Love Letters OR No Love Letters? What You Need to Know About Fair Housing Laws
December 22, 2019
Let’s say you have found the perfect home, written the perfect offer, and are still looking for a competitive edge to win the bid. Many buyers have embraced the idea of writing a personal letter to the seller. While this is a great idea, it can be fraught with potential problems to the seller if making a decision based on the letter.
First, as you consider writing a letter to the seller, it’s crucial to understand the nature of Fair Housing. Fair Housing laws have been passed to protect people from discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and limitations in housing, lending, and other housing activities. These laws protect people with respect to disabilities, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, and familial status. Additionally, in Washington State—and in certain counties within the state—there are additional provisions for protections related to gender identity, sexual orientation, age, political ideology, service animals, retaliation, and more.
When writing a letter to the seller, a buyer would not be in violation of Fair Housing Laws because the buyer, in fact, is not the one making a decision on the offer. The buyer is, essentially, presenting themselves to the seller in hopes that the seller will pick them. The seller is the one who potentially runs the risk of making a decision to sell you their home (or not sell to you) based on one of the discriminating factors listed above that may be reflected in the letter.
By state law, the seller’s agent has a duty to deliver to the seller “all” written communication from a buyer, so this letter would be delivered with the offer. The seller would review all offers and should choose the offer they like based solely on the merits of the offer and the financing (aka the ability of the buyer to pay). The seller should never consider any other factor from a buyer; for example, the seller should not bias their decision toward a straight couple vs. a gay couple, a single person vs. a married couple, or a Chinese couple rather than a Hispanic couple, etc. Biasing their decision on any of these items would be in violation of Fair Housing laws.
The best practice is for the seller’s agent (aka the listing agent) to have an upfront discussion with the seller about Fair Housing laws and the potential violations that could occur if these letters were delivered and decisions were made based upon them. The seller could, in fact, request in advance that the agent does not deliver these so-called “love letters” in order to protect themselves from any potential violation. This way the seller could make an unbiased business decision based on the merits of the offer—not the people.
Many Buyers believe that by writing a love letter, they gain an advantage over another buyer who chooses not to submit a letter, and this is often true. But, like best practices for the seller, a buyer should be careful in crafting a letter to the seller. You want that letter to present you in such a way that will speak to the seller about your love of the property and the amenities—you don’t want your letter to be about you or any other factor that could be used to discriminate against you (whether intentionally or not). This increases your chance of actually having the letter presented with the offer (assuming the seller chooses to see these letters), and not unwittingly cause the seller to violate Fair Housing.
An example of a letter to the seller may be to compliment the seller on the beautiful view, the meticulous maintenance, the beautiful paint and décor, the lovely rose bushes, and the intent to continue to care for the home as the seller did. Here’s a brief example: “When we entered the home, we immediately fell in love. What a privilege it would be to become the next owner to care for this home in this lovely area. I am financially strong and am committed, and I am pre-approved.” You do not want to mention your family or theirs, your disability or theirs, or even the close proximity to a temple or synagogue, etc. Even sending pictures of yourself can be construed as a way that the seller might discriminate. To reiterate this point: Listing agents and sellers need to focus on the merits of the offer, and they should always only consider the offer—not the people.
When used correctly, a genuine Love Letter to the Seller may help you gain an advantage. You should write the letter in a heartfelt and sincere way, and by appealing to the seller’s emotions, it might make all the difference in helping your offer be the one that’s chosen. Buyers—take care not to write anything that may violate fair housing laws. And sellers—take care to make decisions based on the merit of the offer, the likeliness to close, and the financial condition of the buyer. Never make decisions based on the person or the people.
Check out Washington REALTORS® Lawyer, Annie Fitzsimmons discuss more about love letters here.
Learn more about housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act here.