One seemingly unstoppable real estate trend this year has been the write-an-essay-win-a-house contest, 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 Times reports. (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 spends four 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.