Personal letters from buyers are sometimes effective but pose risks to sellers.

With Columbus' current top-10 status in Realtor.com's national Hottest Markets index, the love letter a desperate buyer writes to a potential seller has taken on new significance.

Personal letters from buyers began to surface in Central Ohio more often within the past year as the real estate market has tightened, according to local real estate agents. People selling homes often seek common ground with potential buyers, and most importantly, they want a new owner to embrace their house as they have.

For that reason, a love letter written to a potential seller can be valuable, says Kerrick Jackson, a housing adviser with Homeport, which helps low income people find housing. Letters don't guarantee a sale, but in a competitive market buyers seek an emotional edge, he adds.

Sue Van Woerkom, a Realtor with Keller Williams Capital Partners, has had clients write about their pets, after spotting a dog dish at an open house, or about how they got engaged at Disney World after a seller mentioned he liked Disney.

Woerkom adds, “That becomes special to the seller who says, ‘They are just like us and they are going to love our house.'”

“We never saw letters before, but people are now grasping at straws to make sure they are at the top of the pile [of potential buyers],” she says. “Sometimes, if all things are equal, a seller will go to the letter writer.”

Jeff Cotner, of Key Realty, says he does not recommend letters to buyers, but in one instance he had a buyer who pursued, and got, a house that he grew up in that his grandfather and father had built.

“That is the only letter I've done, but I thought it had merit,” he says. “But letters can muddy the waters when a seller sits down to consider multiple offers.”

Certainly, there's a flip side to this letter-writing phenomenon causing both sellers and agents to be cautious. Some letters could even open the door to legal complications.

Certain communication, especially if family pictures are included, could violate the Fair Housing Act, says Sara Walsh, president of the Columbus Board of Realtors and a Realtor with RE/MAX Impact. The Act is designed to protect a buyer or renter from discrimination because of their race, gender, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin.

“It could be unintentional discrimination and if a real estate practitioner is taking part, they can put themselves in harm's way as a participant,” Walsh says.

First-time violators can be fined up to $20,000; subsequent violations could draw penalties ranging from $50,000 to nearly $100,000, depending on circumstances.

“If two or more offers are on the table, it needs to be a business transaction,” says Walsh, adding that the board currently does not have a letter policy. “I've asked people to do some investigation and reach out to civil rights and fair housing groups and get opinions from HUD.”

Her board, as well as some real estate attorneys and brokerage firms have been holding classes and discussions about this issue, she says.

“Those in the trenches are being very cautious,” Walsh adds.