Christine Smith is an attorney and associate broker with Buyers Brokers Only LLC in Canton, Mass.
Don't Write Me a Love Song
The emotional nature of a buyer’s letter to sellers might help win the home, but it could be the biggest drawback at the negotiating table.
January 21, 2015
I had buyer clients once who insisted on writing a letter to the seller and making the case for why their offer should be accepted. They went the personal, emotional route, explaining that they were meant to own this home because it had the same colors that they had in their wedding. The offer itself was strong—it met the asking price, plus some closing costs—so I can’t say whether the letter made a difference when the seller finally accepted their offer. But it certainly made a difference down the road when it came time to negotiate—and the seller refused to budge.
When issues arose after inspection, the seller was none too willing to negotiate, knowing how much my buyers wanted this house. Because of my buyers’ disclosure of emotional attachment to the property in their letter, it put them in a weaker negotiating position. The seller was able to take advantage of that.
It’s common advice during inventory crunches like the one the market is experiencing now that buyers write personal letters to sellers to stand out and increase the chances of having their offer accepted. But very few recognize the downside to buyers’ letters: disclosing information that sellers can use against buyers at the negotiating table.
There’s no question that the decision to buy or sell a house is often largely an emotional one, but we know that emotion clouds judgment. As an exclusive buyer agent, I advocate for buyers, protect their interests, and get them the best deal possible. In order to do that, I need to take the emotion out of the buying process, so that’s why I tell buyers it’s not a good idea to write a letter to the seller. They tend not to have much of an effect anyway, in my experience. Sellers, who are concerned only with their bottom line, ignore these letters 99 percent of the time. They take the focus off of the offer, which is the buyers’ real bargaining chip.
Buyers seek to fall in love with a house. I remind them that they hired me to bring them back to Earth, to provide impartial advice based on facts and on my expertise in the real estate market. If we don’t try to rein in buyers’ emotional decision making, including potentially exposing their greatest weaknesses to sellers in letters that were written with good intentions, we’re not doing our best to protect their interests. Ultimately, we can’t control our clients’ decisions, but we can control the advice we give them.
Furthermore, buyers’ letters could pose problems with the Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent to a prospective tenant based on their race, religion, color, sex, national origin, family status, or disability. Consider the letter from a married couple mentioning that their kids really love the house, which is close to their church. Say the letter moves the seller to reject a higher offer from an unmarried buyer of a different religion—this might turn into a legal problem.
Letters can be subpoenaed and used as evidence, even if there was no discriminatory intent. Sellers, buyer agents, and listing agents could all be found in violation of fair housing laws. Initial fines for a violation start at $10,000—not to mention legal fees for defending a claim.
Think carefully the next time your buyers say they want to submit a personal letter with their offer, and tell sellers to tread cautiously when considering such a letter. The best advice is to just rip it up.
Note: Opinions expressed in “Commentary” do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Association of REALTORS® or REALTOR® Magazine. Submit commentary ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated: June 20, 2019