VOLUME VICorrecting Miscommunications: Language Barriers With Tenants and RealtorsBy Shamontiel L. Vaughn
America is a melting pot not just of people but languages too. Outside of English, there are 17 languages spoken regularly in the United States. In order of popularity, the top 10 are Spanish, Italian, German, French, Polish, Chinese, Tagalog, Greek, Portuguese and Japanese, reports the Census.

In Texas, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean and Arabic knock Italian, Polish, Greek, Portuguese and Japanese out of the top 10 list. In Florida, Arabic and Vietnamese also outrank Polish, Greek and Japanese.

Would it make sense for Realtors and landlords to become familiar with any or all of the local languages above to be able to network with a larger rental audience? Probably. Being a multilingual real estate professional can certainly help to connect with a wider clientele.

However, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, between 2009 to 2013, U.S. residents ages 5 and over largely speak only English (231 million). There are an additional 30 million who speak a language other than English well, and another 30 million who can speak another language but not fluently.

So with a diverse population throughout Texas and Florida— while English is still the dominant language—how are Realtors and landlords able to communicate with nonEnglish native renters to find homes? Is it discriminatory to avoid the renter who can’t speak English? How are leases and rental costs negotiated with a language barrier? How do condo boards work with landlords and tenants who don’t speak the same language? If a renter signs a legal document without understanding it, is the property owner or realtor held liable?

In this article, find out these answers and more.

Who’s Responsible for Translating Leases?In a place like North Texas, not even the top 10 languages may cover the state’s population. For example, between 2004 to 2013, the Lone Star State got a notable increase in Ethiopian immigrants. The staff of one church, the Ethiopian Evangelical, ballooned from 250 members to thousands, and added an English-language service for the growing population of Ethiopian Americans.

Realtors who are paying attention to local trends may find themselves at a standstill when it comes to prospective clients. In a pinch, language translations on a smartphone may come in handy for quick communication between the two groups. But when it comes down to legal documents and business agreements, there must be a higher level of sophistication to handle leases and Realtor-to-renter transactions.

According to Marc Girling, managing attorney of Girling Law PLLC, the responsibility is primarily on the tenant to handle all needed translations.

“Using your example, in Ethiopia, you have two major language groups,” Girling explained. “There’s Amharic and Oromo. What happens when they speak one but not the other? Then you have another issue.”

“[No matter the language], the rule is that the duty to understand what it is you're reading, regardless of whether you're right off the boat, regardless of how unsophisticated of a consumer you are, regardless of your education, from the eyes of the law in Texas, the duty to understand the contract that you're signing is on the person signing the contract.”

And while a prospective tenant can choose to obtain a translated version of the lease, the Realtor (or landlord) is not required to sign both. Landlords can choose to solely sign the lease in the language it was originally written in. Often, that is English.

Dodging Renters With Language Barriers: Is That Discriminatory?Realtors and landlords may find it easier to not go through all the potential language complications of working with a translator to secure a renter. Would it be discriminatory if they chose not to? Yes and no.

According to the Fair Housing Act, groups that are protected against discrimination are race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

A Realtor or landlord cannot choose to do any of the following based on the person’s national origin or race:

  • Set up a different criteria or application for sales procedures or income standards based on where the person once lived 
  • Discourage the purchase or rental of a dwelling based on the race or national origin of the prospective renter 
  • Assign the prospective renter to a particular building, neighborhood, or section of a building or neighborhood 
  • Deny the prospective renter access to a particular listing based on language barriers with prospective renters

Prospective tenants can choose whomever they wish as a translator, including family and friends. However, it may be in their best interest to consider a professional translation service company. These organizations translate a wide variety of documents on a regular basis, everything from birth and death certificates to marketing and real estate material.

Other Language Barrier Resolutions To Keep In MindAs mentioned above, regardless of what native language the prospective tenant speaks, this person is responsible for any legally binding document that was signed and agreed to. However, Realtors may find that working with translators benefits them, too.

Bylaws outrank leases. There is one area where it may be best for Realtors (and landlords) to consider hiring a translation company, or keeping track of the translation company that the prospective renter uses: condominiums. Unlike a single-family home where the landlord has the final say (if city or state laws are excluded), condo associations have an added layer of authority.

Realtors should remind landlords, who are condo association members, that they will be held responsible for making sure all declarations and bylaws are documented and followed in the rental lease beforehand. In the event of a clash between the condo board and a prospective tenant, the landlord is the point of contact. If miscommunications arise between the condo board and the tenant, the landlord employing a translation company may be useful for handling conflict resolution.

Oral agreements may weaken court cases. While oral agreements are honored in both Florida and Texas, knowing there is a language barrier between the Realtor, landlord and/or tenant may make it that much more important to get all rental specifics down on paper. This protects all parties and possibly the translator from any miscommunications. Otherwise, the prospective tenant (or the translator) can easily say they “didn’t know that” or “no one told me,” according to Girling.

Regardless of the language barrier, real estate professionals may find a quality tenant in someone who doesn’t speak a bit of English as quickly as one who is a native English speaker. As long as all parties are willing and able to work together to communicate, this could be a long-lasting professional relationship. Even better, by the end of the leasing agreement, all parties may find themselves able to speak a new language conversationally.