- Buyer letters can melt sellers' hearts but they can equally backfire or put clients at risk of prejudice.
Kathleen Wilkin’s homeseller accepted the lowest of three offers.
In a letter, the buyer who captured her client’s attention wrote of the need to move into a better school district to provide assistance for a special needs child.
“The seller had also raised a special needs child, and wanted those buyers to have her home,” Wilkin said in a conversation on Inman Coast to Coast.
In another case, a letter told the seller of a family’s plan to downsize so they could spend more of their disposable income going on missionary trips to Africa. This moved the Oakville, Ontario, seller to opt for their offer, which was a whole $150,000 (Canadian dollars) less than the highest bid.
Indeed, a buyer’s letter to the seller, also known as a “love” letter, that sparks a connection between parties can mean the difference between clients winning a bid to purchase their dream home — even with a lower offer — and losing out.
If you are in a low inventory market, chances are you’re helping buyers compete in multiple bid situations, and a letter may well be part of your offer package.
But breaking down professional walls and diving into the personal can also put clients at a disadvantage or weaken their negotiating position, other agents say. Moreover, revealing details about buyers’ marital status, race and gender identity can backfire and open the door to discrimination.
Alternative strategies to the letter
Massachusetts-based Rich Rosa, co-founder of Buyers Brokers Only, has some cautionary words after a situation that occurred a couple of years ago with one of his brokers.
A seller used the buyer’s personal, emotional letter as a reason not to budge on negotiating; his client knew how much the buyers wanted the house.
Rosa sympathizes with buyers who want to feel they are doing everything humanly possible to stand out in multiple offer situations.
But, he says: “I’m not convinced that there’s a lot of sellers making decisions based on the buyer’s letter. To me, personally, it seems a little naïve.”
Regardless of why they are selling their house, people usually have plans for the proceeds from their house sale, Rosa added. They are moving out of town or buying something bigger, and they want as much money as they can for the home.
Offering good terms is often more important, Rosa argues, such as being flexible on moving dates, explaining how well the buyers are financed or providing a substantial down payment.
In some very competitive markets, buyers are waiving the mortgage contingency clause or even the home inspection, Rosa said, something he does not advise.
A note written in ignorance could endanger the bid
Rosa’s very real concern is that if you don’t know much about the sellers, your buyer’s letter may come off as antagonizing rather than endearing.
That’s why Manhattan buyer specialist, Ian Katz from the Ian K Katz Group, does his utmost to find out about the sellers before breaking out the pen and paper.
Katz was working with a couple competing for a highly coveted two-bedroom co-op on the Upper East Side.
“Included with my buyer couple’s offer was a personal letter to the sellers describing their background, which we had learned during our property showings was very similar to the sellers’ background,” Katz said. “They were, like the sellers when they purchased eight years ago, a newly married couple hoping to start a family and purchase their first home together.”
By good luck, the buyers happened to be good friends with another couple in the building, and that couple knew the sellers well.
These two factors — the similar background and mutual friends mentioned by name — were emphasized in the letter and helped the clients beat out a couple of slightly higher offers.
On another occasion, Katz was working with a couple who wanted to bid on a large three bedroom estate condition co-op, and the seller had already received a strong offer from a couple looking to use the property as a pied-a-terre.
“Unlike the first offering party, my clients were looking for a primary residence to renovate and grow their family of four in, so it was for a much more pressing personal use with a nice family story,” he said.
Katz and his buyers learned that the sellers were the children of a woman who had owned the property for over 30 years and raised her family there. She had also renovated her kitchen to test recipes in and wrote a cookbook.
Coincidentally Katz’s client was a passionate cook as well.
“The letter emphasized that the use of the apartment would greatly mirror the seller’s mother’s, and that the kitchen would be in ‘good, active’ hands. This helped seal the deal with the sellers and they ditched the first offer even though it was strong in other ways,” said the buyer’s specialist.
In both cases, he said, understanding who the seller was, why they originally bought, why they loved the apartment, why they were selling and how he and his clients could find commonality in those aspects by incorporating good, personal information in letters, was crucial in securing the two apartments over competing bids.
In other words, do your homework.
Raising ethical and fair housing concerns
Realtor Keryn Giguere understands the pressure of low inventory in her Tacoma, Washington, market but “questions the ethical validity” of love letters.
“Sure, for the heteronormative, cis pair with an adorable child and golden retriever this sounds like a wonderful tactic. But what if you are a gay couple? A single woman? What if you are a trans person trying to compete for the same house?” she wrote in a column last month.
Attorney Jon Goodman expressed related concerns at a National Association of Realtors conference, specifically for buyers of protected classes who submit photos with their letters, and how this strategy may cross into fair housing territory.
Agents might find safer grounds with letters that admire a home’s historical significance and promise to keep up the landscaping — because the law doesn’t prohibit discrimination against people who like history or gardening, Goodman explained.
What about letters to the buyer?
It isn’t just buyer letters that can influence a real estate transaction; seller letters play a role, too.
Menlo Park-based Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent Carrie Davis said she has had success both with letters to sellers and letters to buyers.
For her listings, she has her clients write a letter to the prospective buyers. She includes it in the disclosure packet and presents it alongside her property flyers at open houses.
“I have my sellers describe what they have enjoyed most about living in the home and neighborhood and what features in the home they will miss. This has often been very well received by buyers,” Davis said.
In addition to encouraging letters to the buyer, Davis adds her two cents, too.
“I write my own comments about the buyer in my offer summary,” she said. “I share a bit about my buyer and why I think they are the ideal new owners of the property.”