Sierra Club Essay Contest House

The outcome throws both visions into doubt, and exposes the risks inherent in such contests. If they go awry, organizers can expect not only a failed sales plan, but a backlash, too.

“We were looking at doing this as a business model,” said Mr. Bares, 43, who bought the land in 2007 for around $750,000, and spent another $350,000 building the cabin, which has a three-car garage beneath it.

Some entrants expressed frustration with the contest, particularly the rule that allowed the organizers to keep the $49 administrative fee. “It is funny that all of that risk gets shifted over to the people who entered,” said Casey Cornwell, 40, a financial consultant and contestant who lives in San Francisco.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna estimate they spent some $50,000 to set up and administer the contest. They hired judges to read the entries; a lawyer to draft the contest rules; and a publicist to promote it. They also made a polished three-minute video set to inspirational music with aerial shots of the property and clips of vacationers on horseback, practicing yoga and fishing in the lake.

Even with the administrative fee, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna said, they stand to lose around $20,000. And they still own the house. “I understand people don’t know us, they don’t know our intent,” Mr. Bares said. “Our intent was always to sell the house.”

On social media, some people doubted the contest’s legitimacy. “Will you be announcing the winner or is this a ploy for free advertising,” Karen Wrenn posted on Facebook.

Another user responded, “Bet no one won.”

Ms. Wrenn, 62, a retired teacher who lives in Wilmington, N.C., said that the contest appeared on her Facebook feed one day and reminded her of the telephone scams designed to target older people, so she steered clear. “When I saw that house, I had to write something about it,” she said. “I don’t believe this is legit.”

But others did enter, like Henry Chamberlain, 54, a cartoonist who lives in Seattle. “I got caught up in the fantasy,” he said. He wrote an essay about how he wanted a quiet retreat and an inheritance to leave to his daughter, who is 21.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna shut down the contest’s social media accounts on May 30 and sent emails to contestants explaining the outcome and their refund policy. But some, including Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Cornwell, did not receive that first email and only learned of the results from a reporter. They both received the email when it was resent on June 5. The muddled messaging struck Mr. Chamberlain as disorganized. “If you’re going to play with people’s dreams, you need to find a way to do them the courtesy of getting things in order,” he said.

Now, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna are asking themselves why so few people participated. Perhaps the guidelines were too strict, or maybe the taxes gave people pause; property taxes run around $11,000 a year, and a winner would have had to pay substantial income taxes.

Sara F. Hawkins, a lawyer who represents the couple, suspects that it might just be hard to draw people to a region without a national reputation. “I think it would be different if we were giving away an apartment in New York City,” she said.

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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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