LAKE LURE, N.C. — Go ahead and dream. That’s what Home and Garden Television’s annual Dream Home contest is all about.
Just don’t get too attached to the idea that you’ll actually live in the 2006 grand prize, a 5,700-square-foot traditional-style mountain home perched atop a ridge in the Blue Ridge foothills near Lake Lure, N.C. Even if you’re lucky enough to have the winning entry out of the more than 40 million expected to pour in between Sunday’s start of the contest and the Feb. 17 deadline, you might find that taking up residence is prohibitively expensive.
The contest’s 2005 winner, Don Cruz, moved from suburban Chicago to Tyler, Texas, to take possession of his dream home, a lakefront property valued at $1.5 million, plus furnishings. But taxes on his winnings are expected to total more than $650,000, and local officials slammed the door on Cruz’s plan to pay his bills by renting the boathouse and a master bedroom.
In a recent interview, Cruz said he’s still living in the house in Tyler and has no plans to leave, even as April 15 looms.
“We plan to stay,” he said. “God will provide. We’ll say a prayer, turn it over to him and he provides. It’ll all work out.”
The daunting fiscal math of the Dream Home — even if you survive the initial tax crunch, there’s the annual expense of local property taxes, plus maintenance and upkeep — has kept all but two of the nine winners from ever living in their homes.
This year, the prize package includes $250,000 from Charlotte-based Lending Tree to help the winner with the tax bill. But HGTV spokeswoman Emily Yarborough emphasizes that the network still doesn’t expect winners to actually live in the Dream Home.
“He (Cruz) is not losing money,” she said during an interview on the patio of the Lake Lure home. “It’s just his idea of the dream is wrapped up in that house. Whereas our vision of the dream is that it enables you to do what you want to do.”
That’s a notion seconded by Kathi Nakao, the 2004 winner, who spent several extended vacations at the home she won in St. Mary’s, Ga., before selling it in July.
The twist to the Dream Home competition is that unlike a cash lottery, what attracts millions of entries is not a vague dream of wealth, but the tangible reality of the home itself.
Starting Jan. 1, the Lake Lure house’s assets will be shown off during several hours of HGTV programming, climaxing with a live broadcast April 22 in which one of three finalists will be given the key to the home.
Hopeful entrants can take 360-degree Internet tours of its rooms; the truly eager can even travel to Lake Lure and walk through the house.
The combined effect is a depiction of a lifestyle as detailed as the picture on the Pioneer Elite plasma television that hangs in the home’s game room: A life that includes a wine cellar, an exercise room and your own sauna.
“You start imagining, salivating, fixating on that home,” said Anthony Pratkanis, a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “It’s a ’phantom fixation’ — an unavailable alternative that looks real. ... The contest plays along with it.”
The same principle — a fantasy seemingly made real by its details — is central to much advertising, pornography and many a con scheme, Pratkanis said.
Fantasy or not, the contest has been a real-world smash for HGTV since the first Dream Home, in Jackson Hole, Wyo., was given away in 1997. It generates hours of wintertime programming and is popular with sponsors who like the buzz and product placement it offers.
Atlanta-based Land Resource Companies is the developer of Grey Rock at Lake Lure, the 4,000-acre community to be built around this year’s Dream Home. For the company, it’s a return engagement — the Georgia house won by Nakao two years ago was also in one of its developments.
Spokesman Cameron McLemore said Grey Rock received 6,000 inquiries the day it was announced as a Dream Home site; meanwhile, St. Mary’s, Ga., is still getting HGTV-driven inquiries two years after its Dream Home was given away.
Nakao’s own story offers an illustration of how the contest hits the sweet spot for the network, its audience and its sponsors. In 2003, she happened to turn on HGTV and “catch a program that was showing some furniture.”
The following Jan. 1, she watched as the 2004 Dream Home was unveiled. Later, she took an Internet tour. And 11 of that year’s approximately 36 million entries were hers — including the winning one (contestants can submit one Internet entry per day and as many mail entries as they want).
Nakao spent 29 years working for the finance department of the California state government; with an accounting background, she knew as soon as she won the home that she would not be able to keep it.
“I never let myself get where I thought I was going to stay there forever,” she said.
With the money from its sale, she said, she paid the taxes on her prize and financed a renovation of her Sacramento home. She and her husband gave money to a local charity and helped their children. Nakao also bought herself a coveted 1956 Chevrolet hot rod.
“That’s my prize,” she said.
“I truly believe that HGTV is doing something great and they’re doing it to change your life for the better,” she said. “It’s a rollercoaster ride, but I was at the top of it for a long time — and I still am.”
She has followed media accounts of Don Cruz’s effort to live in his Dream Home with sympathy.
“When they were moving there, I felt so sorry for them, because I thought, ‘Oh, you just don’t know. You just don’t know what it entails to keep a property like that,”’ she said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to sell it and have their own, smaller version of a dream home.”
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