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RI POLITICS

R.I. bill would ban ‘love letters’ from prospective home buyers

“This practice could inadvertently result in redlining,” Representative Terri Cortvriend told a House committee

In a hot market, home buyers use "love letters" to try to get an edge.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The letters come packed with all the passion of a new romance, only the ardor is directed at features such as granite countertops and built-in bookshelves.

“When we walked into your house, we both internally gasped,” one prospective home buyer in Rhode Island wrote. “I think my partner was holding back tears when we saw your kitchen.”

Often, the letters come with family photographs and personal details.

“As soon as I walked into the guest room upstairs, I envisioned precisely what it would look like to have the girls’ room and all their toys scattered about,” another prospective home buyer wrote, including a photo with two young girls identified as “cutie on the left” and “cutie on the right.” “Stepping into your house, I instantly knew it was more than just a house — it is a home.”

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Amid an overheated housing market, increasingly desperate home buyers are writing “love letters” in the hunt for their dream homes. And while the letters can be heartwarming, there is also increasing concern that they could allow unconscious or even conscious bias to creep into the home-selling process, if owners choose a buyer based on whose story they can relate to most. That means that in the end, sales could hinge on factors such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or family status, rather than simply financial considerations.

So in Rhode Island, a state legislator has introduced a bill that would prohibit a seller’s agent from receiving love letters when accepting offers to purchase a home.

Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, said she got the idea after hearing a National Public Radio story about how Oregon last year became the first state to outlaw the letters.

“This practice could inadvertently result in redlining,” Cortvriend told a House committee last week. “The housing climate recently has been so hot and when you have so many buyers putting in offers for one single home, it seemed like we have a ripe environment for this to potentially happen.”

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In Massachusetts, many real estate agents aren’t waiting for a change in the law — they are implementing policies to discourage love letters.

Liz Bone, owner broker of South Shore Sotheby’s International Realty, said most real estate agents in her area are now following guidelines that aim to keep such letters out of what should be a purely business transaction.

“The issue we see is that you could create discrimination, not intentionally, because you say, ‘Hey, I wanted to sell to a family,’ but what about those who don’t have kids?” she said. “With so many people vying for the same property, we are trying to keep everyone on the same level playing field.”

Also, with the housing market so competitive, agents are trying to ensure that home sellers and agents don’t end up getting sued for discrimination, Bone said. “Everyone is out to sue everyone,” she said. “When you have multiple offers, you are looking at what is the cleanest and safest offer to accept to assure that you will close.”

Dino Confalone, immediate past president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, said that while no law prohibits love letters in Massachusetts, “they are frowned upon” because of the possibility of discrimination.

“If there are two love letters and the seller chooses one over the other because of race or another protected class, it’s a humongous liability for the realtor,” Confalone said. “We have to be careful.”

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When the housing market began to heat up in 2013 and 2014, “People started to try to differentiate themselves,” he said, “and they started writing love letters.”

David A. Salvatore, government affairs director for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, said the association has been warning its members about the potential pitfalls of love letters for more than a year.

“They’re dangerous,” he said. “It’s not a practice that should be tolerated in the real estate industry.”

On its website, the association encourages sellers to evaluate offers based on objective criteria, such as price, terms, and financial qualifications. And it discourages receiving letters or photos “that indicate the buyer’s race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected class status.”

Salvatore, who is also a Providence City Council member, thanked Cortvriend for submitting her bill, but warned that it’s based on the language of the Oregon law, which now faces a legal challenge.

In March, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, saying the Oregon law violates the First Amendment by restricting free speech too broadly. The conservative Pacific Legal Foundation had filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

Salvatore said the Rhode Island bill contains the same language as the Oregon law: “In order 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 and this section, a seller’s agent shall reject any communication other than customary documents in a real estate transaction, including photographs, provided by a buyer.”

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The legal issue is that the law doesn’t specify what “customary documents” include and doesn’t specifically prohibit love letters, Salvatore said, so the law “would ban any written communication between a buyer and a seller.”

During a House Municipal Government and Housing Committee meeting, Cortvriend acknowledged the concerns. “Maybe the language in this bill is too broad, so we might have to work on redefining it a little bit,” she said.

John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, testified before the committee on another bill, but first talked about how he had received at least a half-dozen love letters when he sold his house a year ago. The letters included personal details about the prospective buyers’ lives, along with photos of their children and pets, he said, making clear he was not speaking on behalf of the organization.

The letters — which mentioned the prospective buyers who gasped upon entering the kitchen and who pictured toys scattered around the guest room — seemed to be aimed at pulling “on our heart strings” to try to gain a competitive advantage, he said.

“This is happening as houses are being sold,” Marion told the committee. “The bias is real.”

He said one of the letters came from a young couple who seemed very similar to him and his wife when they were looking to buy their first home. He said they did not sell the house to that couple, and the decision ultimately came down to the terms of the purchase.

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But, Marion said, “I absolutely believe implicit and explicit bias could creep in through this use of love letters.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.