Win a house: Alberta homeowners trying to sell properties with essay contest

EDMONTON — Albertans struggling to enter the real-estate market have at least two chances to win a home this year.

A house south of Calgary and a historic bed and breakfast near the United States border, both valued at about $1.7 million, are up for grabs.

All one needs to do is pay an entry fee and submit an essay.

Owners of the two properties are among many in the province affected by a slumping real-estate market. Homes are listed for months without a single offer.

Alla Wagner, who has limited mobility after a fall, put her 5,000-square-foot (464-square-metre) house in Millarville, a hamlet in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, up for sale last year so she could downsize to a smaller bungalow.

Her house was appraised at $3 million three years ago, she says. She first listed it at $1.9 million.

“The market is so low that I wasn’t even getting a single offer,” Wagner says. “It was very painful to watch.”

Instead of giving up, the 58-year-old decided to “think outside of the box.”

Wagner came up with a contest late last year called “Write a Letter, Win a House.” It asks people to explain how owning the home could change their lives. She set an entry fee at $25 and hoped to receive 65,000 entries to cover her investment in the house.

Entries poured in until late January, when Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis began investigating the contest.

“Along with the interest, there were also many people that weren’t fans of the competition and they were trying to find faults with it,” Wagner says.

Heather Holmen with the commission says it determined its gaming rules don’t apply to such a contest. The agency only has oversight on eligible licensed gaming activities.

Wagner says the investigation and managing the contest have affected her work and her health, but she wouldn’t do things differently.

“I have been reading incredible, incredible messages from people and letters of support.”

Wagner will pick the top 500 essays by July 5 and a panel of independent judges will choose a winner. If she doesn’t reach her monetary goal by then, she plans to return all entry fees.

A couple in Cardston, southwest of Lethbridge, decided to do the same thing when they heard Wagner’s story.

Marsha and Ivan Negrych had tried to sell their bed and breakfast so they can retire and continue raising two grandsons with special needs.

Cobblestone Manor was listed for more than a year without any strong offers.

“Chasing after two little boys and working a large restaurant, a bed and breakfast, and the large grounds is just too much,” Marsha Negrych says.

The 71-year-old says her health is deteriorating and her doctor has told her to stop working.

The contest for the 7,000-square-foot (650-square-metre) property, which is designated as an Alberta Historic Resource, started May 1 and runs until Oct. 31. The couple set the entry fee at $100.

The manor started as a log home built in 1889 by the first Mormon pioneers to settle in southern Alberta. In 1913, a Belgian carpenter built an addition with river rocks, rare hardwood and stained glass from Italy.

Negrych says she hopes whoever ends up with the property will preserve its history.

Ann-Marie Lurie, an economist with the Alberta Real Estate Association, says demand in the province’s housing market has been weak over the last few years, particularly for higher-priced homes.

It’s partly due to lower oil prices, higher unemployment rates and concerns over Alberta’s slumping economy, she says.

“We’ve also had interest rate increases and a new stress test that came in 2018,” Lurie says. “The combined impact of all of those things together has been weighing on our housing market.”

The Calgary area has been the hardest hit, she adds, since many high-paying oil sector jobs were based there.

In the Edmonton area, where the market is also saturated, one real-estate agent put a person in an orange T. Rex costume in photos of a home that had been listed for months.

Erin Hettle told media in December that did increase interest for the four-bedroom split level.

Five months later, however, the house is still on the market.

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