I have always dreamed of living in a house with a backyard,” wrote Norman to the seller of a two-bedroom Highland Park bungalow in late 2017. “I really hope that you accept my parents’ offer on your house.” His impassioned plea helped his family score the house in a bidding war, despite—or more likely because of—the fact that Norman is a freckled brown-and-white rescue dog. The ode his owners composed isn’t unusual; in the frenzy of Seattle real estate, buyers will do anything to grab a seller’s attention.
Offer letters work, maintains managing broker Kim Colaprete, who leads a Coldwell Banker Bain team. For a desirable listing, bids pour in as inch-high stacks of down payment, close date, and earnest money contracts; the buyer-written top sheet, she says, “gives the seller something to latch onto when all the data points are the same.” Colaprete instructs buyers to think of them as love missives to the house itself. Most compliment the seller’s taste and upkeep, then wax poetic about the neighborhood. Cute snapshots are common.
Epistolary appeals, popular since the real estate boom of the mid-2000s, are on the rise in Seattle’s rabid market, where the single highest price doesn’t always win the day. Details like closing terms and, yes, personal statements can elevate a lower bid. Like, say, an individual with emotion-laden promises of careful upkeep who competes with a builder who plans to raze the place.
What’s wrong with sprinkling a little human soul into the sterile world of real estate? The fact that not all too-cute cover letters are equal. “The dark side of it is, who are you excluding?” says Todd Shively, principal managing broker at Coldwell Banker Bain’s Capitol Hill office. “If it’s about your creative writing skills and the photo of your white family, or your affluent family—some things are protected classes.”
Discriminating against a buyer on the basis of race, nationality, disability, and other categories violates the Fair Housing Act, part of 1968’s Civil Rights Act. But most housing advocates focus on abuses within rental, not purchase, transactions. “It would be beyond illegal,” says Colaprete of sale discrimination. “But it’s hard to prove that’s happening.”
That’s why, while most agents have their buyers write messages, they advise their sellers ignore them. Shively’s team uses a spreadsheet stripped of personal data to compare submissions.
Yes, offer letters are possibly the only fun part of Seattle real estate, besides perhaps crashing open houses with free food. But in the end, says Shively, “Everybody’s got a story. But it doesn’t ever add clarity.”