In this entry I want to explore one of the more treacly, and in some instances controversial, practices in real estate. I’m referring, of course, to the good old letter to the seller from the hopeful buyer.
These letters almost always are essentially the same (and I’ve read dozens of them). A nice couple gives a bit of background information about themselves and their jobs, rave about how much they love the house, and then conclude by saying how excited they would be to build a life there. More often than not there is a picture of them as well. Depending on your perspective, it can be either touching or sappy.
It’s been a long time since I have presented a buyer’s offer in person, but back when that was still a thing and I pulled the letter out of my folder it was typically met with somewhat awkward indifference. But I digress.
The question has always been how effective these letters are, and to what extent they can sway a negotiation.
A few years ago a story broke that had the industry talking. In multiple offers a seller received a letter from prospective buyers and liked them so much that they insisted they get the house, in spite of the fact that their offer was over $100,000 less than the best offer!
The media ran with the story, it became massive click bait and for a while there was a perception that a well written, heart tugging letter could cause a seller to forgo huge sums of money. Inevitable disappointment followed when it became clear this situation was an outlier, and in 10 years I have only heard of something like this a couple of times at most.
That being said, I certainly believe (and have witnessed) a letter to the seller help in the right circumstances, but just not in such a dramatic way.
First, let’s get the dirty business out of the way. For the grand majority of sellers MONEY is what matters most in a sale. And there’s not a thing wrong with that. Assuming all other terms are the same, most sellers will accept the offer for the most money. If they know it’s a nice family on the other side that can be icing on the cake, but not enough to leave money on the table.
I have also had countless examples where our seller gets a nice letter and they end up liking that prospective buyer the most, and even express how much “they hope they get the house”. And in the moment they mean it. But then they get an offer for more money from another buyer, feel bad about it for a few moments and then ultimately move onto the better offer. It happens all the time.
So let’s look at examples when the letter to the seller can actually make a difference.
This is the most common scenario where a nice letter can be beneficial. Picture elderly sellers in a post war bungalow that they have owned for decades. The house is meticulously maintained and pride of ownership beams through. But it’s dated. Retro 70’s funky dated AF.
On offer day they have it narrowed down to the two best offers…
Offer one is very strong, but it is clearly from a builder who is going to knock the bungalow down and rebuild a much larger house.
Offer two is from a nice young couple and it is accompanied by a letter that says how much they love the character of the home and how they will “restore” it to its former glory. It also says how much they look forward to raising a family there. The catch is that it is $10,000 less than the other offer.
Faced with the two scenarios, and the prospect of their beloved home being reduced to a pile of rubble, the sellers don’t bat an eye at passing up $10,000 and happily let the nice young couple have the house. This happens a lot, and I can tell you unequivocally that sellers will play favourites in the course of a negotiation. And in the process they will sometimes leave money on the table.
A DEADLOCKED NEGOTIATION
Last year I was involved on the buy side for a detached East End home. We were in the final two, and after each side improved to their best and final offer I didn’t hear from the selling agent for over an hour. Usually this is an ominous sign, as it generally means they have chosen the other offer and are getting it all signed up before they break the bad news.
Finally I heard from the agent, and she apologized profusely for the wait. She then explained that the 2 offers were effectively the same, and the slightly overwhelmed seller simply couldn’t decide which one to accept. So to assist in her decision the seller was asking for each prospective buyer to write a letter about themselves and why they want to buy her house.
My buyers and I scrambled and then put together a masterful letter that covered all the bases and found the perfect tone. There’s an art to these letters and it’s kind of like mayonnaise. If you lay it on too thick it can be too much of a good thing, but a deft touch is just right.
We gave a final read and edit and sent through the letter. 15 minutes later the agent called to congratulate us on getting the house. The next day the other agent and I were chatting and I asked her why they chose us. She said we referenced a painting in the house in our letter, and it turns out the seller’s husband recently passed away and that was his favourite painting. That seemingly innocuous detail swung the pendulum.
They say in our frenetic digital world the art of writing a letter is lost. You may, however, want to dust off your pad and pen. It could be the difference in your home search.