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14 reference letter dos and don'ts for getting your co-op board package to the top of the stack

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All co-op boards require personal letters of reference from prospective buyers. They are references written by close friends who can vouch faithfully for your character. Typically, two to four are required, printed in duplicates. Here are some rules of thumb for how to make sure yours don't get tossed aside.

1. Pick the right people

Reference letters should be written by people who have known you for a long enough time that they can fill a full-page double spaced with information about you. It helps if they are co-op owners themselves.

“When you are applying for a co-op, the one thing that goes a long way are people recommending who live in co-ops,” says Burt Savitsky, a broker at Brown Harris Stevens who sells co-ops. “They have the ability to say, ‘I am a shareholder or officer in a co-op myself and that is why I can recommend Mr. or Ms. so-and-so.’”

One common pitfall, Savisky says, is that people have a tendency to write the letters about themselves rather than the applicant.

“Writing stuff like, ‘I am senior vice president at my firm and I ran six marathons and broke the four-minute mile,’ doesn’t help. It really should be a letter about how you know the individuals,” he says.

As such, a reference letter should be filled with personal anecdotes like, “I’ve known Bob and Mary for 20 years. We raised our kids together. They were my neighbors in Maine every summer. We have traveled with them and spent time in their home.”

2. Stay away from your mom, boss, celebrities and clergy members 

In the not so distant past, co-ops had a reputation for being discriminatory against minorities. We might all like to to believe that discrimination no longer exists in New York housing, but it is still best to not tip off the board as to your personal beliefs.

“You don’t want to get into religion. It should be more general. You don’t want your rabbi or priest writing that they pray with you every Friday night,” Savitsky says. “[Prejudice] is not supposed to exist[...] But just avoid it.”

Avoid trying to name-drop. If you know a bigshot, great, but the board won't care, and may even judge you unfavorably for trying to flaunt your status. 

“Boards are not impressed with references from celebrities and politicians,” Savitsky says. “If a prominent person happens to know you well, is New York resident and a co-op owner, then great. But to go out of your way to dangle an important name is just showing off and not something the board appreciates.”

Your mom, and all other family members, are a no-go because, lets face it, they are a little biased. Your boss is inappropriate for your personal reference because you'll also need a professional reference for your board package. Tap him or her for that.

3. Give your references example letters

You can’t expect your friends to get it right out of the gate, so give a sample letter to guide them. Your broker should have a few, and of course we have a lot of samples here and here. But beware: make sure that you give out multiple samples with multiple structures lest your letters come in looking suspiciously similar.

4. Use letterhead

“Letters to the board should be written on personal letterhead,” Savitsky says.

If your references don’t have personal letterhead, don’t sweat it. You can make some easily using a word processor template.

Raised fonts like you would receive from a professional printer are a nice touch but unnecessary. The quality of the paper also doesn't matter. If you don’t have existing letterhead stationary handy, plain old copy paper works just fine.

5. Stay away from Comic Sans

Barring fonts that are illegible or really unprofessional looking, most fonts are okay. You might just have to trust the good taste of your friends on this one.

Savitsky likes Imprint Shadow and Castellar. But plain old Times New Roman also works. It is nice to have a different but complementary font in the header, though.

6. Handwritten letters can be nice

In an age of mass production, having a reference write a letter longhand can be a warm and personal gesture. Just make sure that when it is submitted, a typed transcription is attached in case one of the board members struggles with your friend’s penmanship. 

7. Remember how to address a formal letter

Elementary school was a long time ago, but it is essential that the letter be laid out correctly.

The date goes in the top left-hand corner and below that the building address. Below that is the subject. Write “Re: purchase of apartment 123ABC” at the building address, Savitsky says.

Google can definitely be your friend.

8. We repeat, personally address your letters! 

“It’s a pet peeve of mine, but I can’t tell you how many times letters come in addressed ‘To whom it may concern,’” Savitsky says. “For a board member that is like scraping against a chalkboard. It is completely insulting. These people want to be treated as if what they are doing is really important.”

He recommends addressing letters to “Ladies and gentlemen of the board,” “ Dear board of directors,” or, best yet, “The board of directors, ABC corporation.”

“Never, never, never write, ‘To whom it may concern,” he says.

If a friend does begin their letter in this impersonal manner, go back, blame it on the broker if you must, and ask them to write and readdress the letter. It is that important.

9. Proofread the letter

It might feel weird, but you need to read your letters of reference before they are sent. You don’t want something negative to slip by. Worse yet, a typo. If there is a problem, ask for revision.

10. Never mail the letter to the building

It happens all too often, Savitsky says, but letters should be a part of the package and never sent directly to the building.

If a letter goes directly to the building, it will get lost or be read by the board members without the context of the full board package, and that can be damaging to the application.

11. Ask for more letters than you need

If the board wants four letters, Savitsky recommend asking for six.

“That way you can pick and choose the best possible references,” he explains.

He says there are inevitably some stinkers.

12. Ask your friends early

Asking for reference letters should be one of the first things you do in the application process. People tend to forget, or put off the chore, and it can delay the whole deal.

13. Ask your friends to be specific

“Saying, ‘They have high more character is too vague,” Savitsky says. “ Make sure the references are very specific and give examples. Say, ‘I know them to be very generous. They donate their time to causes including, X, Y, and Z. They host an event every summer that raises money for such and such cause.”

The letters shouldn't mention money, though. Exact dollar figures are in bad taste.

14. Don’t fold the letters

Folding a letter up into an envelope is a no-no. Letters should be mailed flat directly to the broker.

 

 

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