Writing a love letter to a home seller has proven to work but it also could be against the law

It’s a ‘sellers’ real estate market: National Association of Home Builders CEO

National Association of Home Builders CEO Jerry Howard discusses mass movement from large cities to the suburbs amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a time of heightened sensibilities of right and wrong, writing a love letter to a home seller has proven to work, but it also could be against the law: matters of fair housing and discrimination laws.

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Molly Livingston of California got three offers for her house outside of Reno, one came with a love letter, a way to show intimacy between seller and buyer.

“It was not the highest offer, but we liked this couple,” Livingston said. “He was a military person. She was a nurse. They were coming in with a (Veterans Administration) loan. We had bought that house as a young couple and had done a ton of work to make it into a sweet little family home. We saw a lot of ourselves in them.”

San Francisco real estate developer and entrepreneur Jesse Herzog used similar tactics to get a new place: they wanted to show they liked raising a family in the neighborhood – as well as spotlight the place’s architecture and light.

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

However, he wanted to make a human connection.

“You live in your house — it is such a personal experience,” he said. “It’s natural that you would try to personalize what otherwise is a business transaction.”

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The new way of writing a love letter comes as the nation reckons with generations of systemic racism, including in real estate. Mortgage lenders and brokers long discriminated by drawing lines on maps — known as redlining — and refusing to provide services for homes outside of white areas, preventing residents of color from building wealth through homeownership. Though the practice was outlawed decades ago, it has had severe consequences in perpetuating poverty and restricting access to good schools, health care and other amenities.

Litigation in the 1990s and 2000s helped erase similar minimum value policies in the insurance industry, where companies would provide substandard homeowners policies or no policies based on a home’s age and market value.

In October, the California Association of Realtors created new guidance on the love letters to ensure they don’t appear to be discriminatory or violate fair housing laws.

The guidance dissuades any letter that would “inadvertently reveal, or be perceived as revealing, protected status information” or would increase the risk of “actual or unconscious bias.”

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Daniel Hershkowitz, a San Francisco broker and real estate attorney, said the new guidance is enough to stop the practice of love letters: he these days tries to keep clients from writing or reading them.

“These letters can be just as ineffective as effective, so why not eliminate the possibility either way in the spirit of fair housing laws?”

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