Writing a love letter to a home seller is a proven strategy. It could also be against the law


Homebuyer love letters, those sweet household missives millions of families have used to please residential real estate sellers in competitive Bay Area markets, may be a thing of the past.

In October, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and increased awareness of fair housing laws, the California Association of Realtors provided its members with new guidelines discouraging clients from writing or accepting letters that might seem discriminatory or violate fair housing laws.

The guidelines, now included in the thick pile of forms that brokers are required to consult with their clients before signing listing or purchase contracts, discourage any letter that “would inadvertently reveal, or be perceived to be revealing,” information about protected status ”or would increase the risk of“ real or unconscious bias ”.

While shoppers can still write a letter extolling the virtues of a rose bush, window seat, or downtown view, they should avoid anything that could be perceived to reveal protected status, such as age, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, national origin, gender identity, disability or immigrant status, depending on the real estate industry group.

This means that there are no more photos of the buyer’s family reunited at a Giants game. They are not to describe how they might imagine their children running down the stairs on Christmas morning, or the extended family gathering in the kitchen for big Italian family dinners of spaghetti and meatballs, or celebrating the return of d ‘a son or daughter from a military deployment overseas.

Marc Dickow, president of the San Francisco Association of Realtors, said the advice sparked healthy discussion in the Bay Area, which has one of the most competitive markets in the country and a long tradition of buyers using gasoline. prose and photographs to soften sellers and gain an edge over the competition.

“This opens the door to the conversation that many agents don’t have with their buyers and sellers regarding fair housing,” Dickow said. “The purpose of the notice is that it is okay to write letters stating how much they love the property but to stay away from personal information.”

Real estate agent Nina Dosanjh, who works in Vanguard’s Mission Street office, said the new focus on fair housing laws was inspired by both Black Lives Matter and “The Color of Law,” the best. -seller 2017 by Richard Rothstein on how government policies have contributed to segregating neighborhoods.

“The color of the law has been a wake-up call for many of us,” she said. “It gave a historical perspective to a time when there was already an awareness of racial inequity and injustice. It’s a conversation people should be having.

The suggested new rules are getting mixed reactions from brokers, buyers and sellers. On the one hand, choosing an offer partially based on a family photo or personal letter could tip the scales in favor of the buyer who has the most in common with the seller. They may share a bond with a school, church, or sports team, which could give that potential buyer an unfair advantage over a family from a totally different cultural or ethnic background.

On the other hand, many families wish to bequeath their house to someone who will appreciate its qualities, its proximity to a primary school or a park, someone who plans to live there rather than donate it for money. money quickly. A love letter can help allay the guilt associated with selling the homestead and reassure the seller that they have left the property in good hands.

Originally from Berkeley, Molly Livingston, who works in public relations and lives outside Reno, recently sold a house she and her husband lived in after getting married and having their first child. They received three offers. While two offers came from limited liability companies – a sign that the buyer is an investor – the third came with a love letter.

“It wasn’t the highest bid, but we liked this couple,” Livingston said. “He was a soldier. She was a nurse. They came with a VA loan. We had bought this house as a young couple and had done a ton of work to make it a lovely little family home. We have seen a lot of ourselves in them.

San Francisco real estate developer and entrepreneur Jesse Herzog believes a love letter likely helped him and his wife, Kristin, secure their new home in Lower Pacific Heights. In 2014, the couple had made 10 offers on houses, all of which were “at the bottom of the abyss” and none of which were accepted. They ended up in a condo in Japantown, which they passed when their second child arrived. This time Herzog was determined to succeed. He wrote how happy they were to raise a family in the neighborhood – the house was only five blocks away – how much they loved its architecture and its light. They emphasized the proximity of the house to El Burrito Express II, their favorite taqueria.

“We kept it pretty harmless,” Herzog said. “You don’t want to mention the dog in case the seller is a cat. “

He said he didn’t think the letter was the only reason their offer was accepted, but he didn’t think it hurt. “You live in your house – it’s such a personal experience,” he said. “It’s only natural that you try to personalize what is otherwise a business transaction. “

But love letters can be risky, said real estate agent Kevin Birmingham, who runs Park North Real Estate in the Sunset District. The bidder must guess what type of message might be of interest to the seller, whose track record is unknown.

For these reasons, he discourages customers from writing or reading love letters – but buyers and sellers are always rushing him for information. A few years ago he represented an elderly Irish immigrant who was selling her family home in the Sunset.

“I was dealing with his son,” Birmingham said. “Towards the end of the process he said his mother wanted to know if it was an Irish family buying the house. I said, ‘No he’s Asian, but her boyfriend is Irish, if that helps.’ They have the house.

Daniel Hershkowitz, a real estate broker and attorney in San Francisco, said the new directive raised awareness among agents about fair housing laws and discrimination. He said it is up to brokers to set the rules for what can be said in a love letter and what can exceed legal limits. It usually discourages customers from writing or reading them.

“These letters can be just as ineffective as they are effective, so why not eliminate the possibility anyway in the spirit of fair housing laws? “

Whether or not love letters are part of the buying process, many sellers will do their own investigation of who ends up with their property.

“Every seller turns to the Internet as soon as they get the buyer’s name,” said Park North real estate agent Jodi Halldorson. “It’s natural. Home has meant so much to you. It is more than a place to sleep. You just hope it means so much to the next person.

Yet while a seller may accept a slightly lower offer to avoid selling to an investor who might demolish the house, it is rare that the accepted offer is significantly lower than another offer.

San Jose broker Pat Kapowich said the love letters “work like a champ” and the new guidelines “will breathe new life into the way we do business.” Now that national and local associations of realtors have released advice on the matter, it won’t be long before lawyers begin to seek clients to sue for discrimination in situations where letters are still pending. ‘writing.

“It’s a roadmap for how to be prosecuted,” he said. “Customers now ask, ‘What kind of people live here? “I say now,” Federal law prohibits me from answering this question. “

Even with the new guidelines, brokers said they assume many clients will want to continue writing letters. The key will be to ensure that the prose focuses on the architectural features of the house and not on anything that might reveal personal information about the potential buyer. And while a well-composed love letter can sometimes put one bidder ahead of another in a competitive situation, in most cases, the surest path to a successful bid is through the bank account, not through the bank. chord, Halldorson said.

“The money has to be there to support it,” she said.

JK Dineen is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jdineen@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @sfjkdineen


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