Write An Essay Win A House

Real Estate

Andrew Bares and Kelly Lavorgna had put their Catskills vacation home on the market twice in the last four years, and no one had bought it. This time around, they are taking a more novel approach: They are holding an essay contest.

For 200 words and $149, someone could walk away owning 391 Woodstone Trail, a two-bedroom cabin on five and a half acres in Bethel, N.Y., about two hours north of New York City. The winner will be the person who best answers the question: “How would owning the lakefront dream home change your life?”

“The reality is, somebody is going to win this house for $149,” said Mr. Bares, 42, and married to Ms. Lavorgna, 57. Since few good things in life are this close to free, whoever wins the home will have to pay property taxes — about $11,000 a year — as well as income taxes, because the prize would be treated as income. The tax could be substantial, depending on the appraised value of the home and the winner’s personal income.

Also, if the contest does not attract 5,500 applicants, bringing in a sum of $819,500 for the house, it will be canceled, and participants will receive a $100 refund. The remaining $49 becomes a nonrefundable administrative fee.

If the contest is a success, the couple plan to start an online platform so that other sellers can follow their lead.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna are among a small group to try this unconventional sales method. In 2015, for example, an innkeeper in Maine dispensed with her bed-and-breakfast through an essay contest; she had acquired it in the same fashion in 1993. Such contests are uncommon largely because they involve serious legwork, with no guarantee of success. Rather than hammer a “for sale” sign into the lawn and wait for the open house, these sellers have to set up and run a contest, generating enough buzz around a single property to convince thousands of people to gamble on it. Already, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna have had to extend their deadline, originally set for Jan. 31.

So far, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna, who live in New Jersey, have spent about $40,000. They hired a lawyer to establish rules and guidelines, judges to read the entries and a publicist to spark interest. They built a website with a promotional video showcasing the property and its surroundings, located in a gated community called the Chapin Estate. They declined to say how many people have submitted essays, as the contest is continuing.

The contest strategy has the potential to appeal to far more potential buyers than might otherwise purchase homes in the area. “I’m absolutely amazed by who enters these contests,” said Sara F. Hawkins, a lawyer in Phoenix, who has handled about five similar competitions, including the one in Bethel. “They’re from all over, all walks of life.”

In the promotional video, set to inspirational music, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna walk hand-in-hand through the wooded property, roast marshmallows at a campfire and play horseshoes with friends. They have been trying to sell the property because they rarely visit it, which is due in part to the fact that they own two bed-and-breakfasts in Cape May, N.J. The house, just steps from a lake, has a log cabin-y feel, with vaulted ceilings and a stone fireplace.

The video makes it all seem so dreamy. But it also poses the question: If no one was willing to buy the property when it was listed for $825,000 in 2015, why would 5,500 people want to bid on it now?

It all comes down to money, Mr. Bares said.

“I do believe that there are at least 5,500 people who would be willing to pay $149 for a vacation house that’s within two hours of one of the great cities of the world,” he said. “I think that the pool is huge.”

But Christine Vande Vrede, a saleswomen at Chapin Sotheby’s International Realty, with offices in the Chapin Estate, doubts that the pool is so vast. “I don’t see this happening in this neck of the woods,” she said. Unlike internationally famous vacation spots like the Hamptons, people who buy homes in this part of the Catskills “have a regional knowledge,” she said. (Unless, of course, you consider Bethel’s claim to fame, as the actual location of the Woodstock festival in 1969.)

The Chapin Estate has sprawling Adirondack lodge-style homes spread across 20,000 acres of forested land with lakes and mountain views. One listing asks $6.75 million for a 14,400-square-foot compound with two homes, a horse stable and riding arena. A more modest one asks $775,000 for a three-bedroom lodge.

By contrast, Ms. Vande Vrede described 391 Woodstone Trail as “basically a three-car garage with a finished apartment above it.” She added that “what that home has to offer might not be what our clients are looking for.”

Mr. Bares paid around $750,000 for the land in 2007, before he met Ms. Lavorgna. He spent another $350,000 building the home. If the essay contest is successful, it will have raised nearly as much as the 2015 list price of $825,000. “They are trying to short circuit the market,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers and Consultants, who described the contest as “more of a gimmick than a real contest.”

These types of contests are not without problems. A winner might not comprehend the tax implications, and ultimately be unable to afford the cost of owning and maintaining the property. Contestants who don’t win might challenge the results. There are complicated legal issues associated with holding a national contest, as laws vary from state to state. Without enough contestants, sellers would have to return hundreds, if not thousands, of checks, itself a daunting task.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna see the contest as not only a way to sell a difficult property, but also as the start of a business venture. In addition to their two bed-and-breakfasts, they also own an interior design company. They have been featured on HGTV, on Caribbean Life and Flea Market Flip, where they won $5,000.

Using the essay contest as a model, they are designing an internet platform where sellers could list homes for sale by contest. Initial setup plans would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for access to contest rules, legal plans, promotional materials, social media and a judging platform. Mr. Bares anticipates that the seller would ultimately pay about half the price of a broker’s fee, which is usually about six percent of the selling price.

Their hope rests on the notion that if people can turn their homes into ad hoc bed-and-breakfasts using platforms like Airbnb, what’s stopping them from selling their home in a game of skill? If the entry fee costs about the same as a night on the town, buyers just might take a chance. “Everyone seems to be looking for a deal these days,” Ms. Hawkins, the lawyer, said. “Why not this?”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: Write an Essay, Win This House. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Correction:

An article last Sunday about an essay contest to win a house in the Catskills misspelled the given name of the lawyer handling the competition. She is Sara F. Hawkins, not Sarah.

What do you do when you’ve decided to sell a huge, historic, or expensive property in a small town, but no one can afford it? One trend that’s gaining popularity is to run an essay contest with an entry fee that will cover your costs. The essay part makes the scheme a competition of skill instead of an out-and-out lottery, which is illegal in some places, and they also ensure that the winner is someone who will likely continue the business (though that’s never a sure thing). Generally, the contests stipulate the minimum number of entries required, which would add up to at least the value of the property; if the minimum isn't reached, then the entry fees are refunded.

The upside to these contests is that the property goes to an individual who might not otherwise be able to own such a property or start a small business, and the seller reaps the value of the property without having to sell to deep-pocket corporations. However, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

1. THE TEMPLE THEATER

In January, the proprietors of the Temple Theater in Houlton, Maine launched an essay contest for ownership of the 98-year-old theater, one of the oldest continuously operating movie theaters in the state.

The contest received entries from nearly every state and at least six countries—but unfortunately, it didn't draw the minimum 3500 entries necessary for a winner to be picked, and all the entry fees were returned to the contestants. But one of the entrants, Charles “Charlie” Fortier, was still interested in buying the theater. A Houlton native and author of six books, Fortier wrote about his history with the theater in his essay, titled "Why I'd Be Perfect to Run the Temple Theater": He'd seen Star Wars at the theater twice the very night it opened and nearly died during a showing of Blazing Saddles when he laughed and choked on candy pom poms. “I know how important the Temple is to the community even with the proliferation of Netflix and Redbox and want to dedicate my sunset years to keeping it going so it can instill the same wonder in others that I felt when I was kid,” Fortier wrote, according to the Bangor Daily News.

By April, the theater was Fortier's, and the Temple Cinema is still open under his management.

2. HUMBLE HEART FARM

Humble Heart Farm via Facebook

Last summer, Paul and Leslie Spell launched an essay contest with a $150 entry fee for their goat farm in Elkhart, Alabama. Humble Heart Farm came with 20 acres, a house, dairy equipment, and nearly 100 goats and sheep. The prize also included $20,000 to help the new owners get their business up and running.

The couple planned to take the funds from the contest and move to Costa Rica, where they intended to help their missionary friends run a goat dairy. "We've had a pretty successful run here and I thought it was time for us to go help someone else," Paul told Alabama Today. "By giving people the opportunity of winning the farm and creamery we will be able to help our missionary friends to become self-sufficient and have enough income for day to day expenses."

The Spells planned to pick a winner on October 15, but as the deadline approached, they announced they did not receive the 2500 entries required. The number of entries was so small that they decided against extending the deadline and refunded the entry fees. “I’d thought for sure this would work,” Paul said. “We didn’t get even close.”

3. MIX CUPCAKERIE AND KITCHEN

MIX Cupcakerie & Kitchen via Facebook

In order to relocate her family to Cape Cod, Carole Kelaher put her business, Mix Cupcakerie and Kitchen in Waitsfield, Vermont, up for a contest in 2015. To enter, would-be bakers had to submit an essay and a cupcake recipe along with a $75 fee. The contest prize didn't include the building (Kelaher rented the storefront), but it did include 80 hours of training with Kelaher and two month’s rent as well as money for utilities, supplies, and payroll for the bakery's two employees.

"I wanted to spread out the pool of perspective owners," Kelaher told Vermont Public Radio. "It's not necessarily about being a buyer. It's more about having the love and the ability to do this job."

Kelaher needed to raise $22,000 to give the bakery away, but it was not to be. Despite a crowdfunding campaign to raise donations in addition to the essay contest, Kelaher only raised about half the needed amount of money. There were only 85 entries in the essay contest, so the fees were returned. But the publicity helped Kelaher to sell the business the old-fashioned way, and a new owner took over in July 2015.

4. CENTER LOVELL INN

When Janice Sage decided to retire a year ago, the proprietor of Center Lovell Inn & Restaurant in Lovell, Maine, decided to launch an essay contest to award the inn to a new owner. (Sage had herself won the inn in an essay contest in 1993.) The contest required an entry fee of $125 and a 200-words-or-less essay.

“There’s a lot of very talented people in the restaurant business who would like to have their own place but can’t afford it,” Sage told the Portland Press Herald. “This is a way for them to have the opportunity to try.” She planned to narrow the entries to 20, then turn them over to two judges, who would pick the winner.

Sage received 7255 entries, slightly short of the 7500 entries she’d hoped for, but announced a winner anyway. The contest was won by Prince Roger Adams and his wife, Rose. The pair, who had restored an old inn in the early years of their marriage, seemed especially suited for the job: Rose was a chef, and Prince had experience marketing and managing an inn. "This contest is fortuitous since we now aspire to finally own a place outright; somewhere to share our love of fine food, great wines and entertaining with others," Adams wrote in his essay. "Undoubtedly our passion, hospitality and commitment is the perfect recipe for a successful marriage to the beautiful Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant."

But the transition wasn't seamless. Other entrants complained that the contest was rigged; their complaints spurred a two-month investigation, which found no improprieties. Adams told The New York Times that other entrants have left bad reviews of the inn at TripAdvisor and have been paying him "nasty visits and phones calls."

5. SUSTAINAFEST TINY HOUSE

SustainaFest via Facebook

SustainaFest is a nonprofit organization that works to raise awareness about social, environmental, and economic issues in the Chesapeake Bay region. In 2015, they held an essay contest to award a 210-square-foot home in Washington, D.C., where housing prices are sky-high. The home was evaluated at $76,000. The contest required a $100 entry fee and an essay of 350 or fewer words that answered the question: “What are your keys to living a sustainable lifestyle, and how would owning the SustainaFest Tiny House help you realize your dream of living that lifestyle?" 

The contest was canceled when there weren’t enough entries to cover the costs of constructing the house. But a Texas couple who had submitted three of the entries ended up buying the home for $50,000. “The couple who bought the house decided to downsize and have been living out of an Airstream trailer,” Sustainafest’s Josh Bennett told UrbanTurf. “They started their own business and have decided they need a bit more space so the tiny house will become their primary residence and the trailer will be the business headquarters.”

6. RIVER HOUSE

River House Contest via Facebook

Rhonda Pennington had an idea to find a new owner for her home on the Ohio River in Vevay, Indiana. The 4200-square-foot house has four bedrooms, three full baths, a wrap-around deck, and a view of Kentucky across the river. Since she had no luck selling the home in the conventional manner, Pennington launched an essay contest with a fee of $199. The essays were to be judged by a panel from Hanover College. The contest was announced in August 2015, and the deadline was to be November 30.

But the contest did not get the required 2000 entries. Pennington announced that fact on December 11, when she posted on Facebook that the contest was canceled and entry fees would be refunded. Some entrants were upset over the cancelation, others over the fact that Hanover College pulled out of the contest before the entry deadline with no announcement to the public, and still others were angrily waiting for their refunds, which were not sent out until January 2016. "I'm very disappointed in how this whole thing was handled,” one entrant, Mary DiMarco of Oakland, Maine, told The Indianapolis Star.

The house is still for sale; you can see the listing here.

7. THE HARDWICK GAZETTE


The Hardwick Gazette

Just this month, a new business joined the contest craze. The Hardwick Gazette, a weekly newspaper in Hardwick, Vermont, needs a new owner. The paper has been in business since 1889, and Ross Connelly, the current editor and publisher, is retiring. It could be yours for the price of a $175 entry fee and a 400-word essay "about the entrant’s skills and vision for owning a paid weekly newspaper in the new millennium."

“We want to hear from people who can hold up a mirror in which local citizens can see themselves and gain insights into the lives within their communities,” Connelly says. “We want to hear from people with a passion for local stories that are important, even in the absence of scandal and sensationalism.”

The prize includes the building, office supplies and equipment, furniture, the archives of past editions, and current lists of advertisers, partners, and subscribers. A minimum of 700 entries are needed to complete the contest, but if the maximum of 1889 entries are received, the winner will receivea $5000 cash bonus. You can read more about the contest, including the rules, at the contest's website.

contestsMiss Cellania

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