Essay Win House

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.

It may be the best deal in real estate: $100 for a three-bedroom home in the Historic District of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With 9-foot ceilings, window seats, a white picket fence and "beautiful natural woodwork throughout," it sounds like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The only catch: You have to win an essay contest that will cost you $100 to enter.

When Matthew Brownfield's job as a software programmer was outsourced to the Philippines early in 2009, he had to look for work elsewhere and wound up moving to Virginia. Though he and his family had only lived in the house for half a year, he had no choice but to put it on the market just as real estate prices were taking a nosedive. After five months and few showings, Brownfield rented the home.

When the renters moved early this year, Brownfield put the home back on the market but the result has been the same. So he and his wife Rachele realized they would have to get "creative and look up unconventional ways" to sell the house. Brownfield tells ABC News that "we wanted to do something that would hopefully help our family that was affected by the economy and help another family as well."

They came up with the idea of the essay contest and Brownfield's own experience inspired the questions for it:

• How has the Economic Downturn affected you and your family? • Why would receiving this house help your situation more than others?

Submitting an essay costs $100. If Brownfield gets 1,000 entries, the lucky winner, to be decided by him and his wife, will get the nearly 100-year-old home as a prize on June 15. Brownfield describes it as "beautiful, updated, in great shape and ready to be lived in."

If the contest does not attract that number of hopeful essayists, then the winner will get half of the money that is raised and the Brownfields would put the other half toward their mortgage.

Brownfield owes $88,000 on the Cedar Rapids house and he wants to pay his realtor's commission and some taxes in addition. So while more than 1,000 entries would of course be helpful, that number is designed to meet his "main goal" which "was to help our family get out from under the mortgage and then help another family. I saw how [the economy] affected us and I thought 'how can I turn this into a positive?'"

He has a long way to go. He has yet to get a single entry. But he is hopeful, telling ABC News: "I think there is a thousand people in America that have been so affected by the economy that they would take a shot at paying $100 entry fee where the potential is there that they could win a home."

For those who might consider Cedar Rapids a little too remote, Brownfield paints an appealing portrait. The house "has this gentleness to it, with flowing fields of grain not far away."

(In addition to the website hosting the contest, Brownfield also has a Facebook page devoted to it.)

  • A family is getting creative to help sell their Iowa home through an essay contest.
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