It was to be the latest, and perhaps funkiest, trend in real estate -- a way to sell your house in a lousy market.
After a Maine couple sold their Victorian inn through an essay contest -- collecting $500,000 last spring -- property owners around the country set up similar contests. Asking for an essay, a jingle or a joke and fees of about $100 or so, property owners have been trying to unload not just homes but restaurants, general stores, waterfront homes, a karaoke bar and miniature golf course.
But it's been tough going, as homeowners struggle to attract even a fraction of the entries they need for a successful contest.
Take the case of Clara Barth, who started a contest to sell her rancher and country store in McDaniel, on the Eastern Shore. "I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't know how hard," said Mrs. Barth, 56.
Mrs. Barth tried to collect 5,000 entries at $100 each. But by the Jan. 14 deadline, she hadn't even collected 2,000 and had to extend the deadline to April 1. If she doesn't make it by then, she'll have to return the piles of checks stacked up in her accountant's office.
One of the biggest problems with contests is public skepticism, according to those who have tried them. Many people doubt the fairness of such a contest and hesitate to spend $100 to enter.
Another problem is that the novelty may have worn off, and that the properties now being offered as prizes are less romantic than the Maine inn that started the interest in contests.
"The property has to be something everyone thinks is wonderful. It has to be unique enough to draw interest across the country," said Arthur Davis III, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors. "The average house doesn't spur the dreams and excitement of enough people."
Another Marylander who knows the rigors of selling a property by contest is Gordon Schulmeyer.
After failing to sell his condominium in College Park for three months, the 53-year-old software engineering manager for Westinghouse Electronic Systems sponsored an essay contest last November.
"I'm an impatient man," he said.
But four months into the contest, for which he'd set a goal of 700 entries at $100 each, Mr. Schulmeyer pulled the plug on the deal. As of his self-imposed Feb. 15 deadline, he had just four entries in hand and receipts for more than $500 in newspaper and direct-mail advertising expenses.
Mr. Schulmeyer is contemplating other novel ways to liquidate his property. Either he will give the condo to charity or sell it by auction, he said.
Another would-be contest seller who is finding it tough going is Dorothy W. Munro -- who has been intent on unloading her pink and maroon Victorian house in Easton via contest since September and still has only about half the 4,500 entries she needs at $100 each.
Although Ms. Munro has had bountiful national and local publicity -- including appearances on CNN and ABC's "Prime Time Live" -- she's not certain she'll meet her deadline of March 31. If not, she'll extend it.
If she fails to meet the second deadline, she'll call it quits and send the money back.
Homeowners in other parts of the country have had similar setbacks:
* A San Francisco woman spent $75,000 on promotion and legal fees trying to sell her mother's $795,000 home near Beverly Hills. She soon abandoned the effort.
* A Los Angeles-area man gained just 50 of the 7,000 entries he needed to sell his luxury home in Southern California, valued at $695,000.
* A Melbourne, Fla., couple abandoned plans to sell their Spanish-style house after they collected just 1,000 of the 9,000 entries needed at $50 each.
* A Berlin, N.H., woman gave up on an essay contest to sell her Victorian house and bakery. Though she spent $7,500 on advertising and legal fees, the contest yielded just a few of the 750 entries she needed at $150 each.
With so many attempts to reproduce the sell-by-contest success of the Maine bed-and-breakfast -- by Bill and Susie Mosca -- there's been a strong demand for how-to-do-it-right information. As a result, Mr. Mosca, who still lives in Maine, has launched a high-priced consulting service to sell his secrets. But he wouldn't divulge any secrets, lest people lose the need to call him.
But Katy Meador, a business consultant in San Francisco, did talk. Ms. Meador tried to give away her mother's home, but had so much trouble -- she received less than 500 of the need 6,500 entries -- that she abandoned the contest. "People don't respond because it's real easy to take a hundred dollars and put it into the lottery," she said.
There is also a Catch-22: If you make the contest too simple, it violates the law because it is a game of chance; if too much skill is needed, not enough people will want -- or be able -- to enter. She thinks people have difficulty sending in a stamped, self-addressed envelope, let alone writing a winning essay.
But one of the key problems is that the properties that are offered as prizes are, well, less than exceptional, she said. "The people who were in Maine . . . had a really appealing working bed and breakfast," Ms. Meador said. Contests "became the rage but a lot of the properties were not special at all."
"They were taking an ordinary home and trying to give it away like this is the solution to the real estate market. It isn't."