Oregon to ban ‘gushing' love letters to homeowners from potential buyers

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Oregon to ban ‘gushing’ love letters to homeowners from potential buyers
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Steve Dipaola/Reuters

As Kira Hodgson, 33, rereads the “love letter” she wrote a year ago to the owners of the Portland, Oregon, home she now lives in, she starts to cry. “I can’t believe how vulnerable I was,” she says. “I don’t know any other situation in which you’d sit down and write a gushing letter like this to a stranger.”

Hodgson, a product designer, was living in San Francisco and had been looking for a home in Portland, to be nearer her family as she recovered from breast cancer treatment, when she found a house she loved. “I was seeing other houses go in two or three days on Zillow,” she says. “I knew I had to move quickly and give the sellers whatever I could.”

Her agent told her to use her real estate “love letter”, the buyer’s offer letter, to connect with the sellers who were emotionally attached to the home. Hodgson wrote how she could see herself cuddling her cat by the fireplace (she’d spotted they also had litter trays), baking cookies in the kitchen with her nieces, celebrating life with her friends under the backyard’s pergola. Via LinkedIn, she discovered one of the owners was a reiki healer. “I wrote in the letter that part of me was craving the healing community of the Pacific north-west and that I loved the energy of the house,” she says. “That was definitely true – but I wouldn’t have put it in if I hadn’t thought it would help get me the house.”

Oregon to ban ‘gushing’ love letters to homeowners from potential buyers
© Photograph: Steve Dipaola/Reuters A home on the market in north-west Portland.

The home received three offers. Financially, Hodgson wasn’t offering the most, but the house went to her. When she moved in, the sellers left her a big sage stick and said they’d cleansed the house daily. “I think the letter made the difference,” she says.

From one perspective, the use of these letters is crucial in helping sellers make personal connections with the best buyers in high-demand markets. Brad Twiss, owner of Neighbors Realty in Portland, says: “In any market, sellers are very curious about buyers – some express a desire to find someone who can properly maintain the home or be good neighbors. The buyer letter really scratches that itch for a lot of sellers who wonder about these people on the other side of an offer.” Many sellers include a picture of themselves with their families and pets.

But from another perspective, the letters can introduce discrimination into the home-buying process. “A buyer can hurt their chances of winning if they choose to write a personal letter that forces them to disclose their race, gender, family status, etc.” Twiss explains. “For every client of mine who’s won because of a letter, that means there was another buyer who lost.”

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Under a new law that comes into effect on 1 January in Oregon, real estate love-letter writing will be banned in the state. The legislation was sponsored by the Democratic state representative Mark Meek, a real estate broker himself, and states that sellers’ agents can no longer accept communication from the buyer other than customary documents “to help a seller avoid selecting a buyer based on the buyer’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or familial status as prohibited by the Fair Housing Act”.

Oregon has a history of redlining districts and discriminatory housing policy that kept Black people from living in certain neighborhoods. The new law aims to eliminate conscious or subconscious gatekeeping by sellers when they select who gets to live in their home and their neighborhood after they leave. Equal housing advocates argue that this will help create a more level playing field for people who might otherwise lose out on a home or living in a neighborhood because of who they are.

But the legislation is being challenged by a real estate firm in Bend, Oregon. “Oregon’s ban prohibits this first amendment-protected form of expression,” says Daniel Ortner, an attorney representing Total Real Estate Group, who filed the injunction. “It does so without any justification or any real evidence of discrimination.”

Ortner says that the letters actually help less privileged buyers compete with investment firms looking to buy rental properties as they can show they will love and cherish the property even if they can’t offer as much cash. “Sellers love their properties, neighbors, and communities and want to find someone who will take good care of the house and be a good neighbor,” he says. “Oregon is treating buying and selling a home as nothing more than buying a pair of pants at the self-checkout line at Walmart.” Ortner works for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that says it defends Americans from government overreach and abuse.

Twiss counters: “Of the people challenging this law, I’ll venture to guess that none of them have ever been passed over for a home or job and been forced to wonder if it’s because of the color of their skin or who they love. Privilege makes it hard for people to understand why this is so important for prospective buyers.”

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