Essay Contests to win a House

Since Bill and Susie Mosca gave away their inn near the White Mountain National Forest in Maine last year, in a contest that drew national attention, real-estate contests with essays have become increasingly common.

Determining the extent of the fad is difficult. The National Association of Realtors says it does not track the trend. But it is clear that for some sellers who bought high in the 1980's and do not want to sell low in today's sluggish market, the idea has come to seem like the answer to a prayer.

Bill Mosca, who now makes his living as an essay contest consultant, said his phone rings 70 to 80 times a week.

"There are no states I haven't heard from, " he said. "Will it go on forever? God knows. But it has been more than a year now and I'm still getting calls. There's a tremendous interest out there."

Despite the interest, even Mr. Mosca is unaware of anyone who has managed to attract enough contestants to unload a house. The Neros said they had heard about a South Carolina couple who had run a successful contest, but they did not know the couple's name.

The Moscas' contest drew more than 7, 000 entries - each accompanied by a $100 check and a 250-word essay on why the person wanted to own an inn in Center Lovell, Me. The Moscas returned 2, 000 entries because they had set a limit of 5, 000, and they awarded the inn to a young couple from Maryland.

Mr. Mosca likes to call the contests a win-win situation.

"The person who writes the best essay wins something they would probably never own, " he said. "The others know going in what the chances are. And the owner gets to sell his or her property."

Mr. Mosca also got a thriving business. A Matter of Legality

"I get calls from all kinds of people, " he said. "What people basically are trying to figure out is whether this is legal."

The answer to that question varies from state to state. Massachusetts prohibits the contests. Maine, probably the leader in essay giveaways, does not.

In New York and Connecticut, as in most states, the contests are legal as long as contestants demonstrate a skill to show that winning is not strictly a matter of chance. Hence the essay. Otherwise, the contest would be an unauthorized lottery.

Still, the New York State Attorney General's office is wary. "If it's a contest of skill, that is not prohibited, " said a cautious Terry O'Brien, a spokesman. "We don't endorse it, by any means."

New Jersey officials are less equivocal. "Our position is, it's gambling, " said Deputy Attorney General Carol Henderson. "You're betting on the outcome of the essay contest."

Twice the state has been dragged into court on the issue, and twice lower court judges have upheld the state, ruling that the contests are illegal.

Even when the contests are legal, contestants should beware. The winner will probably be responsible for transfer taxes and title fees, and could be liable for any liens against the property. And many owners will not allow contestants to tour the house before entering.

"You don't know what you're getting, " said Steve Schwane, a lawyer with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. "For all you know, there could be a toxic waste dump in there." For Some, No Regrets

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Q&A

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Are there any essay contests that high school students can enter?

I am looking for some writing contests this summer that I can enter to support my college application. I’m going into my Junior year, and I would appreciate some help on this! I live in California, by the way, in case location matters.

If you do a search for "essay contests" just be sure to stay away from any that ask for an application fee; those could by sketchy if they're not run by a reputable organization.
I think the Rotary Club is pretty generous with essay contest scholarships, check with your local chapter.