Homebuyers’ ‘love letters’ risk fair housing violations, but some think the risk is worth it

“I could imagine the Christmas tree, where it would go and my kids walking down the stairs on Christmas morning,” she said. “I love to cook, so I imagined myself making those family dinners. And I just really visualized myself in this house and kind of tried to express those feelings. “

A photo of the Saco family accompanied the letter.

“Love letters from buyers are a tactic used by some buyers to try to differentiate themselves from a seller, especially in hot markets with low inventory and bidding wars,” the National Association of Realtors said. . on its website in October. “Seemingly harmless, these letters actually raise fair housing issues and may open up real estate professionals and their clients to housing law violations.”

“They often contain personal information and reveal characteristics of the buyer, such as race, religion or family status, which could then be used, knowingly or through unconscious bias, as an illegal basis for a decision to make a decision. seller to accept or reject an offer. “

Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against buyers and tenants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, marital status or disability.

Even seemingly trivial details can risk going against fair housing standards.

Describing children descending the stairs on Christmas morning, for example, “reveals not only the family status of the potential buyer, but also their religion, both of which are protected characteristics,” the Realtors association said.

To avoid potential infractions, Oregon passed a law in June requiring sellers’ agents to “reject any communication other than the usual documents in a real estate transaction, including photographs, provided by a buyer”. It is the first state in the country to adopt such legislation.

Jay Young, executive director of the Southwest Fair Housing Council, said he didn’t expect Arizona to follow suit anytime soon.

“I think a law like this wouldn’t have much of a chance of being successful in Arizona,” Young said. “I don’t think the political climate is such that the state legislature would decide to ban this practice.”

However, the Fair Housing Act applies across the country. Young said sellers who break this law by choosing a buyer based on “protected characteristics” risk prosecution.

A complaint could also be filed with the federal government against the offender, which could result in damages, he said.

But so far, allegations of discrimination in Arizona based on love letters from buyers appear to be rare, if at all.

“Personally, I haven’t heard of any claims or lawsuits arising from a buyer’s love letter to a seller,” said Michelle Lind, CEO of the Arizona Association of Realtors.

And the extent to which these letters actually result in discrimination is unclear.

“I think that’s one of those things that’s really hard to prove,” Young said. “But what we do know is that racism and discrimination have been part of our housing market forever, and there is still a lot of evidence that it is happening today.”

For example, a three-year survey by Newsday published in late 2019 revealed ample evidence of discriminatory practices among real estate agents in Long Island, New York.

Although the Sacos recognize the potential letter problems like theirs, Ernest, who works part-time as a real estate agent, suggested that the love letters could deter investors, who have “snatched up” homes across the valley.

According to a recent report from Realtor.com, the Phoenix metropolitan area is the number one market in the country where the real estate stock is negatively impacted by investors.

“I prefer to sell to someone who is not an investor, no matter if their offer is the best,” said Ernest Saco.

Lind said investors are not protected from discrimination by the Fair Housing Act.

“Certainly, a love letter could tell a seller if their buyer is an investor or if their buyer is someone who is going to use the house as their primary residence,” she said. “If this is important to the seller, it could be a factor.”

Although the sale of a home is an “emotional transaction, sellers are generally more motivated … by the price and the terms,” ​​she said.

But in the case of Sacos, price and emotion seemed to play a role in the seller’s decision to select their offer over five others. After the Sacos sent the letter, they still had to increase their offer. But the letter may have opened the door to that higher bid, Ernest said.

“I don’t know with 100% certainty, but I think they gave us a better chance to get in higher because of the letter,” he said. “In a strange way, maybe they wanted us to get home now that they understood our character and our place in the community.”

The strong sense of community in their new neighborhood was part of the appeal of the house to the Sacos. They also believe that the sellers felt responsible for helping to maintain this sense of community even after they left.

“Everyone on our street has become very close,” said Nadia Saco. “And so I think they take very seriously when a new family moves in, it will be a good choice for the streets.”

However, including a love letter doesn’t always guarantee a successful offer. The Sacos made offers on two more homes before finally landing at their new home, and one of those offers also included a letter, they said. And it didn’t always work for Ernest Saco’s clients, either.

Still, he encourages homebuyers to do whatever it takes to land their dream home.

“Usually my clients ask me if they need to write a letter,” he said. “My advice to them is generally, whatever you can do to try and make your offer more interesting, I would advise you to do it. Especially if it is a bidding war.

When he represents salespeople, however, he strikes a little different.

“My advice to my salespeople is to always take the emotion out of it and keep it strictly financial,” he said. “What appears to be the higher bid with the least risk is what is in your best interests, and go ahead with it.”

But sometimes that emotion still comes into play for its salespeople.

One of Ernest Saco’s recent clients chose an offer that was “on par with other best deals” but also included a letter outlining the “life course” of the buyer. As the seller had a similar “life course” himself, he gave the buyer the opportunity to increase his offer, said Ernest Saco.

“It helped this person in this situation,” he said.

And he believes that at the end of the day, buyers should be able to voice their hopes and share their stories with sellers.

“Our house is more than wood and stucco. This is where we raise our family. This is where we spend most of our time, ”said Ernest Saco.

“To have a way of showing someone that your house will be in good hands, the house that you have spent your life in, I think that is a positive thing – if prejudices can be removed and discrimination can be deleted, “he said.

REMARK: If you believe you have experienced housing discrimination, as a buyer or tenant, contact the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office at 602-542-5263, or email CivilRightsInfo @ azag.gov. The Southwest Fair Housing Council also offers services to help potential victims. Its website is swfhc.com.

Article by Rob Winder, Cronkite News

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