Breakfast Essay Contest

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The tale of the Center Lovell Inn in Maine and its essay have almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas.

Last winter, one of the harshest on record in New England, Janice Sage decided she no longer wanted to run the Maine inn she had owned for two decades.

The Center Lovell Inn, which borders the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was more than 200 years old when Sage acquired it in 1993. To sell it, she did not enlist a real estate agent, or place an ad in any traditional sense. Instead, she sold the inn the same way the previous owner had: by holding an essay contest.

Sage, who then went by Jan Cox, made national headlines after she and her husband at the time paid a $100 entry fee and wrote an essay that made them the proud owners of the inn.

Since then, the tale of the inn has almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas. Some want a more personal way to sell properties with sentimental value. Others want to get rid of homes quickly. Others hope a popular contest brings in more than they might make from a conventional sale.

But more often than not, the dream of running a quaint essay contest runs into reality. For starters, many contests are unsuccessful; this was Sage’s second try. An earlier essay contest went nowhere.

Still, many seem undeterred. Karim Lakhani, associate professor who studies online communities and contests at Harvard Business School, said social media and the Internet had made it easier for contests like these to reach a critical mass of people who are willing to pay a nominal fee for a chance.

“This looks like a lottery,” meaning the risk is low and the reward high, Lakhani said. “From the participation point of view, it’s ‘I can put in a few hundred bucks and get a chance to get a house.’ Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Accusations

The Maine contest was supposed to have a seamless ending for Sage and the winner, Prince Adams. Sage netted more than $906,000, and Adams, a restaurant owner from the Virgin Islands, won the inn in June after paying $125 to enter the contest.

In fewer than 200 words, Adams wrote of his experience in the hospitality industry, and compared the work to his marriage. “A successful marriage requires passion, hospitality and commitment,” he wrote. “Perhaps the same is true for this venture.”

The 1993 contest had garnered national attention through television reports and newspaper articles; the 2015 version raced across the Internet and social media and drew more than 7,000 entries, about the same number as in 1993.

But just as social media can spur interest, it can also increase criticism. The announcement of a winner drew so many accusations that the contest was rigged that a Facebook group called the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission was established.

“I believe that the essay contest was deceptively advertised, and that many hopeful and trusting people were taken advantage of,” one critic wrote on the inn’s Facebook page.

Fifteen complaints were lodged with the Maine attorney general’s office, which led to an inquiry by the State Police. The agency spent four weeks reviewing the rules, the selection process and complaints about the 1993 contest, which had prompted its own inquiry. It determined Sage had run a game of skill, which is legal in the state, and not a game of luck like a lottery, which is not.

Her troubles seem to have abated, but Adams is still dealing with his. In an interview, he said he was being harassed by people who thought that they should have won the inn or that he had broken the rules.

“We’ve had disgruntled people calling in,” Adams said. After The Boston Globe published his essay, one commenter accused him of breaking the rules by not writing a double-spaced piece. Others have complained that Sage favored entrants with innkeeping experience.

Taking over the inn, he added, was a lot of work: “There were a lot of things we didn’t know going into it,” Adams said.

In a follow-up email, he was more forthcoming about what he called “the sad part of ‘winning’ the contest.”

“They persist on making our lives difficult by giving fake one-star reviews on TripAdvisor,” he wrote of losing contestants, “paying us nasty visits and phone calls, etc. However, the majority of the essay entrants that contact us with well wishes are fantastic.”

Undeterred

The saga has not appeared to deter others. The owners of a goat-cheese farm in Alabama have held a contest for their farmstead, complete with sheep and goats; owners in Marlin, Texas, offered their home for a winning essay and $1; and Realtor Michael Wachs put up his house in Houston. (In a twist, a woman tried to sell her grandmother’s home in Maryland for $100 and a chocolate recipe.) But those contests were halted after failing to accumulate the thousands of entries the owners needed to cover the cost of the prizes. The long process of refunding entry fees then began.

In rural Virginia, Carolyn Berry, 62, a teacher, said she had followed the different iterations of the Maine contest before she and her husband, Randy, decided on a contest for their 35-acre horse farm. She said they initially resisted selling the farm, but eventually agreed to an essay contest for $200 an entry.

The couple has enjoyed reading essays from people who envision a different future for the hobby farm. One essay detailed a willingness to start a home for injured war veterans; another wanted to turn the farm into a quilting studio, Berry said. Reading essays and assuring interested parties about the contest’s integrity take about four hours a day.

“We’ve had to overcome the thing with the Center Lovell Inn,” she said, “the suspicion that this was rigged, so that’s been a detriment to us.”

Berry said she hired a trustee who accepts entries and removes any identifying details, making the essays anonymous before they are forwarded to the couple. A panel of anonymous judges will decide the winner from 25 finalists chosen by the couple. Berry said she and her husband would have to accept the panel’s choice; they cannot override the decision.

To prevent legal problems, Berry created a Facebook page and a Google database of information — and lengthy rules — for prospective entrants. On another Facebook page, she keeps track of similar sweepstakes around the country. There are a bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, a nine-room country inn in Vermont and a brick home in Ontario. At one point, Berry said, she was following 20 contests.

She has amassed 3,000 of the 5,000 entries she said the couple needed to earn $1 million for the farm; the money would cover taxes — “35 percent right off the top goes to the federal government,” she said — and help the couple buy a small home to retire. If they do not meet their goal, they might accept fewer entries, or send out refunds, Berry said.

Wachs, the Houston Realtor, was inspired by the Center Lovell Inn, and even submitted an essay. He then held his own contest, hoping for a fast transaction and maybe some publicity on a local blog. Instead, he received so much attention that it crashed his website. But the online attention did not add up to entries: Wachs ended his contest after about a month because he did not receive enough. In the end, he refunded the entry fees and sold his house the conventional way.

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?”

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Correction: February 12, 2017

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.

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