When Christina and Alexander Vaughan looked to buy a home this spring, the first open house they attended drew more than 20 families. The couple ultimately bid on three homes, losing on each one.

On their fourth offer, for a four-bedroom house in Fishers, Ind., they wrote the sellers a personal letter. They were first-time buyers, the letter said, and it noted that Mr. Vaughan and one of the sellers both attended Purdue University. Their offer was accepted over higher competing bids.

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