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Fall House Hunt: Some real estate agents are shifting toward more inclusive terms

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Agents in Boston recognize that defining any space in the home in a way that may sound exclusive goes against their main goal, which is to sell the property. Andy Dean/stock.adobe.com

When it comes to the language we use in real estate, the times — and terms — are changing.

In the past, it was common to see listings extol the features of the “master bedroom’’ or “family room.’’ Some now argue that those terms are outdated and exclusionary.

Last year, the Houston Association of Realtors announced it would no longer use the terms “master bedroom’’ or “master bathroom’’ on its property listing database, alleging an association with “master slave culture.’’ The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board did the same in April.

The word “master’’ dates to the 12th century, and the term “master bedroom’’ was first used in 1925, according to Merriam-Webster. But a 1923 court case refers to the “master’s bedroom,’’ clearly suggesting that the phrase’s origin is the male head of the household. It is the negative racial and gender-specific associations attached to the phrase that have motivated some industry members to switch to more generalized terms, such as “primary bedroom’’ or “owner bedroom.’’

In order to understand the transition, it is important to note the extensive history of racism in real estate.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, “racially-restrictive deeds were a ubiquitous part of real estate transactions’’ in the 20th century, prohibiting people of color from owning property. While these covenants are outlawed now, thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, some Massachusetts homeowners can still find the clauses on their deeds.

Today, critics argue that the inclusion of terms like “master bedroom’’ is just a callback to the industry’s racist past. According to a statement from the National Association of Realtors, however, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined that the term “master bedroom’’ doesn’t violate fair housing laws.

“While HUD has advised that the term ‘master bedroom’ does not violate fair housing laws, and while the National Association of Realtors has seen no evidence of any historical connection of this phrase to slavery or other forms of discrimination, we have no objection to individual MLS and Realtor associations making decisions to use other terminology,’’ a representative of NAR told The Boston Globe.

Others contend this term, and others, are simply inaccurate. What if a woman owns the property?

“Yes, there is a shift away from using terms like ‘master bedroom,’ ’’ said O’Necia Simpson, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Realty in Cambridge. Simpson noted that it is more common to use the term “primary bedroom’’ to advertise the largest bedroom space. Simpson, a person of color, contends, however, that “it’s just semantics, and not derogatory.’’

Andrea Amour, an agent at Elevated Boston, said she hasn’t seen a major shift away from the term “master bedroom’’ in Greater Boston.

“I haven’t seen a lot of pushback. When we go to big presentations, people still do call it a ‘master bedroom’ in most of the luxury buildings we’re selling in, as well as single-family homes and condos,’’ Amour said.

However, there are other phrases she avoids now, such as “his and hers’’ to refer to two closets or sinks (“There are many buyers who don’t fit that description, so I always say ‘double closet’ or ‘double vanity’ ’’) as well as “family room,’’ which she says she hears less frequently these days.

“I’d say people refer more to ‘living space’ or ‘living room’ more than ‘family rooms’ when it comes to selling homes in the city of Boston,’’ said Amour. She noted, however, that she may be more inclined to use the term “family room’’ when describing a larger home in the suburbs.

Largely a post-WWII invention, the family room was meant to embody a sense of casual leisure that contrasted with the more formal living room. A 1957 advertisement in The Washington Post explained that “the family room is a second, more comfortable living room,’’ James A. Jacobs wrote in “Social and Spatial Change in the Postwar Family Room.’’ “The kids can play in it. The parents can relax in it. Entertainment is quite proper in it.’’

But people without families use it.

Ultimately, agents in Boston recognize that defining any space in the home in a way that may sound exclusive goes against their main goal, which is to sell the property.

“When I am marketing things individually, I don’t say in the material ‘bachelor pad,’ because it would exclude women or make them feel like it wasn’t for them. It’s best to do what’s most universal in terms of marketing,’’ Amour said.

“We want to make sure that when anybody walks in the door, no matter who they are, they can really see themselves in that home.’’

Megan Johnson can be reached at [email protected] Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.