Weary of waiting for the sluggish real estate market to rebound, northern New Englanders are using Yankee ingenuity to unburden themselves of property.
One successful essay contest by a pair of frustrated innkeepers who raised $500,000 for their bed and breakfast has given way to a parade of copycat competitions.
Dream of owning an oceanfront home near George and Barbara Bush? Just write a jingle. How about living in a renovated farmhouse? Then try to "name the puppy." Want to run a 140-year-old bed and breakfast? Hone your writing skills and craft an essay.
"It has been proven to work," said Jim Lapak, co-owner of the Cornish Inn, who hopes to cash in with an essay contest of his own. "I believe it is the best way to exchange these properties.
"A lot of people dream of running an inn."
About 25 miles away, Bil and Susie Mosca recently got rid of their Center Lovell Inn with the help of a 250-word essay contest. They received 5,000 responses from people around the world, each of whom paid $100 for the opportunity to own a country inn in rural New England.
Since then, about a dozen contests have begun in Maine and neighboring New Hampshire.
The trend was inspired by a stagnant real estate market in which property values have dropped up to 15% since peaking in 1988, said Valarie Lamont, director of the Institute for Real Estate Research and Education at the University of Southern Maine.
Typically, a seller can expect to have a property on the market at least a year, Lamont said.
"I'm not surprised that in this kind of mixed and volatile market that people are looking to different ways to sell their properties," she said.
In Cornish, Lapak and his wife, Judy, bought at the top of New England's real estate boom and invested heavily in renovations. Their 30-room inn has the White Mountains in the distance and the Saco River 500 yards away. They see their $100-per-entry essay contest as a good bet to recoup their investment.
But getting rid of property through contests is not a sure thing.
Arthur and Shirley Leach have been trying to unload an oceanfront home in Cape Porpoise for two years. They started with an essay contest that asked entrants to describe "Why I would like to live by the water in Kennebunkport, Me." When that failed to attract enough entries, they turned to a jingle contest.
Leach has become a modern-day hawker, pitching his contest in appearances on network television programs, and the couple made no apologies when they capitalized on the Midwest flooding in July. They donated 50 contest entries to Chambers of Commerce for several Midwest cities for sale or raffle to raise money for flood victims.
"I figure this is one way of making a contribution," said Leach, who needs to receive at least 7,000 entries--at $50 apiece--by his October deadline.
For all the hoopla, the reality is that only two essay contests have succeeded in Maine since 1982.
Nevertheless, after the Moscas' success generated national attention, the Maine attorney general's office was deluged with as many as 1,000 inquiries from people interested in running contests, said Wayne Moss, an assistant attorney general.
"I think there's a real big potential for abuse," Moss said.
In neighboring New Hampshire, the attorney general has received 115 inquiries about contests based on essays, songwriting and recipes, said Charles Putnam, chief of the consumer protection division. He said he is not aware of any contest that has resulted in a real estate transfer.
Moss said his office has tried to monitor the swell of contests in Maine to ensure they abide by state law, which requires a contest of skill with a set of rules and a panel of judges, rather than a game of chance. The attorney general eventually gave up, overwhelmed by the numbers.