Dear Seller, Will Your House Be Mine?

by UrbanTurf Staff

Dear Seller, Will Your House Be Mine?: Figure 1

Two years ago, The New York Times reported that homebuyers in New York City were using a new tactic to get the home of their dreams: writing heartfelt letters to the sellers. The article highlighted a Manhattan couple whose love letter won them a home even though their offer came in $8,000 below a competing bid.

As the competition of the DC area market remains persistent, buyers are looking for similar ways that they can differentiate their offer from others in a competitive bid situation, and many have at least considered the idea of writing a letter to a seller.

But is this tactic an effective one? By and large, the consensus among those in the industry is that the answer is no.

“I have never had a letter be a determining factor on either side,” Suzanne Des Marais of Keller Williams told UrbanTurf. “That said, I am not actively working with buyers these days, but on the listing side, it doesn’t pull a lot of weight for me.”

“I have used that tactic, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem to work in my experience,” Dwell Residential’s Jennifer Myers said. “So many buyers think it will be the thing that gets them the house, but it really doesn’t become a factor.”

When talking to real estate professionals in the area, the reason for this becomes fairly obvious: a home seller is not likely to be swayed by a letter, no matter how much it plucks at the heart strings, if there is an offer with better financial and contingency terms on the table.

“If the seller is sentimental, it sometimes works,” Jen Angotti of DCRE said. “Sellers in DC don’t seem sentimental. They are always after the highest dollar amount.”

Yet another strike against the letter is that it could actually violate fair housing policies.

“Think about the goal of a letter. It is to introduce and ‘sell’ the buyers,” Long & Foster’s Marj Rosner explained. “How do buyers do that? Typically, they try to package themselves as likeable and charming. They do that by offering personal information which, aside from being immaterial to the contract in most cases, is often in violation of fair housing laws.”

Rosner said that when she is managing multiple offer presentations – or single offer presentations for that matter – she explains to sellers that it is not in their or anyone’s interest for a letter to impact what should be a financial decision.

“Sometimes a sentimental seller wants to see the letters, so I will keep them in a file and turn them over after settlement,” Rosner said. “Occasionally, buyers include photos, with the letters, and I make an exception for photos of dogs. I like dogs and they are not yet a protected class.”

Ironically, a dog was front and center in the one instance that UrbanTurf heard of in which a letter was truly effective in trumping price to get a buyer the home they wanted.

Last year, Mark Nielsen fell in love with a five-bedroom house being sold through an estate sale in Crestwood. The sister of the former owner was handling the sale.

Nielsen visited the house four times, and then on the day that his offer was due, his agent, Coldwell Banker’s Mandy Mills, told him that he was in competition with seven others.

“My offer was good, but not as good as the others,” Nielsen said. “I asked if I should write a letter about what I planned to do with the home and my agent said it couldn’t hurt.”

In the letter, Nielsen explained why he had fallen in love with the home and how he planned to renovate it. He and his partner recently adopted a little girl and he wrote about how they looked forward to their daughter and their golden retriever playing in the yard.

A day later, Nielsen got an answer.

“My agent told me that I wasn’t the highest offer, but that the sister wanted us to have the house,” he said. “She liked what our plans were, but the reference to the dog may have been what sold her. Her brother had golden retrievers as pets his entire life.”

The listing agent conveyed that she had strongly advised her client to go with the highest offer, which had much better financial terms, but that the woman was touched by Nielsen’s letter.

“I didn’t really do it to play on heart strings, but in my view this house was about more than the numbers,” Nielsen said. “I think a lot of people have an emotional connection to their home, and that proved to be the case in this instance.”

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dear_seller_will_your_house_be_mine/8291


  1. Scott said at 2:51 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    A number of articles have been written in recent years that imply this is an effective tactic for buyers, so I am glad to read an article that dispels that notion. I am very happy to hear that Mr. Nielsen got the house he wanted via writing a letter, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, letters do not work in swaying a seller to go with a lower offer.
  1. Rowe said at 3:25 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    +1 to everything the article and the above commenter said.
  1. curmudgeon said at 3:30 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    If I was selling my house and a potential buyer wrote me some sappy letter, I'd probably reject them even if they were the highest bidder!
  1. jj said at 3:38 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    You folks are a little cynical. It really depends on the situation of the seller. An older wealthier seller who has a sentimental attachment to a house, may take a liking to a particular buyer, based on a note, or meeting them in person. I'm in that situation, and I'd take less a little less for a property if I liked the buyer. I don't need to squeeze every dollar out of the sale.
  1. RM said at 3:57 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    You have limited tools to win a competitive bid process and should not discount any of them. It does depend on the situation and seller. We were in a very competitive bid for a house last year. We probably had a very good offer, but another's probably offered slightly better terms. We wrote a sincere letter about why we loved the house and our plans for it. We won, and at closing, the seller told us it was the letter that put us over the top.
  1. JD said at 4:18 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    RM is right. My wife suggested writing a letter and I'm glad we did. The sellers told us the letter really moved them. My feeling is that a sentimental letter will typically help your case.
  1. Rowe said at 4:23 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    @RM and @JD, Out of curiosity, were your offers (letter notwithstanding) much lower than the competing offers or were the financial terms similar?
  1. RM said at 4:45 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    Our offer was competitive but not the highest. I'm not suggesting a letter is likely to overcome significant differences in offers, but if multiple offers are within a small range, anything that can differentiate you as a buyer is helpful. And really, taking 15 minutes to draft a letter that could make the difference in success or not? Why wouldn't you?
  1. JD said at 5:00 pm on Friday March 28, 2014:
    Our offer was for full asking price with a 20,000 escalation clause with about 30% down payment in Mt Pleasant. There were 5 offers in total. The agent said we beat an all cash offer, which I'm guessing was for less than ours. That said, the realtor also commented on the letter and how the sellers identified with our situation (young family, dream neighborhood, blah blah). This was three years ago, just before the market hit hyperspeed.
  1. JN said at 1:23 am on Saturday March 29, 2014:
    If I owned a house with historical charm and a family was offering $632,000 with a nice letter about how they plan to renovate and try to restore it over time, and someone else was offering $640,000 and planned to gut reno and build a pop-up to condoize, I would sell to the family for sure, if I believed the letter!
  1. James said at 10:47 am on Saturday March 29, 2014:
    We purchased an upper bracket house on Capitol Hill last summer. Our (buyer's) agent recommended we write such a letter. We declined. We now live in that house. We think they're sappy and ineffective, but if there is no price on dignity and personal pride, then go for it.
  1. DCRealtorJim said at 3:09 pm on Saturday March 29, 2014:
    I have known it to work once. Lovely widow selling her home and really wanted 10k more than the offer. After reading the letter from the buyers and their life plans; the seller said "How I could Not sell it to them?" Everyone lived happily ever-after...
  1. Michael said at 11:44 pm on Saturday March 29, 2014:
    As a buyer's agent: I think this is one of the least effective things you can do to win in a multiple-bid situation. Want the house? Increase the offer/escalation/downpayment or decrease the contingencies. Most sellers care about how much money they're going to get and letters can often be a fair-housing minefield.
  1. Fair's fair? said at 1:18 am on Sunday March 30, 2014:
    Can a realtor please explain all of these hints about fair housing? Especially the listing agent that didn't even show the letters to the sellers. There is no law saying that people need to be represented by a realtor. There are therefore many transactions where the prospective buyers and sellers meet face to face, and in those situations you will know the race, age, and sex of the prospective buyers. It's also very easy to determine these things with a google search of the buyers' names and other info in the offer. Why would it be a violation to send or receive letters that could possibly reveal the same information?
  1. JT said at 4:14 am on Sunday March 30, 2014:
    To Fair's fair, the fair housing concerns referenced are pretty simple to understand. Let's say you have a minority make the highest and best offer, all cash, and it is a trust so there is no person's name on the contract. The next best offer is from Scott and Susan Smith who include a family photo and talk about how their young children are going to love growing up in the house. The seller picks the second offer. The first buyer sues for discrimination. Case closed. To your point about the name on the contract, being able to google, etc. - some Fair Housing advocates have suggested that names be omitted until all terms are agreed upon since it is easy to conceive of a buyer claiming discrimination based on their name... I think the point is don't put yourself in the position of being perceived as discriminating even if you are not. If you write a letter you should leave out anything that could be perceived as a Fair Housing violation.
  1. Fair's fair said at 4:10 pm on Sunday March 30, 2014:
    Thanks JT for the reply. The example you used is maybe not the best, because if the trust hid the identity of the buyer then it would be hard for the buyer to claim discrimination, right? The buyer would have a better case if they could prove that the seller knew that the higher offer was from a minority. However I see your point - there is risk. But as I said above, in unrepresented transactions there is no way to hide identity. The proposal you mention, where names are omitted, how could that even function when realtors are not involved? For example developers who don't use realtors to buy or sell? This sounds to me like realtors being very risk averse, but I doubt that fair housing claims would succeed on the basis of these letters. In the example you gave, it is discrimination if you choose a lower offer because the higher offer came from a minority. It's not discrimination if you choose a lower offer because of what they intend to do with the property after sale. Intended use is not a protected class.

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