Educaloi Essay Contest House

Finding a caregiver for any child is a big deal; finding a caregiver for a child with special needs can be an ordeal. I know this from experience: I have a son with cerebral palsy, and I'm a working mom. Over the years, I've had to hire a variety of babysitters and caregivers. When my son was very young, I was your basic nervous wreck every single time. But now that he's 7, and I've matured as well, I know what I'm doing--and I've learned a few tips and tricks over the years that have helped. Glad to share!

  • Be open about your child's needs.If you are placing an ad, give a general scope of the help involved in caring for your child (for example, "Child requires assistance with basic tasks such as dressing, feeding, toileting and bathing.") It's better for potential caregivers to know right up front what kind of work will be involved--and for those who are not interested in caring for a child with special needs to move along.
  • Do a first interview without the kids around. There's no need to let them meet each other until you think they're a good candidate; meeting a string of potential babysitters might confuse your child.
  • Share the good, the bad and the ugly during the next interview. This should take place at home, with the entire family around. It'll take a couple of hours, and you'll want to lay out the realities of caring for your child and his or her abilities and challenges. When I've interviewed babysitters, I've gushed about my son, who has the world's sunniest smile and is generally sweet and fun-loving. I've also shared the trickiest parts about managing him--for instance, since he is unable to speak, he occasionally gets frustrated and hits. You want caregivers to have a complete understanding of what caring for your child will be like.
  • Explain the complete scope of tasks. At our house, caregivers have had to administer medication, as well as sit through therapy and speech sessions with our son and do exercises with him while I was at work during the week. It'll be helpful for you to make a list of tasks ahead of time so you remember to touch on everything; eventually, you'll want to give that list to the caregiver you hire.
  • Ask open-ended questions. This means that instead of asking questions that someone could answer with a "yes" or "no," you ask questions that encourage discussion. For example, instead of saying "Are you comfortable with feeding my son?" you could ask "What sort of experience have you had that would make you comfortable feeding an older child?" Other good questions: "What was your favorite part of caring for the last child you worked with? And your least favorite? Have you had to deal with an emergency special needs situation? If so, how did you handle it?" Ask a few personal questions, too, like what the person enjoys doing during his or her free time; these can be very revealing. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time.
  • Have playtime. Obviously, caregivers will be on their best behavior, but you will get a sense of how he or she will interact with your child.
  • Get at least three referrals. Call every single one and ask the tough questions, too, such as "Nobody is perfect. What would you say this person's biggest imperfection is?" When we hired one daytime nanny, her reference told us that her biggest downside was that she wasn't always so creative about playtime. She was, however, an otherwise warm, kind, responsible, dedicated, caring person--the most important things, for us. We've never had a single regret about hiring her. You'll also want to do a criminal background check as well as a driving record check, if she will be transporting your child around.
  • Do a trial day. A few years ago, we were looking around for a new caregiver. There was one young, energetic woman who seemed promising; she'd previously cared for a child with special needs. So my husband and I paid her to come over for an afternoon and take care of the kids while we observed. Mostly, she played with our daughter; when our son had a meltdown, she seemed utterly incapable of handling him. She also didn't seem to have the patience for feeding him. We would have never known if we hadn't had her over for a trial.
  • Don't assume that all special-needs caregivers are alike. Even though the woman above had previously worked with a child who had disabilities, she wasn't able to work with my child's disabilities.
  • Above all, trust your gut. You know better than anyone--better than doctors, better than any experts--what's right for your child. If your instincts are telling you someone's not right, listen to them.


Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna are among a small group to try this unconventional sales method. In 2015, for example, an innkeeper in Maine dispensed with her bed-and-breakfast through an essay contest; she had acquired it in the same fashion in 1993. Such contests are uncommon largely because they involve serious legwork, with no guarantee of success. Rather than hammer a “for sale” sign into the lawn and wait for the open house, these sellers have to set up and run a contest, generating enough buzz around a single property to convince thousands of people to gamble on it. Already, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna have had to extend their deadline, originally set for Jan. 31.

So far, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna, who live in New Jersey, have spent about $40,000. They hired a lawyer to establish rules and guidelines, judges to read the entries and a publicist to spark interest. They built a website with a promotional video showcasing the property and its surroundings, located in a gated community called the Chapin Estate. They declined to say how many people have submitted essays, as the contest is continuing.

The contest strategy has the potential to appeal to far more potential buyers than might otherwise purchase homes in the area. “I’m absolutely amazed by who enters these contests,” said Sara F. Hawkins, a lawyer in Phoenix, who has handled about five similar competitions, including the one in Bethel. “They’re from all over, all walks of life.”

In the promotional video, set to inspirational music, Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna walk hand-in-hand through the wooded property, roast marshmallows at a campfire and play horseshoes with friends. They have been trying to sell the property because they rarely visit it, which is due in part to the fact that they own two bed-and-breakfasts in Cape May, N.J. The house, just steps from a lake, has a log cabin-y feel, with vaulted ceilings and a stone fireplace.

The video makes it all seem so dreamy. But it also poses the question: If no one was willing to buy the property when it was listed for $825,000 in 2015, why would 5,500 people want to bid on it now?

It all comes down to money, Mr. Bares said.

“I do believe that there are at least 5,500 people who would be willing to pay $149 for a vacation house that’s within two hours of one of the great cities of the world,” he said. “I think that the pool is huge.”

But Christine Vande Vrede, a saleswomen at Chapin Sotheby’s International Realty, with offices in the Chapin Estate, doubts that the pool is so vast. “I don’t see this happening in this neck of the woods,” she said. Unlike internationally famous vacation spots like the Hamptons, people who buy homes in this part of the Catskills “have a regional knowledge,” she said. (Unless, of course, you consider Bethel’s claim to fame, as the actual location of the Woodstock festival in 1969.)

The Chapin Estate has sprawling Adirondack lodge-style homes spread across 20,000 acres of forested land with lakes and mountain views. One listing asks $6.75 million for a 14,400-square-foot compound with two homes, a horse stable and riding arena. A more modest one asks $775,000 for a three-bedroom lodge.

By contrast, Ms. Vande Vrede described 391 Woodstone Trail as “basically a three-car garage with a finished apartment above it.” She added that “what that home has to offer might not be what our clients are looking for.”

Mr. Bares paid around $750,000 for the land in 2007, before he met Ms. Lavorgna. He spent another $350,000 building the home. If the essay contest is successful, it will have raised nearly as much as the 2015 list price of $825,000. “They are trying to short circuit the market,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers and Consultants, who described the contest as “more of a gimmick than a real contest.”

These types of contests are not without problems. A winner might not comprehend the tax implications, and ultimately be unable to afford the cost of owning and maintaining the property. Contestants who don’t win might challenge the results. There are complicated legal issues associated with holding a national contest, as laws vary from state to state. Without enough contestants, sellers would have to return hundreds, if not thousands, of checks, itself a daunting task.

Mr. Bares and Ms. Lavorgna see the contest as not only a way to sell a difficult property, but also as the start of a business venture. In addition to their two bed-and-breakfasts, they also own an interior design company. They have been featured on HGTV, on Caribbean Life and Flea Market Flip, where they won $5,000.

Using the essay contest as a model, they are designing an internet platform where sellers could list homes for sale by contest. Initial setup plans would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for access to contest rules, legal plans, promotional materials, social media and a judging platform. Mr. Bares anticipates that the seller would ultimately pay about half the price of a broker’s fee, which is usually about six percent of the selling price.

Their hope rests on the notion that if people can turn their homes into ad hoc bed-and-breakfasts using platforms like Airbnb, what’s stopping them from selling their home in a game of skill? If the entry fee costs about the same as a night on the town, buyers just might take a chance. “Everyone seems to be looking for a deal these days,” Ms. Hawkins, the lawyer, said. “Why not this?”

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Correction: February 12, 2017

An article last Sunday about an essay contest to win a house in the Catskills misspelled the given name of the lawyer handling the competition. She is Sara F. Hawkins, not Sarah.

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