- Some home bidders write personal letters to sellers to win their favor and get their dream house.
- Buyers may feel "love letters" help them win bidding wars, but they also pose big problems.
- Buyers can lie, sellers may unconsciously discriminate, and brokers could get in legal trouble.
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When Lauren Byington and husband, Warren, listed their home outside San Antonio, Texas, for sale in 2020, she was relieved when they quickly received three offers close to the full asking price of $975,000.
One prospective buyer, though, included a letter with her bid that described how she hoped to raise her family in the house. Moved by the note, dubbed a "love letter" in real-estate parlance, Byington decided to sell the house to her.
What the letter left out: The bidder was going through a divorce, which ultimately resulted in her loan preapproval being rescinded. Byington was disappointed that the buyer intentionally omitted a major issue with financing, telling Insider she wished she had evaluated each bid by the numbers and not been swayed by a letter.
"She loved the house, but also said she loved it for her children," Byington said. "She really sold me."
Over the past 10 years, as the housing market has grown ever more competitive, buyers have turned letters into a powerful tool to persuade sellers to pick them. Though there's no data on the prevalence or effectiveness of these personalized notes, their use spiked when low mortgage rates drove a homebuying spree between 2020 and 2022, and frantic buyers seized upon any way to stand out in bidding wars. Now, even as home prices cool, buyers continue to find themselves pitted against one another, particularly for affordable homes in desirable areas.
But these letters are as problematic as they are ubiquitous, according to real-estate agents, lawyers, buyers, and sellers. Sharing information about a buyer's race, marital status, and other personal details can create a situation where a seller consciously (or unconsciously) makes a decision to sell to someone based on bias. There's potential for seller discrimination and, crucially, violations of federal laws around fair housing. A smaller but still meaningful risk is that buyers can stretch the truth in order to score a home, and elderly or otherwise vulnerable sellers might be too easily manipulated by pulled heartstrings rather than impartial bids. Brokers representing a seller accused of declining a buyer offer due to bias could even find themselves in legal trouble.
The problems loom so large that many real-estate brokers — including Byington, who has since become a licensed real-estate agent in Texas — advise against writing love letters at all. (The country's biggest professional association of real-estate agents, the 1.5 million-member National Association of Realtors, also discourages the practice.) Byington said that she will even make her buyer clients sign a waiver that frees her from any connection with the letter if a buyer insists on including one in an offer.
"So much of your buyers' behaviors translate on to you, to your work, and to your professional sphere," she said. "I can't really get behind whatever emotions or facts they're going to divulge."
The irresistible temptation of love letters
Buyers, scrambling for a sense of control and power in what can feel like a frustrating process, truly believe love letters work — and are thrilled to share their successes.
Take Elizabeth Scire, who carefully crafted a short note to convince the sellers of a pink house two doors down from her mom's property in North Carolina to choose her. She told them she had nicknamed it The Barbie House as a child because of its hue.
"I formatted it with a typewriter font like it's more personal, and used some pink with the actual Barbie font. I put the quote, 'Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices,'" she said. "They had an investor offer for $25,000 above and they went with ours because of the letter."
She got the house, moved in last May, and has even put a "Barbie House" sign out front.
Indeed, the love letter has become such a widely accepted part of successfully buying real estate that entrepreneurs see it as an opportunity to make some extra cash. Many Etsy sellers hawk colorful templates, priced anywhere from $2 for a single PDF to $45 for a bundle, that homebuyers can use when submitting an offer.
A West Coast-based designer told Insider that managing his Etsy shop as a side hustle brings in steady revenue. He said his $10 templates' aesthetically pleasing and professional appearance is just one more way for buyers to show a seller that they're putting thought and care into their offer.
The feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive," added the shop's owner, who asked that his name not be used because of privacy concerns, told Insider. "Customers have said that the home-offer-letter templates have made a huge difference in the homebuying process for them."
Love letters risk discrimination
Deeply personal and emotionally written love letters, however, open sellers and their agents up to legal risks. In a 2020 blog post, the National Association of Realtors said love letters would be more accurately described as "liability letters."
The NAR's official position is that sharing details in a letter that reveal familial and marriage status, religion, and gender orientation — groups of people known as protected classes — could sway a seller in one direction or another. Refusing to sell to someone for one of these reasons — or even picking one bidder because of empathy for their circumstances — could violate the Fair Housing Act. The crux is that a homeowner should be impartial when selling their house.
The California Association of Realtors, which boasts a membership of over 200,000 real-estate agents, issued guidelines in 2020 on how to handle these letters and the potential risks that they pose. While it's not illegal to write them or share with a seller, it is illegal to treat buyers differently based on bias for or against protected classes or characteristics.
Chantay Bridges, a Los Angeles-based realtor, told Insider that agents can get in big trouble, too, if the sellers they represent are accused of discrimination.
"People litigate for just about anything here in California," she said. "We started seeing a spike in complaints, and then they try to drag real-estate agents into it."
In September 2021, Oregon became the first state to enact a law that banned the practice of writing or sharing real-estate love letters during the homebuying process. But in May 2022, a judge ruled that the law violated the constitutional right to freedom of speech and struck down the ban.
The official organization of Oregon Realtors maintains that buyers and sellers should still refrain from the practice.
The letters prey on emotion and vulnerability
Love letters may contain little white lies from buyers and can be emotionally manipulative, especially when it comes to vulnerable or elderly sellers.
Ilan and Sarah Harel put in an over-ask offer on a house in Pleasant Valley, New York, Natasha Solo-Lyons, a former Insider reporter, wrote in 2021. The Harels sent a letter to the sellers, expressing their love for the house and its on-site chicken coop. They even sent a photo of themselves inside the house, writing that they "couldn't wait to raise all their children and chickens" there.
Here's the thing: The couple wanted neither children nor chickens. When the house was safely theirs, they sold the coop on Craigslist.
Some tales are even humorous. In July 2022, the Twitter user @LeslieHunts bemoaned losing a house to a couple whose dog "wrote" a letter to the sellers. (The user didn't respond to a request to elaborate on the situation.)
More grave, though, is the possibility that letters could be used to sway or convince elderly or otherwise vulnerable sellers to take an offer that may not be the best decision for them financially.
Byington, who has personal experience feeling burned by a bidder, cautioned that divulging personal information could also backfire if a deal falls through and a seller believes a prospective buyer is at fault.
"If the buyer was dealing with a mercurial seller who was livid at the fact that the funding didn't go through because of a disclosure issue," she said, "they could be dealing with someone who is not only very mad, but someone who now knows a lot of details about the buyer and their children's lives because of a letter."