“AT the time, it didn’t seem dumb,” said Karen Crawford, in the breezy tone of someone who has been mercifully absolved of the consequences of a very bad decision. “I wonder how many people in America did the same thing.”
Two years ago, Ms. Crawford and her husband, Dennis Kelly, moved from their log house in Hancock, Md., to a renovated 1929 farmhouse nearby, which they bought for $375,000. They put their old house, which they owned outright, on the market, planning to pay for the new one with proceeds from the sale. But the real estate market cooled, and the house sat unsold. Two months after the move, saddled with a costly mortgage, the couple reluctantly put their new farmhouse up for sale; after more than a year, it didn’t find a buyer, either. “Soon it was going to go into foreclosure,” said Ms. Crawford, a 60-year-old elementary school teacher, a hint of the panic of that time creeping into her voice.
Desperate, Ms. Crawford came up with a novel strategy: she would hold a raffle. Tickets would go for $100 each, and one lucky person would win the farmhouse. If they could sell enough tickets, they could walk away debt-free.
Last December, the couple teamed with a real estate agent and a local charity and set about publicizing the raffle, posting flyers and calling news outlets. By the time the drawing was held at a local country club this past March, they had sold almost 6,500 tickets, raising enough money to cover the cost of the house along with a surplus of more than $200,000 that went to the charity. Having already moved back to the log house, they counted themselves lucky to still have a place to live.
“We were so happy because we’d gone on this horrific two-year journey,” Ms. Crawford said.
The raffle idea had come to her in a burst of inspiration, she said. But she is not the only homeowner to have turned to some version of this unorthodox approach in recent months. As the economy has worsened and the real estate market has continued to slump, a number of Americans have been using raffles and competitions — latter-day versions of the old rent party, only now with a profit motive for the guests — in a last-ditch effort to raise money and unload a house. And as mortgages have become harder to obtain, some would-be homeowners are being tempted by the chance — a small one, but with better odds than most lotteries — to own a house without dealing with a bank (though the victors must pay taxes on their winnings).
Raffles seem to have become particularly popular in Maryland, where new ones have recently have been announced for homes ranging from a $550,000 four-bedroom house in Dunkirk to a six-bedroom expanded log cabin in Edgewater valued at more than $1 million.
“Instead of selling it to one person, we’re going to try to sell it 31,500 people,” said Tom Walters, who owns the Edgewater property, referring to the number of $50 tickets he must sell to cover the house’s appraised value, a $10,000 second prize and earnings for a charity. Mr. Walters, a mortgage broker, bought the house in 2006 and completed a 4,500-square-foot addition in June. But his career has suffered as a result of the mortgage crisis, he said, and it has lately become “impossible” to borrow on the house. “It’s been a perfect storm of bad real estate mojo,” he said.
A raffle, he hopes, will get more attention than a traditional sale because of its novelty. “We thought, let’s be more proactive, rather than just putting it on the market,” he said. If it succeeds, he will avoid paying a sales commission to a real estate agent.
Home raffles are hardly an easy proposition. Gambling regulations in many states make holding a private raffle for a house or land illegal unless the homeowner has a nonprofit organization as a partner, and the homeowner cannot make more than the appraised value of the house. (Some states, including New York, forbid even nonprofits from raffling off a home.)