Can Memories of Grandma Help Win Home Buying Battles?

Bidders Write Personal Letters to Sellers to Get an Edge

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Homebuyers will try anything to win bidding wars in today’s wild real estate market, including submitting offers meant to tug on sellers’ heartstrings.

Buyers are writing personalized letters in hopes of standing out from the flood of above-asking-price offers that often pour in as soon as a house is listed for sale, real estate agents from around the country say. 

Key Takeaways

  • Within a fiercely competitive real estate market, prospective buyers are writing so-called “love letters” to sellers in an effort to stand out amid multiple offers.
  • Personal letters from potential buyers have been commonplace for years in hot regional markets but have grown in popularity during the pandemic.
  • Experts warn that accepting personal letters potentially runs afoul of anti-discrimination laws, although there’s no available evidence that anyone’s been sued.
  • Buyers are pouring their hearts out to sellers, imploring to be picked over other offers by invoking kids, family pets, and memories.

One woman in New York waxed nostalgic about how the flowers in the yard reminded her of the ones her grandmother had. A buyer in Virginia gushed about the lovely mural in one of the rooms, making the daughter of the sellers, who had painted it, cry. In another instance, an architect vying for a property on Long Island swore to put an artist’s studio in the house to good use. In each case, the letter-writers got the houses over multiple other offers, although it’s difficult to say whether the missives made a difference.

“Anything a buyer can do to gain an edge,” said Will Wade, the Weichert Realtors agent who represented the architect. “It’s such a competitive market right now that buyers are pulling out all the stops, and any little thing that might set them apart or give them a stronger presence in the seller’s mind when they’re going through offers helps.” 

Such “buyer love letters,” as realtors call them, have become increasingly common lately as the country grapples with far too many prospective buyers for the number of homes for sale. In tale after tale, real estate agents say the meager inventory has potential buyers lining up—literally, in some cases—and scrambling for any advantage they can get. Realtors have even warned sellers that accepting these letters could run afoul of fair housing laws, but they haven’t gone away.

Gauging the Impact of Letters

Love letters, usually supplied to the sellers through real estate agents representing the bidders, were already common in certain hot housing markets before the pandemic hit.

“It seems to have become standard practice,” said Julie Granahan, a Redfin agent in Seattle, where the housing market has been characterized for years by the kind of low-supply, high-demand conditions that now prevail nationally.

Some of the letters are brief and to the point. Others include pictures of the buyers, their children, and their pets, Granahan said. One buyer even made a video of the whole family gathered around the piano singing a song about how much they loved the house they wanted to buy, said Gene Szpeinski, managing broker at Keller Williams in Grandville, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids.

To be sure, such tactics are far from guaranteed to make an impact, particularly since the pandemic has only made the market more competitive, what with working from home being so commonplace and mortgage rates being so temptingly low.

Linda Stout, a real estate agent in southern New Jersey, said the letters have become so common they have lost their effectiveness, in her experience. 

“Sellers are being inundated with multiple offers over asking price, so compassion & emotion have given way to ‘show me the money!’” Stout said in an email.

Granahan, on the other hand, said tear-jerking gestures might not make up for a huge monetary difference in an offer, but can be decisive in close situations. 

“It’s happened a few times where my seller will receive multiple offers and they’re having a really, really hard time choosing between the two comparable offers,” she said. “Sometimes that letter just pushes one over the edge because of the information that’s in the letter. It might help them feel more of a connection to one buyer than the other.”

But therein lies the potential pitfall with the letters.

Could These Letters Result in Prejudice?

Having noticed the love-letter trend, the National Association of Realtors warned its members in October that the notes might carry with them a legal risk for the sellers. That’s because it’s against the law—specifically, the Fair Housing Act—to reject an offer because of certain characteristics of the buyer such as race, religion, or family status. 

A seemingly innocent letter could reveal those things. For example, a letter about looking forward to seeing the kids running down the stairs on Christmas morning tells the seller the family status and religion of the buyer, the group noted. It advised members not to even read such letters and not to pass them along to clients. 

So far, the threat of a fair housing lawsuit based on a love letter is purely hypothetical. Neither the NAR nor the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency responsible for enforcing fair housing laws, were aware of any such lawsuits having been filed anywhere in the country. However, the letters have caught the eyes of regulators. 

“The use of letters from prospective buyers to sellers to influence the sale of a home has been receiving more attention in real estate and fair housing circles,” a HUD spokesperson said in an email. “These letters, like other communication in the context of a home sale, can introduce fair housing concerns to the transaction.” 

Such concerns are one reason that Szpeinski, the Michigan real estate broker, said his agency has for years let sellers tick a box “yes” or “no” to decide if they want to receive personal letters from buyers. The vast majority pick “no,” he said. 

“They’re seeing it from the perspective of, ‘Holy cow, I guess I could potentially be discriminating against somebody,’” Szpeinski said.

Heartfelt vs. Calculated 

Another pitfall is the temptation to be insincere. When Meghan Maloney and her husband bought a condo in Washington this June, the seller actually asked them for a letter about why they deserved to buy the property. 

“We ended up trying to make us sound as wholesome as possible,” Maloney said. “We wrote about how we wanted to have kids and a dog and how great the neighborhood is for raising kids.” They even looked up the seller, found out she worked on fair housing issues for the government, and highlighted that the husband was an advocate for fair housing.

“We were trying to match what we thought they wanted,” she said. 

While everything was true, the letter felt more calculated than heartfelt, Maloney said, and while they did wind up getting the condo, the experience gave Maloney some insight into what she would do if she were ever selling and received letters like that. 

“I’d probably ignore them,” she said. 

Have a question, comment, or story to share? You can reach Diccon at dhyatt@thebalance.com