Letters From the (Real Estate) Trenches

How heartfelt sentiment (and some stamps) helped us win in a brutal housing market.

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Illustration by Tim Durning

This past fall, after five years of renting in Fairmount, my husband and I finally decided to buy a home of our own in the neighborhood. Now, call me naive — maybe too many hours logged on HGTV? — but I honestly thought that our prequalified mortgage and 20 percent in our pockets meant we’d follow the classic script: We’d find a place, put in an offer, have our agent negotiate with the seller’s agent, and then — voilà! — be happy homeowners.

That isn’t how it went.

In fact, says realtor Karrie Gavin, that’s rarely how it goes these days in Philly. Gavin, a four-year agent with Elfant Wissahickon, prides herself on almost never losing a bidding war — and she’s been in a lot of bidding wars lately. A lot. “The inventory is very low right now, and there’s a high buyer demand,” she says. “I’m seeing a lot of things selling for above the asking price.” Penn’s Fels Institute of Government reports that home prices in fall of 2014 shot up all over the city; average days on market fell from 88 last winter to 67. The takeaway? Gird your loins, buyers: Competition is fierce, especially in hot spots like Fairmount, Grad Ho, Bella Vista, Queen Village, Passyunk Square, even Chestnut Hill and Narberth.

This became clear to us pretty quickly after we lost two places in short order — the second to a couple who put in the same bid as us, only in cash. Cash? I cried to my husband. Who are they? Oprah? (As it happens, Zillow reports that roughly a third of buyers in 2014’s first quarter put in cash offers.)

The home-buying script in tatters, we took to heart some advice offered by our agents, who, like Gavin, have hard-won strategies for helping a buyer’s offer “stand out.” Juergen Lunkwitz and Celeste Weaver, of Realty Mark Cityscape, suggested we contact the owners of homes on the three blocks we loved the most. If we weren’t going to be able to win (or even engage in) bidding wars in this dog-eat-dog market, a little earnest emotion might help us stand out. We liked it. It’s like Juergen says: “Way back, you talked to an agent who knew everyone in town, knew who was thinking about selling, knew the young couple who was looking. Now, it’s everyone just sitting on the couch with Zillow. There’s not a personal connection anymore.”

A double barrier of agent-to-agent parlay with nary a word exchanged between buyer and seller is meant to shield emotions — to preserve the integrity of the business deal. But we were willing to give up some of that cushion at the outset if it meant getting a house we wanted.

So we sent our “Dear Homeowner” letter to 135 homes, saying simply that we were a family of three that wanted to live on your wonderful block, and if you were considering selling, we’d love the heads-up. Within days, the responses came trickling in: six emails and one handwritten letter. In the end, the letter — from a lovely older man, Don, who was looking to downsize but hadn’t yet listed his home — led us to the house we bought. He seemed nice; the house had good vibes. He was happy his home was going to a family.

We surely would have seen Don’s home eventually even if we hadn’t written the letter. But would we have won it? There’s no telling. It was a personal connection that landed us our house. It also landed us, well, a personal connection — an unexpected bonus. When we threw our first dinner party in the new house, it was an informal affair, limited to the three of us, Celeste, Juergen and Don, who brought my son a toy truck. The baby played with it while we all toasted the house.

Originally published as “Letters From the (Real Estate) Trenches” by Christine Speer Lejeune in the January 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.