Calvin and Diana Brydges own a thrift store on the main drag of Aylmer, Ont., population 7,151. They sell vinyl LPs by Johnny Cash or Gladys Knight & the Pips for $5 or less. A cream-coloured armchair costs $10; an autographed picture of Lenny Kravitz goes for $45.
Or, for $100 and a few pages of inspired writing, you can have their house.
The couple is holding an essay-writing contest, and the prize is their three-bedroom brick home on three quarters of a country acre just east of Aylmer. To win it, entrants must explain why the house would benefit them most, and send a $100 entry fee.
If the couple gets 3,000 essays – they have about 200 entries so far – they'll choose the best and award their house to the author. If not, they will return the money, minus postage.
It is a diversion for the semi-retired couple, but also a potentially creative solution to a soft housing market across Canada, where sales have mostly been treading water or falling.
In February, 15.8 per cent fewer homes changed owners compared with a year ago. Sales are expected to drop in eight provinces this year, and average prices in Ontario, British Columbia and New Brunswick are forecast to go the same direction, the Canadian Real Estate Association says.
Mr. and Mrs. Brydges, who want to move to the Barrie area, know this reality all too well. Having failed for nearly two years to sell their house, with its swimming pool and expansive backyard, 3,000 entry fees would net them $300,000 – roughly their asking price. Now they have to persuade thousands of people to take a chance on their bizarre venture, and brace for a task that would turn most school teachers pale.
"We will read them all," Mr. Brydges said. "In between customers, we can read an essay. We get home and we're not much into TV and stuff, so we'll read them."
Aylmer is a peaceful town built mainly on farming, dotted with churches, and home to a sizable Mennonite community. A main tourist draw is the tens of thousands of tundra swans that stop over each year on a 100-plus-day migration to the far north.
Predictably, the "Essay House" – advertised on Facebook and a garish yellow sign on the Brydges' front lawn – has raised a few eyebrows locally.
"I saw the sign and I thought this must be some kind of joke," said Betty Teichroeb, a server at a popular restaurant called Ruby's Cookhouse.
The couple concedes "there's been a couple of skeptics," but they anticipated some apprehension.
"We're both skeptical ourselves, as people go, so we tried to make this as skeptic-free as possible," Mr. Brydges said.
The idea came on the couple when they watched The Spitfire Grill, a 1996 film that depicts an essay contest with a restaurant as the prize. They found people in the United States who had tried similar gambits with houses, and spent nine months consulting with three lawyers to make sure they wouldn't land in hot water, as Ontario law draws a fine line between illegal gambling and a legal contest.
The key factor in keeping on the law's good side is ensuring the house is won entirely by skill – chance cannot help decide the winner of a game with an entry fee and prize, gaming law experts say. "Your skill is, convince us with your essay how the house will benefit you," Mr. Brydges said.
Good essay writing may seem hard to measure, but an independent lawyer consulted by The Globe and Mail confirmed judging doesn't equal chance, as long as the criteria and judges' identities are made clear.
"Subjectivity is not the same as chance or randomness. It's random when you roll dice or you deal a card," said Chad Finkelstein, partner at Dale & Lessmann LLP.
To stay on the straight and narrow, the Brydges disqualified family and acquaintances. They chose a friend to collect the essays, log details about the entrants, remove identifying information and pass along anonymous copies for judging. (The friend spoke to The Globe, but requested anonymity to keep entrants from contacting or putting pressure on her). And they are asking for the entry fees by certified cheque or money order, which leave a paper trail, to be deposited in a trust account at a major bank until the contest closes on Aug. 31.
They are looking for a deserving winner, they say, insisting their own motivation is partly charitable. They already send the proceeds from their thrift store, This 'N' That, to Mrs. Brydges' brother, a pastor in Florida, who ships supplies to an orphanage in Haiti. If the contest works out, they plan to leave their children to run the Aylmer store and open a second one in Barrie. They promise to donate its proceeds, as well as any leftover money if they receive more than 3,000 essays.
"We'd just like to have more support going down there, because the need is so great," Mr. Brydges said.
Around Aylmer, the buzz is spreading. At nearby Helder Auto Body, licensed painter Josh Milmine learned of the contest from a cousin, and decided against trying his hand only because the house isn't quite what he's looking for – making $100 seem too much to risk. "I'm in the midst of buying a house right now, and it too is around $300,000. If it was that house, oh, I'd be writing for weeks," he said. "I'd make sure [my essay] was perfect."
The winning essay need not be perfect, though – only persuasive.
"Spelling and grammar don't count," Mr. Brydges said. "We're not English teachers. We could care less about commas."