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Write an essay, win a house? That's the plan

A Valrico couple hope to give their home to the person who best expresses why they'd like to own it. They also hope to make some money. The cost to enter their "game of skill,'' which apparently is legal, is $50.

By TERESA BURNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2000


VALRICO -- Delores Hardy says she is willing to give away her Valrico house.

Hardy and her husband, Lensy, are running an essay contest, and they say they'll give the house to the winner.

photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Delores and Lensy Hardy paid $89,800 for this house in the Bloomingdale East subdivision in 1987, Hillsborough County records show. They hope to attract 4,000 contestants and gross $200,000 before contest expenses.
But home-hungry wordsmiths shouldn't call the movers just yet. Along with the 100-words-or-less essay on "Why you want to own the Hardys' house," you'll also need to write a $50 check for the entry fee.

And if there aren't enough people willing to write Hardy a $50 check, she says she won't be giving her house away after all, just sending the checks back to the contestants.

Such contests are not unheard of, but they are relatively rare in Florida, where it is illegal for individuals to run games of chance or raffles. To make the giveaway legal, Hardy is calling her contest a "game of skill" rather than one of chance by requiring entrants to write essays.

Hardy, an entrepreneur who operates a gift basket business from her home, has put details about the contest on an Internet site, has called news organizations to publicize the contest and has bought some ads. She hopes the publicity will attract4,000 contestants, enough to gross $200,000 before contest expenses.

She says her 2,000-square-foot house is worth about $115,000. The Hillsborough County property appraiser's office appraised it at $79,568 last year, typically about 80 percent of its market value. The Hardys paid $89,800 for the house in the Bloomingdale East subdivision in 1987, county records show.

Hardy decided to "sell" her house via essay because "you can make more money this way," she said. "I'll be honest with you."

And the Hardys desperately need money: They are in so much debt that they have filed for bankruptcy protection to hold off creditors and keep the bank from foreclosing on their home.

Hardy and her husband got into trouble because an accountant gave them bad tax advice and they ended up owing the IRS more than they could pay, Delores Hardy said. While struggling to pay the IRS back, they got behind on other bills, including the mortgage. Bankruptcy court records show that the Hardys are 48 months behind on their mortgage and owe more than the home is probably worth.

Rather than sell her home the traditional way to pay off the mortgage, Hardy decided to try the essay contest. She hopes the contest can bring in enough to pay off all the creditors, with some cash left over. By early this week, she had collected about $5,000 worth of contest entries, she said.

After hearing about people who had run similar contests, she called the state Attorney General's Office and asked if it was legal. "You cannot do a lottery drawing," she said she was told. "You have to do a contest of skill."

So the essay contest was born.

If she collects enough entry fees, a winner will be chosen by two teachers and a retired state employee. She wouldn't provide their names, saying she's worried contestants will try to sway them.

Hardy is operating in a gray area of Florida law, say representatives from the Florida Attorney General's Office and the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

Private individuals are not allowed to operate games of chance or raffles. That's the purview of parimutuel gambling establishments, charitable organizations and the state. But as long as Hardy is running a true "contest of skill," it's legal, they said.

And if she is genuine in her intentions to give away the house or return the entry fees, she wouldn't be guilty of fraud, they said.

"What we would look for is to make sure that she is operating it in an upfront manner and that she is not defrauding anybody," Assistant Attorney General Victoria Butler said.

Hardy insists she is operating a legal contest.

"It's no scam," she said. Her husband, Lensy, is a successful tractor-trailer driver and she has a business making gift baskets, she said. "We are not going to risk that," she said. "We are not about to go to jail."

Other states allow homeowners to raffle off their homes, said Edward Hill, a state assistant attorney general in Tallahassee. "And, in those states, some of those things have been successful."

He is dubious, however, about the Hardys' chances for succeeding in Florida. Others have tried such contests, he said, but he doesn't know of any success stories.

"Generally it blows up," Hill said, with the owner not getting enough entries and the contestants getting angry. "I'm not saying that there hasn't ever been (a successful one), but the ones that I am aware of, it opens a can of worms."

Contest entrants also should be concerned about what they may be getting if they win, Hill said. They could get a house with termites or a leaky roof, for instance. Also, they need to make sure the owner has the legal right to give away the home, that they'll pay off whatever mortgage is on the home before they give it away, and that there are no other liens on the property.

"When you go this way, you might as well go to the casino and play the craps table," he said.

Hardy says she will pay off her mortgage if she gets enough contest entries so the house will be free and clear. She'll also buy title insurance for the new owner as proof that the title is free and clear.

And she says her four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath home is nice. Interested people can tour the home, which was built in 1982, on the Internet at http://www.hardyshousecontest.com.

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