In 1997, HGTV's, a charming log house crafted of Nordic pine and overlooking the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, launched a series of fantasy abodes, each just a little more impressive than the last.
The network has debuted a new Dream Home every year since, and launched two adjacent sweepstakes:(formerly Green Home), in 2008, which showcases cutting-edge, energy efficient systems and appliances, and , in 2010, for the city-dwelling set enamored with skyline views. Sister network DIY also has the , formerly called Blog Cabin.
The 2018 prize, , Washington, comes with $250,000 in cash and a new Honda Accord — a total prize value of $1.8 million. The period to enter the sweeps closed on Feb. 16. Last year's giveaway received more than 130 million entries. (HGTV Magazine is published by Hearst, the parent company of Country Living.)
"The view from is by far my favorite of any of the homes we've done," says Dream Home general manager Ron Feinbaum, who's in charge of selecting the properties and seeing them through to completion. "I knew it was the house within five seconds of walking in based on the view alone."
Of the 21 people who've won Dream Homes over the years, only six, or about 28 percent, actually lived in their home for more than a year. The vast majority either took the cash alternative or sold the house back to the developer within a year of winning.
"Uncle Sam makes it a little difficult to take ownership," says Laura Martin of Boise, Idaho, the 2014 winner of a sprawling mountain house in Lake Tahoe. It wasn't lack of wanting the house that made her choose the money instead.
The Dream Home grand prize — typically $250,000 in cash, a car, and sometimes a boat, in addition to the home itself, usually valued at $1 million or more — comes with a federal income-tax bill of about $700,000, according to an , state income and real-estate taxes that vary by location. The cash alternative, on the other hand, carries a federal tax liability closer to $500,000, no real-estate tax, and none of the maintenance, utilities, or relocation or travel costs associated with owning a second home.
David Rennie, who won the Merritt Island, Florida, Dream Home in 2016 but chose the lump payment, says not everyone grasps the tax burden. "People at my church still ask me, 'Have you been to your house in Florida lately?'" he says. "I have to tell them I wasn't able to keep it. They're surprised."
Tina Carlson of Thousand Oaks, California, the 1998 winner, kept her low-country charmer in Beaufort, South Carolina, for seven years, the longest time of any recepient. She took out a mortgage on the home to pay the taxes and used it as a vacation and rental property before selling it in 2005.
The third person to ever win a Dream Home, Belinda Brown of Kingston, Tennessee, tried to rent out her Rosemary Beach, Florida, retreat to cover the cost of taxes but ended up owing the IRS almost $300,000. She sold it after 2 years.
Don Cruz moved his wife and son from Illinois to Tyler, Texas, after winning the 2005 Dream Home. Their plans to turn the estate into a bed-and-breakfast were thwarted by zoning restrictions, and they had to borrow money against the house to help pay for cancer treatment for Don's father. Three years later, the home was in foreclosure and Don was $430,000 in debt. Still, he continues entering the sweepstakes every year — for him, .
HGTV officials the "dream" isn't really about living in the house, but what happens after selling it. The Groszkiewicz family, including wife Karen and four children, visited their $1-million Mexico Beach, Florida, mansion a few times before selling it that September for close to $800,000. Then, they were audited by the IRS. Twice.
In December 2005, John received one letter from the IRS saying they were being reaudited, followed by another stating the agency owed them 18 cents.
"Winning one of these homes is life-changing in that recipients either pick up their things and move or they suddenly have a large savings account," says Dream Home general manager Ron Feinbaum. "The outcome depends on the individual winner but the overarching theme is that, if you win, it's life-changing."
Dream Home sweeps are typically open to entries for a period of seven weeks during which contestants can enter for a chance to win twice daily. Previous winners say maxing out entries was integral to their success. "I entered twice a day religiously," says 2017 Smart Home winner Stacy Bolder.
Myra Lewis, a New Orleans resident whose home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, found an accountability partner in her sister, who reminded her to enter on a daily basis. In 2010, Myra won the New Mexico Dream House, a 4,208-square-foot home, $500,000 in cash and a brand-new GMC Terrain SUV.
Carole Simpson, a former Marine from Columbia, Tennessee, entered the sweepstakes for years before beating out more than 77 million entrants for the 2013 Dream Home in Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
A guardian angel and a positive mindset help too. Vicky Naggy, the hair stylist from Acme, Pennsylvania, who won in 2012 she had entered in previous years but had a "funny feeling" she would succeed this time around, and that her luck came from her recently departed friend, Donna.
General manager Ron Feinbaum says the biggest misconception about the giveaway is that it's impossible to win. "We see so many social-media posts that say, 'I'm going to enter again this year but I'll never win,'" he explains. "And yet, real people win it every time: teachers, retirees, firefighters, postal workers."
Once draws the lucky name, a team of producers begins planning the ultimate surprise party, working with the winner's friends, spouse, parents, and/or children to create a scenario where and a crew of camera operators can ambush them, usually at a restaurant or their place of employment. Last year's winner, Anna Spangler, for example, thought she was having an average Friday night out with her husband and friends when Brooks stormed their sip-and-paint class to inform the Kutztown, Pennsylvania, native of her $1.7-million prize including a waterfront home on St. Simons Island, Georgia.
"There's nothing more humanly emotional than when you can ambush somebody and surprise them with one of these homes," says HGTV's Feinbaum.
David Rennie's 2016 setup was orchestrated by his two adult daughters and son-in-law. The family was at church on Palm Sunday, which also happened to coincide with a special milestone for David, who had received a life-saving kidney transplant one year earlier. The priest made an excuse for the camera crew's presence (they were filming a documentary for the diocese, he said) and invited David up front for a blessing on his anniversary.
HGTV's Brooks joined them by the podium to talk about her own kidney transplant, which she'd received from her brother more than a decade before. "I thought, That's cool, then she started talking about the HGTV Dream Home and I realized something might be up," says David. "But a lot of other people in the congregation had entered too."
David's friends and family stood behind him as he received the news, afraid he might faint. "It's a surreal experience when they tell you you've won this house, a boat, cash, and all that stuff," he says. "It's overwhelming."
Sometimes it takes a minute for the news to set in. When network officials called the winner of 2017's Ultimate Retreat — only Dream Home and Smart Home winners are told in person — he didn't believe it was real. "We had to call him back a second time," says Feinbaum.
From there, winners are invited to spend a couple of days getting to know their new home and town — with airfare, hotel, and restaurants all courtesy of the network, of course. Winner's Weekend, as it's called, includes an inaugural tour of the house, where the interior designer explains the thought process behind the paint choices, furniture, and other fixtures.
Dozens of representatives from sponsors also share in the celebration. "The homes are created with sponsor products, so it's a way to show them in person how beautiful the house is with items they supplied, and let them experience this amazing weekend with someone who's having a life-changing moment," says Feinbaum.
Don Cruz, the 2005 winner, the weekend was filled with unforgettable firsts, from the transportation ("I thought the first time I'd ride in a stretch limo, I'd be six feet under!") to a chance meeting with country singer Dwight Yoakam at one of the high-end restaurants they visited.
"It makes the heart grow a little bit bigger to meet these people and understand how thankful they are that first time they get to open the door to their new house or sit in their new car," says Feinbaum.
"I had never personally driven a new car," says 2016 winner David Rennie. "I had bought one for my wife that I would drive it occasionally, but it was her day-to-day car. We'd never purchased a vehicle with all of the bells and whistles, just the basic model."
Trying out the house before making a decision, as some winners did in the early years, is no longer an option. Feinbaum says HGTV's parent company used to contract with builders who would take on the home's financial liability by allowing winners to sell it back to them within 12 months. "Scripps did not want to be in real estate business," he says. After the economic downturn of 2008, however, "it was easier and more feasible for us to [offer a cash alternative] rather than complicating things with a buyback."
Now, when winners opt for the cash, Feinbaum and his team put the house on the market. They usually have an offer within a month, though some houses, like the 2017 Urban Oasis in Knoxville, Tennessee, go in just days.
Of the four individuals who won various home giveaways in 2017, three went with the cash. The fourth, Smart Home winner Stacy Bolder, a teacher from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, was excited about the prospect of moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, not far from her sister and brother-in-law in Glendale, but hit a snag when she landed a coveted associate principal job at her local high school just two weeks after winning. "I had to do some soul searching," she says.
David Rennie met with a financial advisor after winning and says the cash alternative was a "no brainer." He and wife, Margaret, weren't prepared to leave Connecticut for Florida full-time — all of their family is in the northeast, including a daughter who was still in college then — and keeping the home as a rental-property-slash-vacation-home wouldn't have guaranteed the income needed to cover taxes.
But that's not to say the Rennies didn't get their dream house. They used their winnings to remodel the home they already have, incorporating design elements they'd seen in the HGTV model, including blue penny tile in the bathroom, a basket-weave backsplash in their completely redone kitchen, and prints of the original artwork on display in the Merritt Island home.
Laura Martin, the 2014 winner, says even though she didn't keep the Dream Home, HGTV gave her family "a better American dream." They purchased a new home in Idaho with the winnings ("We literally wrote a check for it"), parlayed the Yukon Denali into two smaller vehicles, and spent a vacation in Belize, where they bought property and plan to build a winter home someday.
There's also a vicarious thrill for people close to the winners. "My husband and I joke that the whole scenario was the most fun for our friends," says Laura. "Everyone has new lease on life and a belief in infinite possibilities because they know someone it happened to. I get ed by at least 30 people every year when the sweepstakes is happening who say, I'm entering because of you!"
Stacy, who initially kept her Smart Home, enjoyed one vacation there with family before deciding the job offer back in Wisconsin was too good to pass up. "I thought it would be nice to keep home, that maybe my sister and her husband could live there and rent it from us," she says, "but financially that was not the best thing for us either." By Christmas, she had sold the house, furniture and all.
She did, however, keep the car, a brand-new Mercedes-Benz SUV, but even that posed somewhat of a problem. "I felt self-conscious about driving it in Tomahawk. I went round and round with my friends and they're like, Keep the car, you need to keep the car!" says Stacy. "I'm really into cars but I never thought in a million years I would even test drive car like that."
The sale of the house allowed Stacy and her husband to buy a new home in Wisconsin, pay off their debts, invest money in a retirement account, and contribute to college funds for their two boys, one of whom was already attending. "When I won I knew, regardless of whether I kept the house or not, I was so grateful because this is a life-changing event for myself and family," she says. "Being a teacher, I wasn't raking in the dough. To be in position where retirement, at some point, actually looks feasible is incredible."