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Write an essay, win a home in Fairbanks, Alaska

Laurel Andrews

Would you pay $100 and write an essay for a shot at winning a home? One family in Fairbanks is hoping enough people will that they will be able to sell their house without ever having to put it on the market.

Located near downtown Fairbanks, the 4-bedroom, 2800 square-foot house has belonged to Gordon and Laurel Carlin for 18 years. They’ve been considering selling it for while now, Laurel Carlin says. Although a perfect size for raising their four children, now that the kids have all flown the coop, and “it’s just too big for us,” she explained.

They are ready to move into a smaller home that is better suited to their needs. But, before putting the house on the market, they decided to give this unusual marketing strategy a try.

Carlin’s daughter Latisha Bergstrom came up with the idea. “Unfortunately I can’t take credit for it,” she said. She has seen home-selling essay contests a few times over the years. But while this kind of contest has been attempted in the Lower 48 before – with varying success – this is the first time anyone in Alaska has tried to sell their home through an essay contest.

So why the essay? It’s an issue of legality. While it’s illegal for individuals to raffle a home (a type of gambling), an essay contest bypasses that law, and takes away the chance factor.

“It’s not luck,” Bergstrom said, so it’s not gambling. She’s been working with an attorney to ensure that they are “doing everything the right way.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity for all parties,” she continued. She hopes that they will give someone in need a new lease on life, while forgoing the typical hassle of putting a house on the market.

But they’ve run into one major problem thus far: Skepticism. “It’s amazing how many people will think it’s a scam,” Bergstrom said. The family is attempting to get the word out through a website and Facebook page, “so people can see that we’re real,” and are juggling other marketing ideas, too.

They began accepting essays and their accompanying $100 entry fee in early January, with the hope that they will receive at least 3,000 entries by April 30, when the contest will end. They won’t take more than 3,500 entries in order not to go “overboard” Carlin said. This is about selling the home, not about making a profit far above the value of the home, Carlin explained.

If they get the requisite 3,000 entries, the top-ten essays will be published on their Facebook page, where people will be able to vote for the one they feel is most compelling. “It takes it out of our hands,” Carlin said, removing any questions of favoritism.

If the contest is a bust and not enough entries are received, all the checks and money orders will be returned.

The family hasn’t had the house assessed in about 10 years, Bergstrom said, but estimate that it is worth around $300,000, what they hope to collect from the contest. If the contest works out, they’ll use around half the money to pay off the mortgage, handing over the deed of a fully-paid house to the essay winner.

So what should your essay say? Well, “what’s your story?” Carlin says. “Have you had a crisis in your life?” There’s no script to follow – just a demonstration of need for the home.

Michael Droege, President of the Alaska Association of Realtors, said that this is a “unique approach” to selling a home. “Creativity is good,” he said, but mentioned that the person who lands the home could be taking on potential risks.

Will the buyer be inheriting a house with problems? How will they know without working through a professional? “The big issue is energy costs,” he said, given Fairbanks’ current energy crisis.

“It seems crazy that people will be facing utility foreclosures” in Fairbanks, he said, but it will happen. It’s important that the person taking over this property knows what they are taking on. He also says that many people in the Lower 48 may hesitate to move to Alaska’s interior.

Fairbanks realtor Joni Schneider also pointed to risks in selling a home this way. “I’m skeptical,” she said, “I can see so many unanswered factors that could come into play,” from being able to verify how many people have entered the contest, to concerns over the winning person's ability to pay for utilities.

She also mentioned energy costs as a potential issue. In Fairbanks, “some of the 5+ plus [energy rated] homes are hard to keep heated,” she said. “If somebody’s really living in dire straights … and it’s supposedly a big house and it was built over 30 years ago” problems may be quick to present themselves.

The Carlin’s estimate that all utilities, including water, sewer and heating oil cost around $700 a month in the winter at the current price of fuel. In addition to those costs, there’s around $3,000 in property taxes every year. But they point to a potential revenue-maker that comes included with the house: an apartment above the garage, separate from the home, which can be rented out to help offset utility costs.

While the buyer faces potential risks, the Carlin's do, too. They will have to put a certain amount of faith in the people sending in entries. But they hope that good will and common sense will prevail, regardless of any perceived risks.

“We’re going to have to trust people just like people are going to have to trust us,” Bergstrom said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com.