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My House And Home Essay Contest

If you've always wanted to be a homeowner but were financially unsavvy enough to become a writer, here's great news: Your lovingly crafted words, plus $150, could win you a sweet little Texas bungalow.

Just write an essay. Actually, just write the best 200-wordessay explaining why the owners should sell it to you. Bet you wish you'd paid attention in that high school persuasive writing class now, right?

The owner of the two-bedroom, one-bath, 1,056-square-foot bungalow in the Houston Heights neighborhood, Michael Wachs, a real estate agent himself, devised the plan. Each applicant pays a $150 entry free; if at least 3,000 people enter, he'll have raked in $450,000—close to what the market price would have been anyway. Many homes of similar size and with similar features in the same ZIP code go for over $400,000.

"This is the only method that we can think of that we could get our money back and also give a chance to someone to start a new life or build a home right in the city," he told Houston's KTRK-TV. He didn't exactly break the Internet on Thursday, but his website did crash soon after launching.

Yes, it's a clever marketing ploy, but Wachs isn't the first to come up with it. People tried it (unsuccessfully) 20 years ago. Some other people tried it two years ago. It's been done in Alaska (although that one didn't get enough entries to sell it), Iowa, and Ohio. And the most recent attempt to reignite the idea of a personal essay contest with a house as a prize came in March. The owner of the Center Lovell Inn in Lovell, ME, offered up the seven-bedroom inn for $125 to the winner of a 200-word essay contest. In fact, that's how owner Janice Sage acquired the inn herself, in 1993.

With the real estate market strong in so many cities—51 metro areas saw double-digit increases in home prices last quarter—why resort to literature to unload a home? Perhaps because we live in the age of the personal essay, when outlets from BuzzFeed to the The New York Times publish true tales of ordinary people.

The reason is pretty simple: Readers gobble them up; they are clickworthy. Stories such as “Why I’m Jealous of My Dog’s [Health] Insurance” get published because of the reaction, a Times editor told the Washington Post (anonymously).

This could be good news in these challenging days of American education, now that many people rely on emoticons rather than words to express emotion. Or we use abbreviations to replace entire phrases, at least IMHO. So perhaps these promoters of homeownership through literature are performing a societal service, a nationwide English lesson. Infusing 200 words with enough passion and persuasion to beat out (potentially) thousands of other eager writers is no easy feat.

But in the end, words can do only so much. If you're the lucky winner of the Texas bungalow, you still have to cough up some cash. While Sage pledged to give the winner $20,000 to get started in the innkeeping business, Wachs wants buyers to pay the closing costs. And if he doesn't get the entries he needs, he'll have to list the house the traditional way.

Lisa Davis has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time, among others.

Follow @lisaselindavis

Related topics:ContestHouston TXMaine real estatepersonal essay

Michael Watts, a Houston-based real estate agent, has attached a baffling price tag to his house: $150.

But there’s a catch.

If you want to buy the home, you have to submit an essay describing why you want to live there, and you have to pay him $150 to review it, the Houston Chronicle reports. The $150 price tag is, in essence, an application fee.

If all goes as planned, Watts will sell his home for a pittance to the person he selects out of thousands of applicants.

“It’s unusual, but it’s not a raffle,” Watts told Inman. “We’re going to review all the offers and are not picking the new owner at random.”


The selling strategy isn’t groundbreaking. Plenty of homeowners have tried to offload their homes using “essay contests” with application fees.

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But recent media coverage of Watts and a Maine innkeeper who’s using an essay contest to sell her inn has refocused attention on the strategy, sparking some debate around whether it’s good for sellers, buyers and real estate agents.

The Maine innkeeper currently holding an essay contest actually acquired the inn through a similar contest in 1993.

That inspired other sellers around the country to follow in her footsteps. But most, if not all, of those copycats generally failed to collect more money through application fees than they would have earned by selling the home conventionally, according to an article published in The Baltimore Sun in 1994.

Yet as Brian Rayl pointed out in the Facebook group “Raise the Bar in Real Estate,” that was “long before the term ‘viral’ was ever coined and places like Facebook and Twitter made things much, much easier (and much more cost effective) to advertise.”

Still, raking in more money in application fees than the value of a home is a tall order. And it would only seem to have a chance at working in markets with tight inventory.

Watts would need to collect thousands of application fees to bag $394,000, the market value of his home estimated by the Harris County Appraisal District.

He plans to refund all the offer fees if he chooses not to sell the home to an applicant.

Some real estate agents applauded Watts’ chutzpah on Raise the Bar in Real Estate, but one agent expressed concern that the selling tactic may discourage the use of buyer’s agents.

The strategy could pose legal challenges, others noted. It might also raise fair housing concerns if a seller selected a buyer based on their demographic background.

Watts is no rookie to real estate, though. He’s likely to have thought long and hard about potential pitfalls.

“It is an interesting perspective and it appears that all of the legal angles are covered at first glance (he states that the fee is nonrefundable and that he is a Realtor, etc.),” Rayl said.

Email Teke Wiggin.

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