Here’s one of my best tips to improve the chance of selling your land: Send a letter and brochure advertising your parcel for sale to all of your neighbors!
Perhaps you’re thinking: “Nah, I’ve lived here 15 years. I know all my neighbors. They already know my land is for sale. Besides, I have a sign on it. My broker doesn’t need to go to the trouble of writing a bunch of boring letters.”
Well, you’re mistaken! In fact, I’ve increased my sales by 20% just by writing to the neighbors. I’ll explain more on that later. But for now, consider the following points:
1) Your vacant land parcel probably has other vacant land parcels near it. The owners of those parcels may not live nearby and so won’t see the sign. They may live in Oregon, New Jersey, or Canada. You need to let them know about the availability of your parcel by writing to them!
2) Even for those owners who live nearby, getting a personalized invitation in the mail to purchase your land has more impact than just driving by and seeing a sign stuck in the weeds every day. Your neighbors will grow so accustomed to that faded sign that they won’t even see it any more.
3) Delivering something in the mail sends your neighbors send the message that you are serious about selling your land. When they receive your mailing they will likely realize that they are not the only one getting a letter. It will start to dawn on them that if they don’t buy your land someone else will (!) and then they may have a McMansion blocking their view. Or they may wake up one morning and find a single-wide mobile home and bunch of barking dogs on the parcel that they’ve been thinking of as their informal side-yard all these years.
4) Even if the neighbor isn’t interested in purchasing your land, they may know someone who is. If they have a paper brochure in their hand they may give it to a friend or relative.
5) People who already own real estate in your neighborhood don’t need as much convincing about the fabulosity of the area. They may be your best prospects!
6) A letter gives your neighbors a kind of implied “heads up” that they should expect to see strangers (i.e., potential buyers and their agents) out walking on your land. This way they will not fret about it.
7) A mailing gives your broker the opportunity to market their services to the neighbor in selling the neighbor’s property too. This can be helpful to you in selling your parcel for any number of reasons. For example, if your parcel of land is landlocked (i.e., does not have road access or a legal easement) and the neighbor owns the parcel between your land and the road, it would benefit you to have your Realtor list the neighbor’s land for sale simultaneously. This is because a buyer may wish to purchase both parcels. As a second example, if your parcel is too small to build on it might be large enough when combined with the neighbor’s parcel. A third example is when the neighbor owns a home. Sometimes the neighbor will agree to list their home with your Realtor and the buyer will purchase both the home and your adjacent vacant land as a buffer. There are many other scenarios where having your Realtor list the neighbor’s property in addition with yours can be beneficial to you. So having your Realtor write to the neighbors is the first step in seeing if that’s a possibility.
What Should the Letter to the Neighbors Say?
Here’s what my letter says:
“Dear Mary Jones,
I am writing to let you know about the availability of a parcel of land near property that you own in <INSERT CITY>, California. The parcel for sale (parcel number <INSERT APN FOR SALE> at <INSERT ADDRESS FOR SALE>) and your property (parcel number <INSERT NEIGHBOR’S APN>) are shown on the map in the enclosed brochure.
I find that sometimes neighboring property owners are interested in acquiring nearby land. With that in mind, I am writing to ask whether you might be interested in purchasing my client’s parcel? The asking price is only <INSERT PRICE>.
More information is available at www.land22.com.
I would be happy to answer any questions you might have. Or, if you would like to sell lots or land that you own I can help you with that as well. Land22 has offices in Palm Springs and Sacramento and we sell land all over California. I can be reached at (760) 219-3313 Monday-Friday 10-5 or email@example.com anytime.
Thank you for considering this opportunity.
Tammy Tengs, Sc.D.
Land22 Real Estate”
Important Features of the Letter:
1) Keep it short. After all, you will be including a brochure with it that has all the details on your land.
2) The letter should be directed to each neighbor by name, not to “Dear Neighbor”. Your Realtor can look up the names and addresses of your neighbors in title records.
3) Remember, this may not be the only parcel that the neighbor owns. Many people own numerous parcels, sometimes in several states. For this reason, be sure to orient the person reading the letter right off the bat to which of their many parcels you’re writing to them about. So include the city and mention that it’s in California. If it’s in a well-known area within a metropolitan area, put that instead of the city. For example, say it’s in “Malibu” not “Los Angeles”.
4) It’s critical to include not only the parcel number (APN) of the property you’re selling but also the APN of the neighbor’s parcel. This way the neighbor can easily see that the APNs are very similar. This will increase their confidence that the two parcels are near one another. For example if you’re selling APN 1234-567-89 be sure to include that along with the neighbor’s APN 1234-567-90 in the letter so the neighbor will say to herself “hey, those numbers are similar, that has to be right near my land!”
5) If an address for the land you’re selling is available, include that in the letter as well. If an address is unavailable, include just the street the parcel is on. If the parcel is not on a legal street but it is near a legal street say “off <street name>” instead of “on <street name>”. Again, your goal is for the neighbor to immediately think “gee, that’s (just around the corner from) the street my property is on”.
6) The letter must be well-written with no typos. No matter how good a broker you are, you’re going to look dumb if it includes errors. If you’re not the best writer in the world, one way to write an error-free letter is to use the spell- and grammar-check features in your word processing software and keep the letter very short. Write one paragraph and refer neighbors to the longer brochure. If you write a longer letter, ask someone who writes professionally, or who has at least taken a college-level writing course, to review and edit it. A final suggestion is to use the services of an online editor such as Edit Avenue. (I used their services when I was at the University of California Irvine and they are amazing and so helpful!) After you have confidence that this first letter is grammatical and well-written, you can re-use it as a template on future properties so if you choose an editing service, you only need to pay for it once.
7) If you don’t want to create multiple original letters for multiple neighbors, learn how to use the mail merge feature in your word processing software. Create a little data file of the names, addresses, and parcel numbers and merge them into a single form letter so that the letter appears customized for each neighbor.
Important Features of the Envelope
You’re probably going to think I’ve gone off my rocker discussing features of the envelope. But if you’re going to go to all this trouble to send this mailing, you don’t want your neighbors to toss the envelope in the trash without even opening it because they mistake it for junk mail!
Direct marketing researchers actually study response rates for various features of envelopes, did you know that? Based on their research here are my tips for your envelope:
1) Use colorful stamps. Do not use the standard flag stamps and never meter the envelopes. Instead of making repeated trips to the post office, buy several hundred stamps at a time. Any crazy stamp will do. The less staid it is the more likely your letter will look personal and the more likely the recipient will open it.
2) The return address should be the Realtor’s first and last name and mailing address. It should not include the real estate company name or the neighbor might toss it without even opening it thinking that it is just another general solicitation from a Realtor. (The letter inside should be on company letterhead however, because by the time they see the letter they have already opened the envelope.)
3) Do not use address labels or see-through window envelopes. Print, type or handwrite the neighbor’s address directly onto the envelope. You do not want it to look like a mass mailing. It should look like personal correspondence.
4) Use the neighbor’s actual name whenever possible. For example if the property is officially owned by the “Mary Jones Separate Property Trust 1998”, address the envelope (and direct the letter) to just “Mary Jones”.
5) Omit Mr., Ms. or Mrs. The reason is that you don’t want to get it wrong. A Ms. might be offended to be called Mrs. and visa-versa. And a Mr. named Leslie will certainly be offended if you mess up and call him Ms.
The Most Important Feature of the Brochure
I will discuss how to create brochures in general in a future blog post but for now you can see many examples in the PDF brochures posted for listing on the Land22 website. Obviously, the brochure will include things like the price, size of the parcel, zoning, availability of utilities, photos, contact information for the Realtor, etc.
Here I will mention only the single most critical feature of the brochure for the purpose of writing to the neighbors: You must include in the brochure a map where both the property for sale and the neighbor’s property are highlighted. I usually do this on a plat map but you could do it on another type of map such as an aerial map. The purpose of this is to show the neighbor where their property is located relative to the land for sale. For example, if their property is adjacent it’s especially important that they see clearly that the borders of the two properties touch. Use colored highlighting to accomplish that.
In theory you could do the highlighting neatly on the computer but I do it by hand with a colored highlighter pen. The rest of the brochure is computer generated so this hand-drawn touch draws attention and personalizes it. Obviously, the parcel for sale will be highlighted the same way each time, while the highlighting for each neighbor will differ. Be sure to write a note such as “your adjacent property” or “your land across the street” and draw and arrow pointing to the neighbor’s real estate. It is important to include this note because you don’t want the neighbor to get alarmed thinking that you’re mistakenly trying to sell their parcel.
Here is an example. The property for sale is highlighted in yellow and the neighbor’s property is highlighted in pink:
Below is a second example. In this case the parcel for sale is highlighted in orange and the neighbor owned property that is adjacent, but not on the same plat map, highlighted in blue:
Wait, you may be thinking, don’t neighbors already know where their own land is located? No, many do not! And even if they do, most could not locate it on a plat map. Further, they still need to be shown where their land is as it relates to the land your selling. The parcel number (APN) is helpful but not sufficient because most people cannot read plat maps. So pull out that colored highlighter!
Where Do You Get The Mailing Addresses?
If your land is listed for sale with a California Realtor, your agent can easily access the names and addresses of your neighbors from an online title records database. One such database is Realist available to all California real estate agents who belong to a Multiple Listing Service (MLS).
One way an agent can locate the names and addresses in Realist is to use the parcel number (APN). For example, if your parcel number is APN 1234-567-89 and the Realtor wants to locate all parcels on the same plat map, she can search on just APN 1234-567 (omitting the -89 at the end). This will generate a list of owners of 1234-567-01, 1234-567-02, etc.
If the parcel you’re selling is located at the corner of a plat map you may wish to search for neighbors on adjacent plat map(s) too. The way I do that is to poke around using the aerial map feature in Realist. I locate the parcel I’m selling on the Realist map and then click on adjacent parcels to see who owns them.
If you have not listed your land for sale with a Realtor, I do not know of any easy systematic way that you can access the names and mailing addresses of all of your neighbors. (Further, I could give you 10 or more reasons why you should be selling your land through a Realtor rather than For Sale by Owner, but I’ll save that for another blog post.) If you have listed your property with a Realtor you should certainly not be doing any marketing independent of your Realtor’s efforts, and this includes sending brochures to the neighbors. That would be a violation of your listing agreement. Let your Broker do it, that’s her job.
How Many Neighbors Should You Write To?
The number of neighbors that your broker should send letters and brochures depends on the circumstances. Here are some rules of thumb:
1) Always send a mailing to every property owner who owns real estate directly adjacent at the edges and corners of the parcel for sale. The only exceptions would be if the neighbor was the federal or state government or a bank. For example, if Bank of America owns the house next door, the reason is because they recently foreclosed on it. The bank is not going to be interested in buying your land. Skip them.
2) Always send a mailing to the property owner across the street.
3) Always send a mailing to any property owner who would be disadvantaged for any reason by someone building on this parcel, e.g., because their view would be blocked. These neighbors may be motivated to purchase.
4) Send a mailing to “like” property owners on the same or adjacent plat map. For example, I am currently listing a commercial-zoned parcel that is near other commercial lots but also near residential and multi-family property. I reasoned that the commercial property neighbors are likely to be interested in expanding their commercial holdings but the single family homeowners may be uninterested.
5) Don’t hesitate to write to neighbors some distance away if you think they may be buyers. After all, it’s only costing you a postage stamp and the time to enter one more name into your data file. For example, if you’re selling agricultural acreage, it doesn’t hurt to write to other farm owners a mile away.
6) I often send mailings to 50-100% the property owners on the plat map and several who are on the adjacent plat map. I write to 2-25 neighbors per property, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes I will write to a small handful of the closest neighbors and then, if I don’t get any response from them, I will enlarge the pool and write to those farther away.
7) If the seller drops the price at any point, I send a second mailing with the brochure alone. The revised brochure will show the new price. The parcel for sale will be marked, but I do not repeat the highlighting of the neighbors parcel and I do not send a second letter. The purpose of this second mailing just to get the new lower price in front of the neighbor.
What if You Have Sketchy Neighbors?
What if you, as seller, don’t get along with one or more of the neighbors?
This issue may take many forms. Maybe the neighbor is a drug dealer. Maybe the neighbor’s shed is encroaching on your land and you’ve had a dispute over it. Maybe the neighbor borrowed your lawnmower and didn’t return it for 3 months. Maybe the neighbor has a Romney sign in his front yard and you’re a die-hard Obama supporter. Maybe the neighbor would not give you the easement for access that you asked for.
Well first, remember that all you’re trying to do now is sell your land. Don’t let issues like this prevent you from achieving your goal. Second, remember it is your Realtor, not you, who will be writing these letters. And it is your Realtor, not you, who will be responding to any inquiries from neighbors who express interest in purchasing your land. You will never have to talk to the sketchy neighbor regarding the sale of your land, even if they submit an offer. It’s purely a paperwork thing. Third, some of these so-called “problems” can actually be blessings and work to your advantage when you go to sell your land. For example, if the neighbor’s shed is encroaching on your land, one way for the neighbor to solve this issue is to simply buy your land. The neighbor can then go down to the city or county and try to combine your parcel with their parcel or do a lot-line adjustment. Problem solved. Further, the neighbor who will not give you an easement may want to buy your adjacent parcel just to prevent some other buyer from purchasing your land and continuing to ask him for an easement. To repeat, what may seem like a problem can actually be a benefit to you because it can motivate a neighbor to buy your land. But you must keep in mind that the goal is not to “win” or get along with the neighbor. The goal is to sell your land.
However, if you feel it’s absolutely necessary you can always suggest to your Realtor that they not send letters to one or more select neighbors. I don’t necessarily recommend holding back letters in this way, but maybe you have a good reason that I can’t imagine right now. In any case, your broker should still go ahead and send a mailing to all the rest.
True story: I was representing a seller in southern California one time and I mentioned to her that I was sending letters and brochures to the nearby land owners. She grew a little alarmed and told me not to send anything to one particular neighbor. I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t ask why, but I agreed. A few months later the seller decided to lower the price on her land. As I prepared to send a second mailing with the new price, she said it was OK for me to send a mailing to all neighbors including the neighbor originally passed over. So, who calls me to submit an offer? It was that one neighbor! It turned out she was the seller’s sister! Their parents had left one half of the family farm to each sister in their will. The sisters had had a falling out for reasons I never knew and had not spoken in some time. The seller’s sister interpreted my letter as a kind of olive branch extended by her sibling (and perhaps it was unbenounced to me). The sister was so happy to have the chance to buy the land, she submitted a full price offer and agreed to pay most of the closing costs. After escrow closed, sister called sister to thank her. The siblings ended up talking again and the both parcels comprising the “family farm” were intact once more.
Alternatives to US Mail
If you’re under age 30, you might be wondering why I’m recommending snail mail.
Why not just e-mail the notice to the neighbors, or Facebook them or Tweet them? Or for that matter, why not pick up the phone and call? The reason is that none of this contact information is associated with their parcel number in title records. Only their mailing address appears there. I know you might have the phone number of the neighbor next door, but you probably don’t have the phone number of the neighbor who owns California land two blocks away from your parcel but lives in Wisconsin.
If you want to spend time sleuthing on-line trying to figure out alternate contact information, such as their e-mail address, that might also work, but it does not seem worth the additional effort.
If you’re selling a $1 million+ parcel and really want to get the attention of select neighbors you might send your letter and fancy brochure by Federal Express.
Results from Writing to the Neighbors:
Why did I choose the two examples above? Why did I show you those particular highlighted plat maps? Because both of those parcels actually sold to the neighbors!
For the first property, I wrote to nine neighbors and received phone calls from two of them. The seller, who lived in another state and was not in communication with his neighbors on this vacant land parcel, accepted a full price offer from the neighbor highlighted above before another neighbor’s daughter got around to deciding to submit a second offer.
In the second example, title records revealed that two landowners dominated ownership of all the lots in that immediate area. So I sent only two letters. The landowner who owned the fewest parcels called to submit an offer. This buyer lived several hundred miles away and might never have known about the availability of this parcel if I had not written a letter.
Out of 59 parcels I’ve sold so far in 2012, I have sold 10 to neighbors who received my mailing. Many of these neighbors lived far away from the land for sale. If we do the math, this means that if I had not sent these mailings to the neighbors on every one of my listings I might have sold 49 parcels instead of 59 parcels. Thus, by writing to the neighbors on all of my listings, I may have improved the odds of selling each client’s parcels by up to 20%.
Advice to Sellers:
Would you like to improve the probability of selling your land by 20%? E-mail this blog post to your Realtor. Suggest that one marketing method she should use is to send letters and brochures to the neighbors.
Advice to Agents:
Forget ancient (and sometimes costly) marketing methods such as advertising in print newspapers. Write to the neighbors!
I won’t lie. This will take you some time especially if you haven’t done it before. If you follow all of the steps I’ve outlined here, it may take you about 8 hours the first time you do it.
Let’s go over the steps again: 1) Create an attractive brochure. The most time-consuming part of this is researching and assembling all the information that you want to put into the brochure such as zoning, utilities and aerial maps. 2) Search title records for the neighbors mailing addresses. 3) Enter the neighbor’s names, addresses, and parcel numbers into a database or data file via export/import, cut and paste, or manual data entry. 4) Compose the letter to the neighbors. 5) Figure out how to do mail merge if you don’t already know. 6) Buy some colorful stamps at the post office. 7) Print out the envelopes, letters and brochures. 8) Highlight the parcel for sale and the neighbor’s parcels, one by one. 9) Fold the letters and brochures and stuff the envelopes. 10) Mail it all and wait for the phone to ring!
If it takes you 8 hours to do this the first time, it will only take you maybe 6 hours the second time you do it. This is because you will have a brochure and letter template that you can edit and recycle. You will have figured out how to do a mail merge. You will already have some colorful stamps left over! I have it down to a system of about 4-5 hours per mailing now.
One caveat is that the parcel really does have to be fairly priced for this marketing strategy to work. If it is over-priced, the neighbors will not bite. Remember, it is the neighbors who are more likely than any other type of buyer to be aware of recent sales in the area and what the land is really worth in the current economy. While a buyer from outside the area may be unfamiliar with local prices, a neighbor will almost certainly not overpay.
The advantage of doing all this work on every listing is, of course, it that you should see a 20% increase in sales. This may translate into a 20% increase in your commission income.
In addition, you may experience other side benefits. Neighbors may call you and ask you to list their land parcel too. They may ask you to list their home. They may refer you to someone they know who wants to sell their real estate elsewhere. I’ve had neighbors file away my brochure and then call me 3 years later and say now they’re ready to list their property and can I help?
Try it! When selling land, write to the neighbors!
What are some of your experiences marketing land to the neighbors?