Lindsey Aldrich Walsh said the onslaught started almost immediately after her husband’s obituary ran in the Houston Chronicle. Both she and her husband, Patrick Walsh, had come into their marriage owning homes, and they had been trying to sell his when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in June of last year; he died in November. That triggered an avalanche of contact from real estate investors wanting to buy one or both houses.
Besides a flurry of mail and texts, Walsh, a lawyer who lives in Houston, was getting up to 20 calls a day as she struggled to maintain equilibrium for herself and the couple’s son, who is now 2. “When someone you love dies, you have so many things you have to do that suck,” she said.
At first she didn’t want to ignore the calls in case they had to do with paperwork related to her husband’s death. She would be at work in a meeting, she recalled, “trying to actually be a human being for a few minutes, and I excuse myself to be preyed on.” She said it got even worse when her husband’s will was probated in February.
Walsh has been on the receiving end of marketing aimed at homeowners in transition, whether they’ve just moved in, are ready to move out — or, like her, are just trying to make it through the day after a devastating loss. Whether that type of marketing crosses an ethical boundary is open to debate, but it is routine because real estate transactions and many life changes are a matter of public record.
Wherever you live, information about real estate transactions is public and fed through a Multiple Listing Service, more commonly known as an MLS. There are hundreds of such systems in the country, each focused on a different geographic location; every state has at least one. Most will let users — primarily brokers and real estate agencies — see the last time a house was sold, for how much, the mortgage terms like who holds the note, and the tax value.
“MLS systems have a built-in public records button” that allows users to see that kind of property information, said Heather Logrippo, president of a real estate marketing company, Expose Yourself PR, and publisher of Distinctive Homes Magazine.
If something happens to you, good or bad, it is likely to show up in other kinds of public records that can be mined for data — and potential customers. Brokers and others can scour obituaries, probate will notices, even marriage and engagement announcements in newspapers and alumni magazines to find potential clients.
When Justin Augustyn and his wife, Kimmie, bought a home in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, in December, they found themselves on numerous mailing lists. “We didn’t move in until after the New Year, and there were already six pink and blue and different-colored envelopes,” he said.
Justin Augustyn said that most contained solicitations for mortgage insurance; they said their products would cover the mortgage should something happen to him or his wife, or would pay what homeowners insurance wouldn’t. Augustyn said he threw those away; he works in insurance as a commercial lines underwriter and underwrites policies on different kinds of properties. He didn’t believe the soliciting companies would cover anything substantial for the fees they wanted him to pay.
“It was nonstop, all these things that make you think it’s urgent, last call, or necessary, and you open it and it’s just more nonsense,” he said.
New homeowners may also receive, as the Augustyns did, move-in packages with flyers for things like blinds, furniture, carpet cleaners and landscaping services as well as coupons for big-box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s and Bed Bath & Beyond. (Augustyn kept and used that last one.)
Logrippo said some brokers will work to cultivate a certain town or neighborhood with a mass mailing of postcards when they list or sell a house there. The goal is to “get somebody to equate my name with selling houses in your neighborhood,” she said. Brokers may also send brochures and magazines related to owning a home, which are published by a third party with brokers paying to have their names put on them.
She said homeowners may receive more of such mailings if they live in a desirable neighborhood or if they’ve lived in a house between seven and 10 years, because that’s how long, on average, someone stays in a home. “It’s very easy for a broker to go into MLS and look up houses valued at over $1 million that haven’t been sold in at least seven years and start marketing to those homeowners.”
Logrippo said that homeowners who tried to sell their houses but took them off the market could expect a flurry of marketing materials, too. “Those are called expired listings. Maybe it didn’t work out with the agent you had, so every agent in town is going to try to get you to sell your house with them,” she said.
She said real estate investors like those who targeted Walsh often run “yellow letter campaigns,” so named because they used to be handwritten on legal pad paper. The investors are typically looking to buy houses for below market value, sometimes from homeowners in distress — like after a death in the family.
Walsh has gotten some of those that look like they’re handwritten on legal paper (although she said they seem computer-generated) or on bright-colored paper, as well as mailers that are more formal and look like wedding invitations. She feels compelled to open those. “We set up a trust fund for my son, so I don’t want to accidentally throw something away,” she said.
The mailings say the transactions are agent-free with no closing costs “but they won’t give you any sort of offer,” she said, adding that other members of her widows support group have gotten them, too.
Logrippo said that while sometimes homeowners do receive handwritten letters from people who really want to buy their homes, it’s rare. She suggested that the best way to sort through real estate mailings was to see whether the senders were affiliated with a local real estate agency or brokerage; otherwise, the mailings were most likely from investors looking to buy houses below market rate.
Walsh throws most of those mailings away, but sometimes she’ll reply to texts to see what their senders say when she throws out a market-rate price for her Houston home, or just to vent. “Sometimes I’m mad at the universe that my husband died,” she said, so “I use them to get my frustrations out by telling them that they’re vultures,” she said.
And sometimes it is not only homeowners who are harassed. After Nicole Cushman’s husband, Luke Haseloff, died of sudden cardiac arrest in September last year, she started getting calls and texts about selling their Jersey City, New Jersey, home. This astounded her, not only because she thought these kinds of solicitations were “gross” but also because the couple rented, not owned.
“It just seems like the most basic research could have turned that up,” she said. Cushman, who works in public health, has since moved out of their Jersey City place, took time to travel and planned to stay with friends in Brooklyn when she returned. She plans to rent, but when she is ready to buy, this experience means she will be cautious about choosing a broker.
Given the “predatory stuff” she has been through, “I want to make sure who I do work with, if I buy, is honest and compassionate,” she said.