Last winter, one of the harshest on record in New England, Janice Sage decided she no longer wanted to run the Maine inn she had owned for two decades.
The Center Lovell Inn, which borders the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was over two centuries old when Sage acquired it in 1993. To sell it, she did not enlist a real estate agent, or place an ad — not in any traditional sense. Instead, she sold the inn the same way the previous owner had: by holding an essay contest.
Sage, who back then went by Jan Cox, made national headlines after she and her husband at the time paid a $100 entry fee and wrote an essay that made them the proud owners of the inn.
Since then, the tale of the inn has almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas. Some want a more personal way to sell properties with sentimental value. Others want to get rid of homes quickly. And others hope a popular contest brings in more than they might make from a conventional sale. (In 1996, the movie "The Spitfire Grill" featured a small-town Maine cafe that was raffled for an essay and a $100 fee.)
But more often than not, the dream of running a quaint essay contest runs head on into a complicated reality.
For starters, many of the contests are unsuccessful — this was actually Sage’s second try to sell the inn. An earlier essay contest went nowhere.
Still, many seem undeterred. Karim Lakhani, an associate professor who studies online communities and contests at Harvard Business School, said social media and the Internet had made it easier for contests like these to reach a critical mass of people who are willing to pay a nominal fee for a chance.
"This looks like a lottery," meaning the risk is low and the reward high, Lakhani said. "From the participation point of view, it’s ‘I can put in a few hundred bucks and get a chance to get a house.’ Who wouldn’t want to do that?"
The Maine contest was supposed to end seamlessly for both Sage and the winner, Prince Adams. Sage netted more than $906,000, and Adams, a restaurant owner from the Virgin Islands, won the inn in June after paying $125 to enter the contest.
In fewer than 200 words, Adams wrote of his experience in the hospitality industry, and compared the work to his marriage. "A successful marriage requires passion, hospitality and commitment," he wrote. "Perhaps the same is true for this venture."
The 1993 contest had garnered national attention through television reports and newspaper articles; the 2015 version raced across the Internet and social media, and drew more than 7,000 entries, about the same number as in 1993.
But just as social media can spur interest, it can also increase criticism. The announcement of a winner drew so many accusations that the contest was rigged that a Facebook group called the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission was established.
"I believe that the essay contest was deceptively advertised, and that many hopeful and trusting people were taken advantage of," one critic wrote on the inn’s Facebook page.
Fifteen complaints were lodged with the Maine attorney general’s office, which led to an inquiry by the State Police. The agency spent four weeks reviewing the rules, the selection process and complaints about the 1993 contest, which had prompted its own inquiry. It determined that Sage had run a game of skill, which is legal in the state, and not a game of luck like a lottery, which is not.
Her troubles seem to have abated, but Adams is still grappling with his. In an interview, he said he was still being harassed by people who thought that they should have won the inn or that he had broken the rules.
"We’ve had disgruntled people calling in," Adams said. After The Boston Globe published his essay, one commenter accused him of breaking the rules by not writing a double-spaced piece. Others have complained that Sage favored entrants with innkeeping experience.
The saga has not appeared to deter others. The owners of a goat cheese farm in Alabama have held a contest for their farmstead, complete with sheep and goats; owners in Marlin, Texas, offered their home for a winning essay and $1; and a Realtor named Michael Wachs put up his house in Houston. (In a twist, a woman tried to sell her grandmother’s home in Maryland for $100 and a chocolate recipe.) But those contests were halted after failing to accumulate the thousands of entries the owners needed to cover the cost of the prizes. The long process of refunding entry fees then began.
In rural Virginia, Carolyn Berry, a 62-year-old teacher, said she had followed the different iterations of the Maine contest before she and her husband, Randy, decided on a contest for their 35-acre horse farm. She said they initially resisted selling the farm, but eventually agreed to an essay contest for $200 an entry.
The couple has enjoyed reading essays from people who envision a different future for the hobby farm. One essay detailed a willingness to start a home for injured war veterans; another wanted to turn the farm into a quilting studio, Berry said. Reading essays and assuring interested parties about the contest’s integrity take about four hours a day.
"We’ve had to overcome the thing with the Center Lovell Inn," she said, "the suspicion that this was rigged, so that’s been a detriment to us."
Berry said she hired a trustee who accepts entries and removes any identifying details, making the essays anonymous before they are forwarded to the couple. A panel of anonymous judges will decide the winner from 25 finalists chosen by the couple. Berry said she and her husband would have to accept the panel’s choice — they cannot override the decision.
To prevent legal problems, Berry created a Facebook page and a Google database of information — and lengthy rules — for prospective entrants. On another Facebook page, she keeps track of similar sweepstakes around the country. There are a bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, a nine-room country inn in Vermont and a brick home in Ontario. At one point, Berry said, she was following 20 contests.
So far, she has amassed 3,000 of the 5,000 entries she said the couple needed to earn $1 million for the farm; the money would cover taxes — "35 percent right off the top goes to the federal government," she said — and help the couple buy a small home to retire. If they do not meet their goal, they might accept fewer entries, or send out refunds, Berry said.
Wachs, the Houston Realtor, was inspired by the Center Lovell Inn, and even submitted an essay. He then held his own contest, hoping for a fast transaction and maybe some publicity on a local blog. Instead, he received so much attention that it crashed his website — Google "Houston Home Essay Contest," and more than 650,000 results appear. He also said some people had falsified their stories to "pull at our heartstrings."
But the online attention did not add up to entries: Wachs ended his contest after about a month because he did not receive enough. In the end, he refunded the entry fees and sold his house the conventional way.
"There were always people walking around and driving by slowly," he said. "If someone else does it, I would suggest maybe not living in the place."
In Virginia, Berry said that the contest had attracted several unexpected visitors to her property — and a few naysayers on social media — but that it had been worthwhile.
"We have something that people are dreaming about and yearning for," she said, "and this farm is going to change somebody’s life."