A headline like, “You can buy this 1,100 square foot house in a very desirable part of Houston for a mere $150” is hard to resist, but we should make clear from the beginning that it’s kind of a lie. Technically, you could buy the two-bedroom 213 E. 23rd Street for $150, but you probably won’t have the chance: Thousands of people will also be trying to do so, and the seller—Houston realtor Michael Wachs—will select his buyer based on a 200 word essay.
If the quirky idea sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because the owners of a bed and breakfast in Maine used it last year. Wachs saw the viral stories about the place in Maine and says that he thought it sounded like fun.
The house was listed on Thursday morning, and Wachs has already received hundreds of applications from people who would very much like the opportunity to buy his house. The process comes in two-steps: You submit an application with an essay about why you shpould get the house, and you then pay a $150 fee to be considered. “The number of people who’ve paid the offer fee is way less” than the number who’ve submitted applications, Wachs says.
Wachs is hoping for thousands of applicants. Indeed, he’ll need that many to make selling the house in this manner something he’s able to do (“We’ll take it off the market if it doesn’t make sense to sell it,” he says, but in that case he says he will refund applicants’ $150 fees). And it’s an interesting idea: He’ll need about 2,600 people to pay $150 for their shot at his house in order for it to sell at its appraised value, but 2,599 of them will not be moving in. In a lot of ways, it more closely resembles a raffle or a lottery than a sale, although Wachs balks at that notion. “It’s not a raffle,” he says. “We’re selling the house.”
Some of the essays that Wachs has received have been emotional, and some of them have been funny, and he says he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, in terms of who he’s going to choose to sell to. But that process has to be weird: At some point, he and his wife will be sifting through the sad/funny/inspirational/tragic/hopeful stories of thousands of strangers, stacking them against one another, and picking just one person whose life they’re going to change. That part of it, Wachs admits, he hadn’t considered before.
“We took this idea from this bed and breakfast in Maine. I thought, ‘This is so great, we could sell our house and have an opportunity for someone to get into the Heights and live more reasonably,’” he says, noting that property taxes on the house run around $500 a month, plus insurance and utilities. “But I was just thinking of it as a singular person. I didn’t take into account the literally thousands of stories that we’d have to judge, or weigh one against the other. So it’s really daunting, already. It’s maybe a bad move? It’s probably a reason why people just list their houses regularly. But I’m up for experimenting.”
Wachs and his wife are reviewing all of the applicants anonymously, and he’s aware that it opens up the possibility of shenanigans: “It might just be a developer who writes a great essay, and we don’t know,” he admits, but he adds that, if someone who, because of financial constraints, is not typically in the market for houses in the Heights, happens to buy the place and then turns around and sells it, he wouldn’t be heartbroken.
“If someone is low-income and they want to live here, they should know that it still costs a fair bit in taxes and such to live in the area. On the other hand, if they were low-income and they received the house, they could immediately sell it and then make a bunch of money,” he says. “I wouldn’t be upset—it’d be taking a person out of poverty. It’d be great.”
Wachs’s website says that the offers close in 29 days, although he reserves the right to extend that should the offers not come in on time. And while all of this sounds stressful for him, the appeal is pretty clear, too: Wachs is a realtor, and there’s a possibility that he’ll get enough applications to make significantly more than the house is worth off of $150 fees alone. And as a realtor, the names and contact information of thousands of people who are looking to buy houses like his in Houston is probably a pretty valuable addition to his database. In other words, it’s basically a win-win for Wachs.
As experiments go, this one is interesting, and there’ll be at least one other winner besides Wachs—somebody is gonna get a heck of a deal on a house in one of Houston’s more desirable neighborhoods, subsidized by thousands of people who didn’t get that chance—but he also doesn’t expect this model to supplant the existing listings model for realtors.
“I would say it’s definitely easier to call a realtor, and we as realtors have set up a great system to list, sell, and market your house,” he says. “But who knows? There’s always a niche for something. I don’t know if this will work out for us. I don’t know if this is a viable option. It’s sort of gimmicky—I don’t know how often people would really want to write essays for properties over and over, and then to review them.”