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Home buyers, don’t count on sellers to read the letters you write

In this ultra-competitive housing market, more buyers are looking for a leg up to stand out among many offers. But “love letters” could put sellers and their agents at risk.

Some home buyers try to get an edge by writing a personal letter to the seller. But sellers or their agents could risk being accused of housing discrimination.
Some home buyers try to get an edge by writing a personal letter to the seller. But sellers or their agents could risk being accused of housing discrimination.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The letters are flattering, endearing, and personal. They exude hope and seep desperation.

“Buying a home can be so impersonal, and we wanted to be more than a number.”

“Walking in, we immediately responded to the great care and sensitivity with which you have maintained the original, charming details of the house, while upgrading it with modern touches.”

“It is so easy to see us making art, writing, growing food, playing games, watching kids thrive and gathering those we love for Shabbat (outside until COVID is over) at this house.”

This sampling of letters from buyers competing for homes in Montgomery County shows some of the tactics that buyers are using to try to win bidding wars. So-called love letters have always appeared in the home-buying process. But in this ultra-competitive housing market of high demand and record low supply, more buyers are looking to stand out in the pile of offers their dream house will receive. On top of offering cash and paying over asking price, people are increasingly pleading to be picked.

Buyers also are going multimedia with videos of them making their case. Sonograms hold the promise of children whom buyers want to raise in a house. Photos depict dogs that would play in the yard and smiling children in swimsuits and floaties who look forward to summer fun in the pool.

But letters and their supplements aren’t the slam dunk buyers may think they are. For one thing, lots of buyers are writing them. Because homes are receiving so many offers, some real estate agents said sellers don’t have time or the inclination to read them.

And agents caution sellers for another reason: Personal details such as a reference to a religious celebration or an immigration story open sellers and agents to claims of discrimination from rejected buyers.

The Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania has been fielding complaints about letters over the last six months. It’s the first time the Montgomery County-based nonprofit has gotten these complaints, said executive director Rachel Wentworth, who called the growing letter-writing trend “very concerning.”

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Sellers receiving personal letters “may either consciously or unconsciously make decisions based on a biased perspective or viewpoint about the potential buyers,” she said.

And buyers who do not write eloquently or whose first language is not English are disadvantaged, said Adrian Garcia, director of fair housing and commercial property at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

“It’s just fraught with too many variables that could lead a seller to choose a preference based on what they’re told and not based on who’s qualified for the home,” he said. “There’s too much of an opportunity to discriminate based on status as a protected class” included in the Fair Housing Act.

Garcia said buyers should instead make their best offer and ensure they can close as soon as possible — conditions that all sellers seek.

But that’s easier said than done when buyers already are making their best offers, said Melissa Avivi, who with Barri Beckman operates the Montgomery County-based real estate team Melissa & Barri with Compass Real Estate.

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“Buyers are so desperate to compete that they’re willing to put everything about themselves into a letter and hope that something triggers the seller to sell to them,” she said.

Some buyers are relying on them. Avivi said sellers came home one day to find a letter waiting at their door — a potential buyer’s first formal communication. “I called the agent and asked, ‘Where’s the offer?’ And they said, ‘Oh, that’s coming,’” she said.

She’s increasingly seeing listings that include the phrase “no love letters,” a testament to how fraught they are and how little time agents and sellers have for them. A house the Melissa & Barri team just sold got 19 offers. Six came with letters. The sellers didn’t read any.

“We have to focus on specifics of an offer instead of how cute their kids are or how cute their dogs are,” Avivi said.

Although selling a house is a business transaction, sometimes letters do sway sellers. Some envision specific types of people in their home. In one recent sale with lots of competition, a client submitted the top offer but no letter. The sellers said they were concerned, because every other offer included a letter.

“We called the buyer and said, ‘Write a letter,’” Avivi said. “They almost took someone else because they felt another person loved [the home] more.”

But sellers should be careful not to give letters too much weight. A couple years ago, Avivi said, a buyer “wrote the most beautiful letter that endeared themselves to the seller,” who chose that bid (which was also over asking price).

» READ MORE: Supply of homes for sale around Philly is predicted to stay low for a while

“The next thing you know, [the buyer] became such a jerk that they hated him,” she said. “He was as rude as he was kind in the letter.”

Conversely, letters can backfire on the buyer. The best offer could be tainted by one sentence a homeowner doesn’t like.

Robert White, president-elect of New Jersey Realtors, saw love letters used in 2005 during a similar housing market. But now, he said, “the letters have really gotten a lot more personal.”

To prevent trouble, he suggests, buyers who insist on writing letters should send more generic messages saying they have been looking for a home and want to be in that neighborhood, but “it’s hard to do because buying a home is such an emotional purchase.” And buyers try to connect emotionally with sellers.

But a seller’s decision to reject or accept offers “should be based on the objective criteria, not the emotions,” said White, managing broker at a Coldwell Banker Realty office in Monmouth County.

“Because of all the potential for discrimination that can arise from the love letter, basically it’s up to the Realtors to educate their clients — both the buyers and the sellers — about the fair housing laws and the pitfalls of the buyer presenting one of these so-called love letters with their offer,” he said.

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Hank Lerner, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, said, “our general advice is that they are probably not a great idea.” The association tells members to talk to sellers and buyers early on about why they might want to rethink letters.

“People want to grab on to whatever they feel they can control, and that’s one of the things that keeps coming up,” he said. They’re not thinking about the potential downsides.

A neighbor or cousin might swear they got their home because of the Pulitzer Prize-worthy letter they penned. But “in a real estate transaction, there are so many moving parts that you never really know,” Lerner said. It could be that the winning offer was $20,000 over another or the financing was solid.

But there’s no convincing some people in this frenetic market. Lerner mused that if an article came out tomorrow saying wearing a purple flower on one’s lapel increases the chances of winning a house, “there would be a run on purple flowers.”