Molly and Chris Ayala did not clinch the contract on their ranch house in Ballwin last January by making the highest bid. One offer exceeded theirs. Rather, they closed the deal by writing a letter.
In that letter they described to the sellers their difficult living arrangement: a third- floor walk-up apartment. The problem was that Molly had recently been given the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Chris could carry her piggyback up and down the stairs for the time being, but that wasn’t sustainable. The Ballwin ranch made more sense. When they toured it, Molly found it easy to navigate in her wheelchair. They noticed that the sellers had artwork of an elephant and a giraffe—the Ayalas’ favorite animals. The couple also owned a dog, and the Ayalas planned to get a therapy dog for Molly. All of these details went into their page-long letter, which was accompanied by a photo of them together, smiling.
“It is clear that you loved your house and that it will be attractive to many buyers,” they wrote in closing, “but we would be honored to continue that tradition of caring for what we hope is our forever home.” Within days, the sellers accepted their offer.
Buyer letters (known also in real estate as “love letters” or “personal interest letters”) are not new. Fierce competition in the housing market, however, has buyers looking for an edge, and multiple sources tell Design STL that more and more buyers think that a letter will provide it. In Molly and Chris Ayala’s case, it worked.
“It’s something that’s on the increase,” says Terry Moore, executive director of the Missouri Real Estate Commission. “Within the last year, we’ve had more real estate people inquiring about the legality of it.” Moore’s answer? No rule, regulation, or statute prohibits letter-writing. Some agents even encourage it, Design has learned.
Yet Steve Graham, general counsel for Missouri Realtors, views such correspondence as an ethical and legal minefield. Both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibit buyers and sellers from making decisions on the basis of race or color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or familial status. Buyers often reveal such information in their letters; a personal photo says a lot, too. The danger is that a bidder who doesn’t get the contract will file suit under those laws.
“I can’t say just because you submit a love letter or someone reads it that it’s ipso facto a violation of the law,” Graham says. “I’ve not seen many cases. But it’s not a good set of optics or facts.”
Graham, a father of four, has fond memories of raising his children in his house. If he were to sell it, he explains, he might feel gratified to know that a young family would move in and recreate that atmosphere. But choosing a bidder on that basis (i.e., familial status) would be illegal if it’s discriminatory against single people or same-sex couples with no children.
“It’s not going to be an easy case to prove,” says Graham, “but the reality is people are going to dozens and dozens of houses and they’re submitting good, solid offers above list price and then they don’t get the house. After a while, that takes a toll on buyers.”
So in mid-March, Graham says, Missouri Realtors sent out a page of written guidance to the group’s roughly 24,000 realtors, who account for about half of licensees in Missouri. The document warns of unconscious bias and the legal pitfalls of buyer letters. It further advises that if sellers wish to accept letters, they should accept all of them rather than pick and choose. If sellers don’t feel comfortable with letters at all, they should instruct their agents to reject them. The Missouri Realtors group has made that choice more explicit by including it in its “Standard Listing Contract” form.
Beth Schultz, a realtor at Dielmann-Sotheby’s, argues that when the market is this hot, letters don’t matter as much as they used to. “When you have 12 offers, the people writing letters are not necessarily who’s getting picked,” says Schultz. “The ones getting picked are the people offering $20,000 more, no appraisal rider, no financing contingency—the cleanest contract and a guarantee to close.”
Another potential pitfall of the letters: Agents may or may not fact-check the contents. “I’d never submit a letter if I knew people were lying,” says Schultz, “but it’s a catfight out there. I can’t say it doesn’t happen.”
Jenifer Garcia, owner of Garcia Properties, says she learned this lesson the hard way. About eight years ago, she recounts, she was representing a kind and elderly couple trying to sell their house. They received multiple bids, but one stood out: an offer from a woman who wrote that she’d fallen on hard times. Garcia had never seen a buyer’s letter so she passed it along to her clients. They were so touched that they accepted it over an offer $25,000 higher. But once the letter-writer had her foot in the door, Garcia says, she made several bad-faith objections that postponed the sale, placing the house in market limbo. Eventually, the transaction collapsed and the sellers found a different buyer. “After that awful experience,” Garcia says, “I changed the way I handle those.” Garcia says she now explains the risks of letters to her clients, most of whom then decide to ignore them.
Sellers Erika and Ryan Beeler, however, recently went the other way—and don’t regret it. Last January, just days after putting their Ballwin ranch house on the market, they had three serious offers all within a few thousand dollars of one another. The second-highest bidders were the Ayalas—the couple working through a life-changing M.S. diagnosis. The Ayalas submitted their one-page letter in which they mentioned the therapy dog. “They had me,” recalls Erika. “We’re animal lovers. I started crying the minute I read that and I thought, ‘These guys are getting the house.’” So they did.
As for the Ayalas, they say their new house is starting to feel more like home (and that they have a deposit down for a female golden retriever puppy). “With the letters,” Molly advises, “Just be honest. I’m really glad we were open about talking about my diagnosis and just our lives in general.” Chris agrees. “The people who owned this house were compassionate people,” he says. “We got lucky.”
Originally Appeared Here