In Property Contests, $99 and a Photo Could Get You 56 Acres

Josh Ring

Now on the market is a 56-acre treehouse resort in Stoneham, Maine. It has breathtaking views, a private mountaintop hiking trail and three luxury rental units that sit high off the ground among red oaks and birches.

For a $99 entry fee and an original nature-themed photo, it could all be yours.

When most property owners are ready to move on, they rely on the traditional real-estate market. A few are going a more unusual route and turning to sweepstakes-style competitions to drum up interested takers.

As with any other gamble, the contests’ appeal lies in the potential payoff. The winner of the treehouse getaway, TimberStone Adventures, is promised the property and $25,000.

“Where are you going to get a better deal than getting an entire resort?” said owner Josh Ring, 39 years old.

Many of the owners have had trouble selling their properties the traditional way. Mr. Ring and his family had their property, which he said is profitable, listed on the market for $1 million for a year.

Such a contest crowdfunds a property’s sale. If enough people enter, the entrance fees amount to something close to the desired sale price. If too few people enter, the contest is usually canceled and contestants get refunds. That threshold can range from 100 contestants to thousands.

Mr. Ring is seeking at least 9,900 applicants, amounting to $980,100 in entrance fees. Mr. Ring declined to comment on how many entries have come in since the competition’s launch on Aug. 1.

However, any such contest can’t be one of chance—that would be an illegal lottery. That’s why the fee is matched with a challenge like a photo submission.

Mr. Ring was inspired by a similar contest in Lovell, Maine, a few miles down the road from his family’s resort. The Center Lovell Inn & Restaurant has found new owners through an essay contest twice, once in 1993 and again in 2015.

The current owners, Prince and Rose Adams, won the 19th-century farmhouse with an essay about why they wanted the inn and a $125 entrance fee. The previous owner made more than $900,000 from that contest, according to the Portland Press Herald. The Adamses now value the inn at about $1.5 million.

“When you play the lotto, in a sense, you don’t think you’re going to win,” Mr. Adams said. But with a contest, “you have this pipe dream from the moment of playing it, and that’s what we did.”

The Center Lovell Inn has found new owners through a contest twice.

Carl D. Walsh/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Sparked by the 2015 competition, Paul Spell tried selling his northern Alabama goat cheese farm with an essay contest after spending two years unsuccessfully trying to sell it. Carole Kelaher did the same with her Vermont cupcake shop. Neither attracted enough entrants to move forward.

Michael Hurley hosted a giveaway for his two-screen movie theater in Houlton, Maine, through an essay contest after trying to sell it for 14 years. He had purchased the theater as a short-term investment, hoping to flip it, but its modest profits made it a tough sell.

His 2015 contest attracted significant media attention, but ultimately, there weren’t enough contestants. “We didn’t come remotely close to where we needed to be,” he said. Mr. Hurley had set a target of at least 3,500 contestants, enough to generate $350,000 in fees.

The contest did indirectly lead to a sale. In Mr. Hurley’s email canceling it, he invited participants to make offers. One of them was Charlie Fortier, 56 years old, who had grown up in the northern Maine town and planned to retire there from his job in publishing. He responded with an all-cash offer and now runs the theater. He declined to say how much he paid.

“I wish I’d have won it,” Mr. Fortier said with a chuckle, given the $100 entry fee was considerably cheaper.

State gambling authorities have occasionally launched investigations to determine whether such contests are unsanctioned lotteries in disguise. The Center Lovell Inn was the target of one such probe in 2015. Earlier this year, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission investigated a letter-writing contest to win a roughly $1.3 million home in Canada. The contest initially went viral, and the commission found the giveaway didn’t violate any of its laws. Homeowner Alla Wagner ultimately canceled it for lack of interest.

Scott Schleifstein, a lawyer involved in a current giveaway in Ithaca. N.Y., described the concept’s frequency as “somewhere between a no-hitter and a perfect game.”

Polly Wood, 46 years old, started the contest in Ithaca to give away Toko Imports, a small drum shop she has owned since 2014. (In her case, she’s offering the business with the possibility of a three-year lease; she rents the space.) Her contest is an eight-point questionnaire about contestants’ vision for the store and has a $108 entrance fee.

Polly Wood is offering Toko Imports in Ithaca, N.Y., in a contest.

Polly Wood

While most others require thousands of entries to fund the contest, hers needs only 100 to meet its goal.

“This was more exciting to me than just looking for a buyer,” she said. “This doesn’t feel like just the sale of a business. We need ways to creatively think outside the box.”

Ms. Wood hopes her offering is unique enough to draw contestants—a sentiment Mr. Ring of TimberStone Adventures echoed. “No one’s going to do this for a $200,000 house. This is about uniqueness,” he said.

“I built a treehouse resort,” Mr. Ring added. “Most people wouldn’t do that either.”

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Source: Housing Trends Feed