What are words worth? Maybe a house in Easton $100-an-entry essay contest planned

EASTON — EASTON -- When Dorothy W. Munro bought a Victorian mansion in a staid neighborhood here, she attracted attention by painting the house bright pink and maroon.

Now that she wants to move, she is putting herself in the public eye once again by choosing a novel method to sell her Eastern Shore home.


With no luck after two years in the conventional real estate market, Mrs. Munro is following a Maine couple's example by offering the 15-room house as a prize in an essay contest.

By charging a $100 fee for each essay entered, she hopes to raise between $400,000 and $450,000, the amount she believes the house on a fashionable corner near downtown Easton is worth.


The person who writes the most persuasive essay will become the owner of the house and a 45-by-100-foot lot -- all for a hundred bucks and a share of the real estate closing costs.

Mrs. Munro said she got the notion to offer her house as a prize for the best essay on "Why I Want to Live in a Victorian House in Chesapeake Bay Country" after reading how innkeepers Susie and Bil Mosca used a similar contest to raise $500,000 last spring for their 11-bedroom Maine property.

The much-publicized Mosca contest has prompted more than a dozen copycat ventures in New England and elsewhere. Wayne Moss, a Maine assistant attorney general, said his office received "about 1,000" telephone calls from property owners in the state interested in setting up similar contests.

Although Maine officials concluded that the Mosca contest did not violate that state's gambling laws, the Attorney General's Office in Maryland is circumspect about Mrs. Munro's plan, which is believed to be the first such contest by a private individual in the state.

For Dale E. Cantone, the assistant attorney general with the Maryland State Lottery Agency, the question is this: Is Mrs. Munro's contest a game of skill or a game of chance?

If it is a game of chance in which the winner is selected randomly, it is illegal in Maryland because state law bars private individuals from conducting lotteries, Mr. Cantone said. If it is a game of skill, it might be permitted, although legal precedent is ,, unclear on that, he added.

In a letter she wrote in early August, Mrs. Munro informed the Attorney General's Office of her plan to launch the essay contest and asked if she could proceed. "Considering that no judge has opined on this issue, I did not say she could or could not do it," Mr. Cantone said.

Mr. Cantone, responding to Mrs. Munro's letter, warned that an essay contest could be construed in court as a game of chance.


"The standards you have proposed to judge this essay contest: originality, wit, inspiration, etc., are very subjective," he wrote. "It is predominantly by chance that an entrant would arrive at the right combination of factors that would appeal to the judges of the contest."

"It's a game of skill," countered Mrs. Munro. "I don't want to do anything wrong. I want this to be fair, and I've done everything possible to make this honest. If people don't feel it's a sincere contest, then they shouldn't enter."

She's decided she'll go ahead with the contest once she irons out some details, such as whether she will set 4,000 or 4,500 entries as her goal. She does know that she will return all essays and fees she receives above the cutoff number, and if she does not reach her goal in six months, she said, she will cancel the contest and return the entry fees.

The competition will be open to anyone.

Mrs. Munro said she will read all the essays and select 25 she deems to be the best. Three friends who agreed to be judges will decide the winning composition.

Mrs. Munro, who grew up in Pennsylvania but spent many summers on the Eastern Shore, bought the Victorian house on the corner of Easton's Goldsborough and Hanson streets and moved here in 1987. She had the 2 1/2 -story structure fixed up and had the exterior painted in eye-catching colors she said suited Victorian architecture.


Although she uses the six-bedroom house as her residence, she has opened it as a bed-and-breakfast during the Waterfowl Festival that brings thousands of tourists to Talbot County each fall.

She said she decided two years ago to move back to the Philadelphia area to be close to her family. She said a weak economy kept her from getting her asking price of about $450,000.

Because she did not want to lower the price, she said she turned to the concept of holding an essay contest to see if she could raise the money.

"I have so much blood, sweat, tears and money in this house," she said. "It's a good deal for $100."

The frame house, which has a wing that dates to the early 1800s, is unusual because it has a nine-sided corner tower topped with a 12-sided conical roof and finial. Like many residences of its era, the house has a second-story screened-in sleeping porch. Because of its bright color, it is known locally as "the pink house."

After talking with the Mosca couple in Maine -- and paying them a $475 consulting fee -- Mrs. Munro put together a brochure featuring color photographs and a flattering description of the house and the community. She said the flier is being sent to friends around the country and to media outlets, which are part of a plan to gain publicity for her contest, she said.


Mr. Mosca, who is writing a book about his contest and advising others to set up their own, got national publicity when he appeared on "Donahue."

A Maryland couple, Janice and Richard Cox of Kent Island, won the Mosca contest and took over their inn in Center Lovell, 55 miles outside Portland, this summer.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Mosca said the essay-for-house contest appeals to many people.

"It's a very positive thing for sellers, but it's a very positive thing for folks who otherwise couldn't afford to buy a house," he said. "Whether they win or not, it gives them a chance to change their lives."