ‘Is this the master — I mean, primary — bedroom?” she says. “It’s starting to become the normal.”
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Why Was It Called a Master Bedroom?
The origins of the term itself aren’t as old as one may think. Merriam-Webster notes the first known use of “master bedroom” as a term was in 1925. House kits sold in Sears catalogs deemed the largest bedroom in the home the “master,” to make the room feel more upscale.
The phrase caught on and became overused with time, with the one bedroom in an apartment referred to as the “master,” or a three-bedroom house with rooms of the same dimensions having one deemed the master.
Over the years, there have been discussions about whether the term was inaccurate and potentially problematic. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has investigated whether the term “master bedroom” in a home advertisement would discourage anyone from purchase or renting that home, and found it did not, explains Bryan Greene, vice president of policy advocacy for the National Association of Realtors who previously worked for HUD as a leader overseeing enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. He adds that discussion of whether the term is offensive is a more recent debate, in his experience.
“In my 30 years of doing Fair Housing work, I have never encountered a consumer who is concerned about the use of the term ‘master bedroom,'” Greene says.
What Are the Bigger Discrimination Issues in Real Estate?
Of course, a name change for a room doesn’t address the bigger issues in housing related to race and discrimination. While the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability, HUD still investigates thousands of illegal discrimination claims every year.
In November 2019, Long Island-based newspaper Newsday published its own findings following a three-year investigation of real estate agents on Long Island, which revealed widespread unequal treatment of people based on race by real estate agents.
At the start of 2020, NAR launched its ACT Initiative, which stands for accountability, culture change and training, aimed at addressing issues of discrimination, bias and Fair Housing violations in the real estate profession. “It really is the road map for determining how you address the problem. You really need to address it from all three angles,” Greene says, referring to the three tenets of the initiative.
The initiative is taking a deep dive into state real estate licensing programs and examining how Fair Housing is taught to agents, as well as how licensed agents are disciplined if they violate the Fair Housing Act. Additionally, NAR is creating more training options for its members, which look closely at implicit bias, as well as encouraging members and their employers to opt for testing that helps point out and reteach cases of discrimination, while also identifying those who are unwilling to change.
How Can I Do More to End Housing Discrimination?
While you can certainly embrace the use of the term “primary bedroom,” there are steps you can take, either as a real estate professional or consumer, to help bring an end to housing discrimination.
“We’ve recognized that it’s not enough to stop discrimination. We also need to look at how the legacy of segregation and discrimination continues to affect our industry,” Greene says. For example, the way school zone information is presented to homebuyers can encourage housing segregation, whether it’s intentional or not, he says.
If you’re looking for a place to start, Green recommends the book “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, which examines the history of redlining in the U.S., which kept people of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods and drove down the value of properties where minorities were permitted to own homes, as well as its long-term effects of segregation in neighborhoods even today.
While it’s been a popular source of information since its publication in 2017, Greene says the book has become “almost required reading” among real estate professionals as they look for ways to learn more about the history of housing segregation in the U.S.
You can and should speak up about bias and discrimination as well. You can file a complaint with HUD to report a possible Fair Housing violation.
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