The sender’s name is blacked out, but the screenshot has all the markings of a potential Twitter firestorm.
“DO NOT INCLUDE A STUPID LETTER WITH STUPID FAMILY PHOTOS OF YOUR BUYERS SHOWING OFF HOW CUTE THEY LOOK. The seller has NO PROBLEM selling this house to ugly people,” reads the alleged emailed response from a seller agent to a submitted offer. It goes on to suggest that should the prospective buyers feel so inclined, a “cute picture of their bank account and credit score” would suffice.
While the validity of this response -- and the identity of its author -- remain unconfirmed (including rumours they’re representing themselves as a seller, hence their overtly brash response), it’s caused quite a stir among Twitter real estate circles, with responses ranging from disgraced display to chuckles.
It has also prompted some timely discourse: in a market as tight as today’s, do buyers have any business using a personal letter as an offer tactic?
According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, there were fewer properties for sale across the nation in December than any other time on record, as new listings fell 3.2% from November. This is even more acute in Canada’s largest markets; just 3,200 homes were available for sale in the Greater Toronto Area -- a region with a population of 6.5 million people -- last month, a stat staggering enough to gain the attention of some of our American friends.
Reports of homes receiving hundreds of showings and offers are now becoming commonplace, driving prices to new highs for seemingly basic houses in previously affordable markets. With this in mind, what value lies in pulling sellers’ heartstrings?
“Show Me the Money” Energy
“I’m finding in today’s market, it’s not as effective as it once was, compared to the same time last year or the year before because the competition is way too strong,” says Jelani Smith, an agent with RE/MAX Millennium Real Estate. “A lot of these listings are getting 100 showings in the span of five days -- I had this one listing and in two days it got 30 showings, and that’s for a one-bedroom condo. A lot of sellers are gravitating towards the ‘show me the money’ energy, as opposed to ‘who’s buying the house?’”
But, he adds, it’s still worth giving it a try. “My advice to buyers is, it doesn’t hurt to try the letter. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, there’s no harm in attaching it."
This sentiment is echoed by several other agents who say anything that could possibly give a buyer a leg up in today’s market madness is a worthy pursuit, though it really depends on the sellers’ motivations.
“From my experience, investor sellers don’t care about reading a letter. If it was a tenanted property, most likely, they don’t really care. The only reason they would care about the buyer is to do due diligence on whether these people are going to be able to close,” says Nasma Ali, Broker and Founder at One Group Real Estate, and the original poster of the screenshot on Twitter.
She says her sellers are more so concerned with the financials, such as the size of the buyer’s down payment, whether or not they’re a first-time buyer, and whether they’ll be able to fund the mortgage should there be an appraisal risk on the property.
On the flip side, though, she says end-user sellers -- families and couples -- often instruct her to get personal information on potential buyers. “They’re thinking, ‘We want to know who’s going to take our house, because this is valuable to us. We love our neighbours, we love our street, we want to give it to people who are good, who aren’t investors who are just going to rent it out.”
Those good intentions can flip pretty quickly when push comes to shove on offer night, however, should her clients get one that truly stands out from the rest.
“If the gap is big, everything is out the window -- everything! The letters are out the window, the photos, the gut feeling about people, or if it’s a conditional offer -- that’s not a real offer, that’s imaginary,” she adds.
In Scott Ingram's experience, the vast majority of transactions are decided by the bottom line, though a letter can occasionally pose as a tiebreaker.
“This is a business transaction,” says the chartered accountant and realtor at Century 21, Regal Realty Inc. Brokerage. “If you’re a seller and you’re looking at dollars and cents here on your asset, if A and B are tied, and I perhaps liked one person, or I liked working with their agent better, if there’s something to differentiate before I go to a coin flip, that can make a difference.”
“There may be some soft-hearted little old lady selling her place of 60 years that wants another family to get in there, but that’s in the vast minority, I would say.”
It Worked for Us
Would-be buyers need not despair, however; homeowner Leah Pollock is proof positive that including a personal letter can indeed win the house. She and her family managed to score their house in Toronto's The Pocket neighbourhood (Gerrard and Jones area) in February 2021: the peak of the pandemic-induced, record-smashing buying season. After submitting five offers in the $1.2 - $1.5-million range, they lucked out on a place with a deeply personal history -- and including the letter helped seal the deal.
“Our realtor’s advice was to put a letter and photo, with our daughter, on every house we put an offer in on,” she says, adding they initially felt awkward doing so. “It felt like a business transaction, like, why do they need to see this? But in the end, we were all about whatever gets us the house; we were feeling pretty downtrodden after going through bidding wars, and just the stress of putting so much money into one investment.”
Her in? The house was located across the street from her childhood best friend’s, meaning she had first-hand knowledge of the neighbourhood. They also moved aggressively, viewing the house the second day it hit the market, and submitting an offer immediately.
“We had seen enough houses and had put enough offers in at that point, and we knew it was a good house. It already had an inspection available from the seller, and the owners were accepting pre-emptive offers. We saw the house at noon, had an offer in at 2 pm, and they had accepted it by 3:30 pm.”
“We customized the letter to say that we knew the neighbourhood really well, that my childhood best friend lived across the street, and how amazing it would be for us to raise our kids together, and that really spoke to the owners because when they bought the house, they had had friends who had lived on the street as well. We were touched by the scenario, that they were passing it on to us.”
When a Personal Touch Does More Harm Than Good
However, the unfortunate truth is that a letter and photo doesn’t always work in a buyer’s favour; in a market that can be rife with discrimination, Ali says she uses her judgement when determining a client’s best approach.
“Sometimes, to be honest, I worry about sending a photo from the buyers’ side, because not everybody is in this perfect little cookie-cutter type image of a family,” she says.
“There is discrimination on both ends. You might find sellers who are people of colour, and they may not want the white couple or family, and they might choose the non-white family. And then vice-versa! Sometimes, when I’m repping buyers I have to think about, would a photo even help us right now? Could it bring discrimination against us? It’s a sad world, but that’s reality.”
“We always like to write the letter, but we may or may not add the photo.”
She adds that while the original Tweet includes some unsavoury language, she appreciates the line about the “ugly people” as that indicates the seller isn’t concerned with selling to a “pretty little family”.
However, she considers its overall tone as ungrateful, given how important multiple offers can be in achieving the best price for a seller client. “Those ‘stupid letters and stupid offers’ -- they’re helping you get a higher price,” she says.
“You need to thank everybody. As a listing agent, not only am I grateful to everybody who’s sending an offer, I appreciate their time. I also feel really bad, because I feel for the agent, and I know they’re running around all over the place, and offering and losing -- I get it, I feel for that agent, it’s frustrating. And I also feel for the families who are also losing and are all over the place. It’s hard.”