Essay Contests To Win Property Online

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]

Janet and Fred Chapin’s dream house in West Bath, Maine, backs up against woods where bullfrogs croak and wildflowers grow. When they moved there in 2007, they planned to live out the rest of their lives here.

Yet after six years, family responsibilities and a new job meant that the Chapins ended up in Pennsylvania. Now, they’ve put the five-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot home on the market — but not through conventional means. Instead, they’re selling the property through what’s become a new method: the win-a-New England-house essay contest.

“We saw it as a win-win solution,” said Janet Chapin, 65. “We deed our home over to one lucky winner and they get to love the home as much as we do.”

Essay contests have been used to sell B&Bs, houses, and even a movie theater.The idea is to bring in enough entry fees to add up to a reasonable purchase price for the home or business, while making sure the prize goes to someone who will truly appreciate it.

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For an entry fee of $140 and 300 persuasive words — details are at www.winamainehouse.com — the Chapins’ property, including a 1,200-foot guest house, a greenhouse, a sauna, a game room, and a pool table, could be yours, mortgage and lien-free. The Chapins say they could break even with the entry fees of 4,200 contestants — a total of $588,000. (The township appraised the property at about $588,000, Fred Chapin toldthe Times Record in Midcoast Maine.) If they don’t reach that target number of entries, the Chapins will refund the money, keeping only $25 per entrant to pay for the contest expenses, which were paid upfront.

For all the appeal of the essay contest as sales technique, the method can open the door to legal and ethical challenges, as an October article in the New York Times noted. Property owners have faced allegations of unfairness as well as lawsuits. But Matt Stein, an intellectual property and technology attorney with the firm Pierce Atwood in Portland, Maine, said the Chapins’ contest passes muster. “If this is a bona fide contest of skill, it’s permissible under Maine law,” Stein said.

The Chapins say a separate real estate lawyer told them the contest was fair game, as long as the couple was not involved in the judging process. The couple hired a web designer to manage the site and a marketing team to promote the contest, and selected paid college students and local volunteers to read and rate the essays. They’ve also had a lawyer review the rules and scoring rubric. Entries are being accepted only online, with a number assigned to each essay to maintain anonymity.

“Our goal has been to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” Janet Chapin said. “We wanted to make sure our contest was totally impartial.”

The Chapins plan to accept entries until June 20, with the option of extending the contest another month. Janet Chapin’s advice is to simply share your story, without including any personal information, as clearly, concisely, and creatively as possible.

As for the Chapins, they plan to keep following life’s lead.

“After 46 years of marriage, I’ve given up on trying to predict what’s around the bend,” Janet Chapin said. “Our dream is to own an RV and tour the US until we can no longer do it.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.
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