Win dream house? Fine print in Special Olympics raffle suggests prize uncertain #scam?

Posted by on Friday, February 21st, 2014 at 9:24am

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Special Olympics Washington is hosting a “Dream House Raffle,” but it’s not clear the winner will actually get the house being offered.

Raffle to benefit Special Olympians

In a high-profile raffle to benefit Washington’s Special Olympics athletes, some lucky person is going to win a $5 million waterfront mansion.

Or not.

Make no mistake, the mansion is very real. It sits on 160 feet of Lake Sammamish shoreline with a private dock, five bedrooms, eight bathrooms and a home theater with eight overstuffed recliners that could be the ideal place to watch the Seahawks defend their NFL championship next season.

The Sammamish megahouse is the marquee attraction in the $150-a-ticket raffle that also offers more than 1,700 other prizes, including cash, cars, a Caribbean cruise, a golf outing to Scotland and vacations to Bermuda, Aruba, Hawaii and London.

But there’s no guarantee the house at the top of this prize pyramid will actually change hands. In fact, if this raffle goes like the ones it’s patterned after, it won’t.

Deep in the rules, and not mentioned in the eight-page color raffle brochure, is the proviso that the top prize — a choice between the house and a $4 million annuity — will be available only if at least 75,000 tickets are sold.

A similar raffle in St. Louis last year drew a warning to consumers from that area’s Better Business Bureau.

“Our feeling was if they are calling it a house raffle and saying someone could win a house, then someone should win this house,” said Bill Smith, a BBB investigator.

A spokesman for the BBB’s Seattle office, David Quinlan, said he has similar concerns.

“This is not to say this a bad charity, but I’m concerned that they're not being transparent here,” Quinlan said. “It’s imperative for anybody buying tickets to read all the contest rules.”

Not everyone could afford to win this house. The winner would need to pay income tax based on the value of the home, plus annual property taxes of $55,000.

Not to mention the costs in maintaining a 10,000-square-foot home, like properly stocking the climate-controlled wine cellar, built to hold 7,500 bottles.

Neal Zeavy, the San Francisco consultant hired by Special Olympics Washington to run the raffle, said leaving the 75,000-ticket requirement out of the brochure was never intended as a case of bait-and-switch.

“The marketing material is only so big. ... We’re trying to motivate people to buy,” Zeavy said. He said all pertinent information about the raffle is spelled out on the raffle’s website.

All of the 1,700-plus other prizes, Zeavy said, will be awarded no matter how many tickets are sold. And without disclosing numbers, he said ticket sales, which started Jan. 27 and run until mid-May, are doing well.

The raffle was launched with a campaign that included TV, newspaper and magazine ads, as well as advertising on buses and billboards and a direct mailing.

A series of “early bird drawings” are being held to encourage people to buy tickets soon.

Deadline for the first of those drawings is Feb. 28. The winner, to be drawn March 13, can choose a car or $25,000.

Beth Wojick, Special Olympics Washington CEO, said she worked with the state Gambling Commission to ensure that all aspects of the raffle are done legally, an effort that included getting the Legislature to raise limits on the price of raffle tickets sold and value of the top prize.

Wojick said she drew the house-raffle idea from the Special Olympics organization in the Los Angeles area, which is now conducting its fifth annual raffle.

Bill Shumard, CEO of Special Olympics Southern California, said he was happy to provide Wojick the details of a funding method that has been a lifesaver for his group.

“There needed to be an answer to the recession,” said Shumard, adding that from 2007 through 2009, Special Olympics Southern California lost more than $2 million from its reserves.

But since the group started house raffles in 2010, they have netted more than $4.5 million, said Shumard.

That revenue has put the California group in a stronger position to host next year’s Special Olympics World Summer Games, expected to draw 7,000 athletes from 170 countries and trigger an estimated $415 million in economic activity in the region.

But Shumard said none of the four raffles held there generated enough ticket sales to award the house as top prize.

“We’d love to see someone win the house,” he said. “We keep trending upward ... in a couple more years, the house may just come into play.”

Wojick said the Washington state group, which now includes some 10,000 athletes, wants to expand its reach.

She noted that the organization covers the costs of sending athletes to competition elsewhere, including for 50 athletes who will travel to New Jersey for national games in June.

Special Olympics Washington is organizing statewide winter games that will draw 1,500 athletes to the Wenatchee area later this month and summer games that will draw more than 2,500 athletes to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in June.

The group isn’t saying what it is paying Zeavy to organize the raffle. “We don’t want to give away the playbook,” said spokesman Dan Wartelle. “It’s based on ticket sales. If we don’t make money, he doesn’t make money.”

Wartelle said the organization has had an annual budget of $5 million but may increase that closer to $7 million if the raffle is successful.

In this the type of raffle, the house offered as the prize was not donated for the event.

Instead, its owners were approached by Zeavy, who was looking for a house that had been on the market for some time and had photogenic, attention-getting features.

If someone wins the grand prize and opts for the house, the owner would be paid from ticket revenue.

But if the raffle winner chooses money instead, or if the ticket-sales threshold is not reached, the owner keeps the house and benefits from the attention generated.

Zeavy said he’s been involved with 33 house raffles and said that in some the house has been awarded to the winner, but he couldn’t say how many.

Information circulating about the raffle doesn’t give the owner’s name or the house’s exact address. The house is still occupied, and the raffle organizers don’t want to inundate the neighborhood with sightseers.

Windemere broker Margo Allan, representing the property, said the owners are strong supporters of Special Olympics and are glad to help with the cause.

Allan said the fact that the house hasn’t sold is due to several factors, including that it first came on the market in the late summer of 2012, past the hottest part of the real-estate sales year.

Allan also noted it’s one of the most expensive houses on Lake Sammamish, “and there just aren’t that many people who can afford a $5 million home.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Jack Broom: or 206-464-2222

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