Frustrated tenants and buyers alike know how demoralising it is to keep being beaten on the final stretch. But at least they can retreat, vowing to move faster and offer higher next time. Not so for Shaaisda Yousaf. If money had been her stumbling block she could have done something about it, but since she was denied the chance of viewing the house she wanted simply because she was Asian, she could do nothing. She and her family started house-hunting in Glasgow four years ago, and only within the last month have they finally moved, a year after she won her case of racial discrimination against a firm of estate agents on appeal.
"We had to make a stand. You develop a thick skin when it comes to things like name-calling, but when it involves a basic necessity such as a house, something has to be done," says Mrs Yousaf from her new home. "I had to prove my suspicions were correct."
Like everyone else, estate agents have to be aware of the law concerning race relations, disability and sexual discrimination and certainly cannot excuse any lapses by claiming to follow a client's instructions. The problem is, as the Commission for Racial Equality points out, discrimination is usually covert and the victim unaware of what is happening.
Mrs Yousaf started her legal battle after estate agents refused her the chance to view a house. After her initial complaint was rejected in the civil court, as a test the Yousafs asked two white colleagues and an Asian couple to ring for an appointment. Only the white couple were given one.
"Just before that, I had turned up at one house for sale where the woman shut the door in my face. It was a long, tiring fight and I would like to have won sooner. We were put off house-hunting for a while and even with this house it wasn't without problems. We never managed to get a second viewing and we don't really know why. Our buyers have been delightful, though.
"But there is far more racism in the housing market, especially in the good areas, that people imagine. In lettings it can be bad. We have an elderly friend who put in a good offer which was rejected, so he sent some Scottish friends in his place and only changed the details at the last minute," says Mrs Yousaf.
Her case had the full backing of the Commission for Racial Equality, which itself tested for racial discrimination in the private rented sector a few years ago. The survey Sorry, it's Gone, is a phrase horribly familiar to anyone looking to rent, but in some instances it is a smokescreen of prejudice. And there are those in the lettings business who are not all that surprised.
"In cental London we would get quite a few landlords who say that `I would rather not have so and so', but once you point out to them that it is illegal you find out how serious their comments are," says Annabel Barnes of Hamptons International.
"Often they tiptoe around the edge and talk about how concerned they are to get the right type of tenant. They ask where they come from and say that they don't want religious fanatics. But we make it absolutely clear that we cannot represent someone on that basis. Not only would we break the law, but we would also be failing in our duty of care for the tenant."
Not long ago, Hamptons refused to continue with a client who turned down a couple on racial grounds even though they were "terrific tenants" offering the full asking price of pounds 1,000 a week.
"Maybe owning property at the top end of the market makes some people feel that they can dictate on everything," adds Barnes.
Certainly, since landlords are perfectly entitled to specify no children, no smokers, no students or no pets, dictating legitimate terms can easily slide into the unacceptable. Euphemism is often employed to throw agents off the scent.
"You get funny landlords who go round in circles, and I know exactly what they are saying. You try and steer the conversation in a direction that makes it clear they would be unwise to spell things out," says Ana du Cloux, lettings director of John D Wood. "If I do see prejudice, it is more likely to come from expat landlords who suggest they want a tenant of their own class and social standing.
"Some owners will specify what nationality they do want. I have been asked for Japanese tenants because, I was told, they take their shoes off and keep their homes immaculate."
On the sales front, Peter Young of John D Wood's Kensington office in London, says he has on occasions had to point out gently that everyone's money is as good as the next person's. "Where prejudice does come in is when you get two or three people bidding for a property. We recently had an English family with children and dogs bidding against an American. The American was an aggressive banker who gave no quarter in negotiating style. The knee-jerk reaction of the owner was to say `I don't want him to have it whatever happens'."
Mrs Yousaf would have given anything for the chance to put herself out of the running. As it was, she suspended her house-hunting for three years while fighting to show that she was treated unfairly. "This shows that no one should sit back and take it," she says. "But now at last we have the home we wanted."Reuse content