Why it’s time to dump home buyer love letters

Focus on the offer, not the people making it, experts say.
[Getty Images]
[Getty Images] [ Getty Images ]
Published Oct. 22, 2020

In today’s hot housing market, buyers feel pressure to bring their A-game. Besides making their “highest and best” offers, some eager buyers go an extra step and include a personal letter in hopes of winning the seller’s heart.

“We’re newlyweds and your house will be a perfect place to start our family!”

“Our kids will love the backyard!”

“We look forward to walking to church from your house!”

Home buyer love letters, as they’re known in the real estate industry, may seem benign on the surface. But greasing the wheels of a home sale with a letter that includes certain personal characteristics can open the door to housing discrimination.

Here are reasons to steer clear of buyer love letters and focus on making — or choosing — the best offer instead.

» MORE: How first-home shoppers can keep a cool head in a hot market

Fair housing law and buyer love letters

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for home sellers, real estate agents and other housing-related service providers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status or disability. Many states and local governments also have fair housing regulations that include additional protected classes such as age, gender identity, sexual orientation or military status.

It’s not against the law for a home buyer to write a personal letter to the seller. But some buyer love letters can invite sellers to unwittingly violate fair housing laws.

“A theme behind a lot of love letters is ‘pick me because I’m so likable’ or ‘pick me because I’m like you,’” says Jonathan “Jon” Goodman, a real estate attorney at Frascona, Joiner, Goodman and Greenstein P.C. in Boulder, Colorado.

Goodman says sellers may be swayed to choose buyers with whom they identify, not out of malicious intent to discriminate, but because the buyers remind them of themselves.

“We don’t recognize that our instinct to help people who are like us can discriminate against ‘the other,’” he says.

Besides telling their life stories, some prospective buyers include photos of themselves, which can reveal information about race, family status and other characteristics that sellers shouldn’t consider when evaluating purchase offers.

“If the reason the seller ‘liked’ and chose the buyer was because of shared race, religion, national origin, or other characteristic that is a prohibited basis for differential treatment under fair housing law, it is possible the seller could be challenged for their decision,” Vince Malta, president of the National Association of Realtors, said by email.

» MORE: First-time home buyer tips

‘Too much room for error’

A seller who discriminates against a buyer could face financial penalties if the buyer files a successful fair housing complaint or lawsuit.

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Proving discrimination is difficult, though. The most effective tool to investigate discrimination is a controlled process called testing, which sends trained people to pose as housing applicants. The “testers” have comparable economic and social characteristics, and differ only on the characteristic that’s being investigated for discrimination, such as race. For instance, testing has exposed landlords who tell Black apartment-seekers that no units are available, while telling white people there are openings.

Although home buyer love letters are a discrimination concern, they haven’t been the focus of testing programs, says Morgan Williams, general counsel for the National Fair Housing Alliance in Washington, D.C.

Goodman knows of no fair housing cases that have arisen from or rested on a buyer love letter.

But even if legal action is unlikely, the love letter practice should end because of the risk of discrimination, says Georgia Stevens, president of Seattle King County Realtors and a managing broker at the Compass agency. “There’s too much room for error.”

» MORE: Homebuying process: 7 steps to buying a house

Focus on offers, not love letters

When evaluating purchase offers, sellers and real estate agents “should always only consider the offer — not the people,” Malta says.

As a seller, here’s what to focus on, according to the National Association of Realtors:

  • Merits of the offer, such as the price and terms.
  • Likeliness of the sale to close.
  • Financial condition of the buyer.

Goodman says sellers who are concerned about being swayed by buyer love letters should ask their real estate agents not to share the personal letters or the names of buyers with them.

Although buyers can’t get into legal trouble for submitting letters to sellers, doing so can backfire. Some sellers may see the letters as manipulative attempts to tug at their heartstrings and view those offers less favorably.

Buyers also set themselves up for sharper disappointment if they include a personal letter and still lose a bidding war, Stevens says. It’s one thing to have the financial terms of your offer declined, another to feel as if your life story is rejected.

“They have these hurt feelings of, ‘They didn’t like me,’” Stevens says. Instead of penning a love letter, write a good offer, she says.

Here’s what to focus on as a buyer:

  • Offer a price you know you can afford.
  • Know the risks of any concessions you offer and don’t give up any protections you need.
  • Understand the contingencies and disclosures in the contract.
  • Be prepared for the seller to make a counteroffer.
  • If your offer is rejected, it’s not the end of your dreams — it’s only a bump in the road. You’ll just have to try again with another house.

About the author: Barbara Marquand writes about homeownership and mortgages, and is NerdWallet’s authority on insurance. Read more