50 Word Essay Contest House

The outcome throws both visions into doubt, and exposes the risks inherent in such contests. If they go awry, organizers can expect not only a failed sales plan, but a backlash, too.

“We were looking at doing this as a business model,” said Mr. Bares, 43, who bought the land in 2007 for around $750,000, and spent another $350,000 building the cabin, which has a three-car garage beneath it.

Some entrants expressed frustration with the contest, particularly the rule that allowed the organizers to keep the $49 administrative fee. “It is funny that all of that risk gets shifted over to the people who entered,” said Casey Cornwell, 40, a financial consultant and contestant who lives in San Francisco.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna estimate they spent some $50,000 to set up and administer the contest. They hired judges to read the entries; a lawyer to draft the contest rules; and a publicist to promote it. They also made a polished three-minute video set to inspirational music with aerial shots of the property and clips of vacationers on horseback, practicing yoga and fishing in the lake.

Even with the administrative fee, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna said, they stand to lose around $20,000. And they still own the house. “I understand people don’t know us, they don’t know our intent,” Mr. Bares said. “Our intent was always to sell the house.”

On social media, some people doubted the contest’s legitimacy. “Will you be announcing the winner or is this a ploy for free advertising,” Karen Wrenn posted on Facebook.

Another user responded, “Bet no one won.”

Ms. Wrenn, 62, a retired teacher who lives in Wilmington, N.C., said that the contest appeared on her Facebook feed one day and reminded her of the telephone scams designed to target older people, so she steered clear. “When I saw that house, I had to write something about it,” she said. “I don’t believe this is legit.”

But others did enter, like Henry Chamberlain, 54, a cartoonist who lives in Seattle. “I got caught up in the fantasy,” he said. He wrote an essay about how he wanted a quiet retreat and an inheritance to leave to his daughter, who is 21.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna shut down the contest’s social media accounts on May 30 and sent emails to contestants explaining the outcome and their refund policy. But some, including Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Cornwell, did not receive that first email and only learned of the results from a reporter. They both received the email when it was resent on June 5. The muddled messaging struck Mr. Chamberlain as disorganized. “If you’re going to play with people’s dreams, you need to find a way to do them the courtesy of getting things in order,” he said.

Now, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna are asking themselves why so few people participated. Perhaps the guidelines were too strict, or maybe the taxes gave people pause; property taxes run around $11,000 a year, and a winner would have had to pay substantial income taxes.

Sara F. Hawkins, a lawyer who represents the couple, suspects that it might just be hard to draw people to a region without a national reputation. “I think it would be different if we were giving away an apartment in New York City,” she said.

Continue reading the main story

One seemingly unstoppable real estate trend this year has been the write-an-essay-win-a-housecontest, in which homeowners who want to sell their properties in a quicker, more meaningful, or potentially more profitable transaction "gifts" the house to the winning essay writer while recouping costs by amassing entry fees (typically $100 to $200.) As it turns out, this is far from a new scheme. In fact, the folks who offered to give away their historic Maine inn last spring
—a headlining-making event that seemed to have spurred a string of similar contests in recent months—actually acquired the property through an essay contest to begin with, way back in 1993. It's just that the Internet and social media in particular make it easier for these endeavors to go viral and, more importantly, draw enough entries (and accompanying fees) to make it all worthwhile.

As detailed in a new story on The New York Times, however, these contests are not entirely as twee and feel-good as they appear on Facebook feeds. So you want to run or enter a win-a-house essay contest? You'd better read this.

1. First, the math—The Maine inn contest managed to draw over 7,000 entries, which translated into more than $906,000—or just about the property's estimated value. But according to the Times, many similar contests haven't been so successful. Without enough entries to recover costs, owners are often forced to terminate the contests and begin refunding entry fees. Oof.

2. It's not all warm-fuzzies—After the winner of the Maine inn was announced this past June, a Facebook group was created to unite people who thought the contest was rigged. "Fifteen complaints were lodged with the Maine attorney general's office, which led to an inquiry by the State Police," the Timesreports. (The State Police ultimately ruled everything lawful.) And a caveat for any potential contest winners: beware of sore losers. The lucky guy who now runs the Maine inn says losing contestants keep leaving one-star reviews of the place on TripAdvisor and paying him "nasty visits and phones calls."

3. In fact it's more like a part-time job—To avoid the kind of controversy seen in the Maine inn contest, a Virginian couple running a competition for their 35-acre horse farm has gone all out to ensure the process is completely legitimate. These measures include: hiring a trustee to accept entries and remove identifying details, establishing a panel of anonymous judges to make a final decision from 25 finalists chosen by the couple, and setting up a Facebook page that details all the rules for potential contestants. The couple reportedly spendsfour hours a day reading essay entries and explaining rules to possible entrants.

4. Beware, unexpected visitors—A Houston-based realtor who tried a win-a-house essay contest had this to say to the Times: "There were always people walking around and driving by slowly. If someone else does it, I would suggest maybe not living in the place."

5. There's a site for all this—Carolyn Berry, who's behind the Virginia horse farm contest, is chronicling win-a-house contests popping up across the country on this Facebook page; inevitably, she also updates when a contest has been canceled due to insufficient entries.

Do check out the full story on the New York Times.

∙ All House of the Day posts [Curbed]
∙ Write a 200-Word Essay, Win a Historic Inn in Maine [Curbed]
∙ Oh Great, Another of Those Write-an-Essay-to-Win-a-House Contests [Curbed]

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