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The problem with “love letters” in real estate – Marketplace

Let’s set the scene. An older couple is selling the home they’ve owned for 45 years in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. They sift through 22 competing offers, comparing prices and contingencies. Tucked into one of them is this:

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Miller,” the letter starts. “Thank you for providing us with the opportunity to view your beautiful home, and for considering our offer.”

By the time Brittany Hetherington and her fiancé, Matt Thornton, wrote this letter, they’d already lost out on six houses and were determined to stand out. So, they started with flattery, complimenting the home’s “tasteful dining area” and “tidy bedrooms.” Then they played up Brittany’s local connections, noting that “Brittany is a Fairless Hills native and excited to put down roots near her childhood home.”

The letter also included personal details. Hetherington, 30, works in law school admissions and teaches dance. Thornton, 33, is a financial portfolio manager. Then to sweeten the deal, they offered to rent the house back to the Millers at a discount if their new house wasn’t ready in time for closing.

“We also included a couple of pictures from our engagement shoot,” Hetherington said. “We’re like, ‘Look how cute we are.’”

Matt Thornton and Brittany Hetherington included this engagement photo with their offer to buy a house. (Alexis Amiet)

The letter appeared to make a difference. The Millers accepted their offer for the five-bedroom Colonial — even though it wasn’t the highest.

The Millers’ real estate agent, Thornton said, mentioned that the sellers “loved the fact that we were locals and that we knew the area and had a connection.”

There’s a term in the real estate business for missives like these: “love letters.” Amanda Pohlman has seen a lot of them, especially lately, as a broker with Keller Williams in Solon, Ohio, near Cleveland. With the supply of homes for sale near record lows nationally and would-be buyers bidding up asking prices and waiving the usual contingencies, some are resorting to emotional appeals.  

“We’re finding more and more buyers are writing love letters,” Pohlman said. “There’s so little inventory, and every buyer wants every house.”

Pohlman actually advises against the practice. Take a letter that says something like, “Oh, we love your house so much, and we can just imagine our kids running down the staircase at Christmas,” she said. The hypothetical writer revealed two details, familial status and religion. Both are protected classes under the Fair Housing Act. The others are race, color, sex, national original and disability. It’s illegal for sellers, or their agents, to discriminate against buyers based on any of those factors.

“If those factors are revealed in a letter, and a seller relies on that information, there could be a fair-housing problem,” said Bryan Greene, vice president for policy advocacy at the National Association of Realtors.

Last year, the group warned its members to steer clear of love letters and educate their clients about the risks.

“Now, I think it’s very important to point out that I’m not aware of any federal lawsuit filed anywhere in America alleging discrimination on the basis of one of these letters,” Greene said.

It’s also not clear how effective these letters are. The seller could be an investor, said Margie Gillespie, with Re/Max Components in the Baltimore area.

“They don’t have any emotional tie whatsoever to the house,” she said.  

Even when sellers are emotionally attached, “at the end of the day, numbers talk,” she said. In most cases, “sellers will take the highest bid.”

Try telling that to a would-be homebuyer after the sixth rejection. Pohlman tells clients if they’re determined to send a letter, “don’t make it anything about the people. No photos, no descriptions. Just make it about the property.”

Or about the dog, as with one house she recently sold.

“It was like the dog wrote the letter,” she said. “The dog had his picture. The dog said he liked the yard.”

No fair-housing issues, and the seller turned out to be a dog lover.

Also, the dog’s owner happened to make the best offer.

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