If you've so much as dipped your toe into the real estate market the past couple of summers, you know the water in some spots is really, really hot. More than a quarter of homes nationally sold above the asking price in June, according to real estate brokerage Redfin, and homes were on the market for a median of just 36 days.
In some areas, they're selling even faster. In Boston, homes flew off the market in nine days. In Denver, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, the median listing lasted only a week. That means for every listing that took two weeks to sell, there was one that went under contract in a single day. "For buyers competing in this market, it's survival of the fittest," said Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson.
In areas where bidding wars and cash buyers are commonplace, how can a first-time home buyer hope to compete? One simple way to make your offer stand out amid the noise is to write a personal letter to the seller, explaining why you love their home - and why you'd be the perfect buyer.
"Many times it works to send a letter with the offer, trying to appeal to the emotions of the seller," says Jorge Colon, program manager at The Homebuying Mentors, a program of the nonprofit Allston-Brighton Development Corp. in Boston. "Because basically sellers are attached to the property if they're living there, and it's helpful to explain why you want to buy that house and build a life there, maybe start a family there. It's an emotional thing."
"If you're in a multiple bid situation, is it important to have a letter? I usually say it can't hurt, for the most part," says Marie Presti, owner/broker at the Presti Group in Newton, Mass. "But if you do decide to write a letter, make sure it's customized for that house and that market - do not use a generic one," she adds. "You need to specifically talk about what you like about that house."
Presti remembers a house where she could tell the sellers were outdoorsy types by the photos on the walls and the kayak in the basement. "So the buyers wrote a really nice letter, and also said they loved to go biking and hiking, and they loved that the house was on the edge of some conservation land where there were trails across the street," she says. "And that really helped the sellers connect with them. Bottom line, you still need the right offer, but it can really help."
Sarah Korval and her husband Scott Wisnaskas, who purchased their first home in Boston last year, included a letter at their agent's suggestion. Knowing that the owners had recently fenced in the yard after getting a puppy, Korval carefully crafted a dog-centric missive to tug at the seller's heartstrings.
"I wrote the letter from the point of view of one our dogs who loves playing fetch. It was about her excitement over the yard, and all the things she could do in it," Korval says. "I shamelessly included pet photos. I'm not going to lie, it was a strong effort and I was proud of it. I know the money is what bought the house, but I like to think the letter played a role."
But before you bust out your best ballpoint pen, it's important to know that a letter doesn't always make sense or work to your advantage.
"Let me just emphasize that, if you're not in a bidding war, you don't have to write a letter," Presti says. "Some people think they have to write a letter every time they put in an offer automatically. If you're in a normal market, you don't necessarily have to include a letter to win a deal."
In sleepier real estate markets, a letter might come off as a bit much. "That's kind of funny in Germantown, N.Y.," says Katrina Rodabaugh. She and her husband David Szlasa bought their first home, a 19th-century farmhouse in New York's Hudson Valley, in 2015. Rodabaugh, who had lived in Oakland for 10 years prior, says there wasn't the same culture of overbidding or bending over backwards with personal overtures to the seller.
"Friends of ours in the Bay Area trying to buy homes practically had to have their resumes and biographies attached, but we were the only offer on our farmhouse and we bid under asking," Rodabaugh says. "Mind you, we're in a town of 2,000 people and we're two hours north of Manhattan. So it's a fairly slow moving market."
A gushing personal letter can also backfire on a buyer, realtor and lawyer Christine Smith told the Boston Globe. "Say they got their offer accepted and they wrote this lovely letter, and then they do a home inspection and find a couple things they want the seller to address. Not little things. The seller knows how much they want the house, and it kind of weakens [the buyers'] position," she said.
Presti also cautions about getting too personal with a letter — because it's illegal for sellers to discriminate based on race, religion, familial status, national origin, or other protected classes. For one thing, you don't want to be blatantly discriminated against. "Even though it's illegal for them to do that, you don't want to encourage it," Presti said. It can also complicate matters in ways you didn't intend. Say a seller receives two offers at the same price, each with a letter. One is from a married immigrant couple, who says the house is everything they dreamed about while growing up in a different country. The other is from a single parent of a different faith, who writes about what the home would mean to her kids. Both are compelling stories, yet the seller might feel like they're in a difficult position, theoretically discriminating against a protected class no matter which one they accept.
"On the other hand, you want to give them enough information to make an emotional connection to you," Presti said. "It's a fine line."