Perched high on the steep, wooded slopes of the Teign Valley, the picturesque village of Hennock is said to offer some of the most breathtaking views in all of Devon.
Here in this tranquil little spot, life centres around the church of St Mary the Virgin — parts of which date back to the Middle Ages — and The Palk Arms, a historic 19th-century pub. All in all, it seems an idyllic place to live, but just last month locals were discussing the absence of the man who owns one of Hennock’s most expensive homes.
A beautifully renovated, five-bedroom Georgian cottage, it is one of 20 luxurious properties snapped up in the past three years by Omaze — an American-owned, for-profit company which claims to have raised £25 million for UK charities through draws offering high-end homes as first prizes.
New buyers invested a huge sum to improve this modern house in Cheltenham
In October, it was announced that the Hennock property had gone to Simon Williams, a 41-year-old aircraft engineer and father-of-two from West Sussex, who explained that his win was all the more thrilling because his late father brought him for holidays in Devon when he was a child.
‘It’s such a beautiful county and holds so many fond memories for me,’ he said.
‘Having my own place in Devon and being able to bring my family here, like my father did with me, is incredibly special.’
Describing how the only thing he had previously won was a £200 Playstation, he said he planned to set this up in the living room of his new home. Yet, when the Mail visited Hennock last month, there was no sign of life at the house.
The winners of Stealth House in Combe Martin asked Omaze for a cash alternative, apparently after learning of coastal erosion threatening the property
The five-bar wooden gate at the entrance to the quarter-mile drive was secured with a heavy chain and lock while a sign had been posted warning intruders of 24-hour security. And the villagers we spoke to were in little doubt about its future.
‘I was told that within three or four days of the winner being announced an estate agent was asked to value it,’ said one local.
‘It’s about to go back on the market,’ said another. ‘If it isn’t for sale already, it will be soon.’
Since Omaze has declined to put the Mail in touch with any of its winners, we could not contact Mr Williams to confirm whether he does plan to sell. But if so, then he is far from alone.
Entering a draw seems to be ‘win-win’ as the Omaze website says.
The company, founded by Californian Matt Pohlson in 2012, says it has raised £25,000,000 for British charities since it launched in the UK in 2020 — with Omaze pocketing 20 per cent of each giveaway’s earnings.
There was no sign of life at this five-bedroom Georgian Omaze house in Hennock, Devon
Tickets range from only 20p if you take out a monthly subscription of £30 for 150 tickets, to 66p if you make a one-off purchase of 15 entries for £10. That seems a reasonable price to pay for helping good causes while getting a chance to win a glamorous new home.
But the Mail has visited every one of the houses won since Omaze began its UK competitions in November 2020 and discovered that most go on the market within 12 months.
Of the 20 properties given away so far, we could find only four where the winners were in residence. For many others, the lights seem to have gone out on their dreams of living amid the sumptuousness promised by Omaze’s slick website, in favour of selling off their property to make a quick profit.
Uttam Parmar won this stunning £3million Cornish home with a hot tub in August 2022, but within eight weeks it was on the market due to the running costs
While the company is clear that winners are free to sell or rent out their properties if they choose, this is not always as straightforward as it sounds — especially as it has been claimed that some have been plagued with problems. Take five-bedroom Willowbrook House, a stunning Georgian country pile near Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds. In June 2021, the £2.5 million home, which boasts an infinity pool and a separate two-bedroom cottage, was won by 48-year-old IT consultant Darren Wordon from Bath.
He was inspired to enter the draw after seeing a TV advert announcing that it was in aid of the Prince’s Trust but, after moving in with his wife Mandy and their two children, discovered that they were living in a valley that floods nearly every year. According to neighbour Julia Boardman, who has lived in the secluded little hamlet since 1968, the house had flooded twice previously. ‘[The water] went straight in through the back door and out of the front door,’ she said.
Another resident said that the winning family ‘were keen to make a go of it’ but had concerns about future floods.
They moved out and the house eventually sold for £2.15 million last December, almost half a million less than the price originally advertised by Omaze.
One mansion sits in the nearby village of Rock, and has panoramic views of the Camel Estuary
Two months after the Wordons won their prize, 54-year-old Walsall foundry worker Glen Elmy and his wife Debbie, 60, learned that they were the lucky new owners of Stealth House near Combe Martin, on the rugged north Devon coast. It’s the kind of property you might see in a James Bond movie, with sharp triangular shapes and floor-to-ceiling windows offering sweeping views out to sea, and the couple said at the time that they would be keeping it.
‘There’s no other house like it in the country, so why would we want to sell it?’ said Mr Elmy.
Yet within three days the Elmys had moved out, apparently after learning of coastal erosion threatening the property, and are understood to have demanded a cash alternative equal to the £3 million price tag.
Omaze refused to comment on this, saying that the company ‘does not share private details regarding its winners beyond what is featured in winner announcements.’
But Land Registry records suggest that the house is still in Omaze’s name and last month it appeared that nobody has visited for a while. Thick moss has begun to grow along the private drive and an eight-foot-tall tree has fallen across it, telling its own story of how the property has been seemingly abandoned.
Grant Carson described himself as ‘one of the luckiest men in Scotland’ after winning this five-bedroom, 18th-century farmhouse in the Lake District
Even from behind the high metal gates at the end of the drive, it’s clear that it is empty of furniture and one neighbour suggested it has been unoccupied for some time.
‘I can see from my house when the lights are on and they haven’t been on in months,’ he said. Of course, these are all problems many of us would be happy to bear if it meant we were ultimately walking away a multi-millionaire, as did 73-year-old Susan Havenhand from Taunton, Somerset, winner of a modern £3.5 million home on the edge of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, last June.
Four months later, she sold it for £3.9 million — an enviable return on her £10 entry fee — but the new owners quickly decided the house needed extensive renovation and spent this summer hiring builders at a cost of more than £500,000.
According to one neighbour, ‘there were problems all over the house and by the time the last tradesman had left the property, the current owners had said goodbye to half a million putting it right.’ The new owners confirmed the amount spent on repair work, but refused to comment further.
The £2.5 million home, near Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds, sits in a valley that floods nearly every year
According to neighbour Julia Boardman, the house had flooded twice previously. ‘[The water] went straight in through the back door and out of the front door,’ she said
For their part, Omaze insist that all their properties are subject to ‘extensive professional surveys, searches and inspections’.
They say that none of these reports suggested any material concerns with Stealth House, or with the houses in Cheltenham and Willowbrook.
They also point out that they give winners generous cash bonuses which have ranged from £50,000 to £250,000 — depending on the home — to help them with the running costs.
But those costs can still be a serious deterrent to anyone thinking of remaining in one of these houses, as Steve Hunter, director of Hunter French estate agents in the Cotswolds, points out.
‘While these properties are absolutely stunning, the cost of maintaining something of this nature is not for the faint-hearted or those of us on a modest income.
‘Council tax is likely to be the highest band and if the property is left unoccupied for long periods of time this can be doubled or even tripled by some local authorities.’
(Since 2013, local authorities have had the power to increase council tax by up to 50 per cent for homes left empty for more than two years.)
‘Also, if you think the cost of heating your three-bedroom semi is expensive, imagine trying to heat a period farm house.’
Running costs were certainly an issue for Uttam Parmar, a 59-year-old operations manager from Leicestershire. In August 2022, he won a stunning £3million Cornish home with a hot tub, neighbours including Gordon Ramsay who has a £4.4 million mansion in the nearby village of Rock, and panoramic views of the Camel Estuary.
Although the house came mortgage-free and fully-furnished, and with stamp duty and all legal fees covered, Mr Parmar and his wife Raki, 53, put it on the market within eight weeks of scooping the jackpot.
‘It is a fantastic house in a beautiful Cornish location but we can’t afford to keep it,’ said Mr Parmar at the time.
The four-bed, four-bath property was originally on the market for £4 million but the price was later reduced to £3.5 million and it has since been withdrawn from the website of London-based Luxury Property Partners.
No one from the company got back to the Mail to confirm whether it had sold and Mr Parmar would not comment, but the Land Registry shows no record of a recent sale so we can only presume that the Parmars have not managed to offload the house.
Other Omaze properties appear to have been equally hard to shift.
The village of Hennock seems an idyllic place to live, with the church of St Mary the Virgin — parts of which date back to the Middle Ages — and The Palk Arms, a historic 19th-century pub
Last January, 58-year-old Grant Carson, a Glaswegian charity worker, described himself as ‘one of the luckiest men in Scotland’ after winning a five-bedroom, 18th-century farmhouse in the Lake District.
Its estimated value was £2.5 million and just six months later he put it up for sale. It’s now under offer but only after the price was dropped to £2,350,000. ‘The market has slowed quite drastically,’ said a local estate agent who asked not to be named. ‘And when it does, that kind of property at the top end is the first to be affected.’
‘Buyers with such deep pockets are few and far between,’ agreed Steve Hunter, director of Hunter French.
But even at the reduced price, the money Mr Carson makes from the sale of the house will clearly make a big difference to a man who lives in a three-bedroom semi and has spent 27 years helping disabled people.
‘It’s a truly life-changing win for me,’ he said at the time of his win, and the Omaze website is full of similarly heart-warming stories.
They include that of December’s winner Oceanne Belle, a 49-year-old student nurse who had to move out of her flat because the landlord put up the rent. She was sleeping on a friend’s sofa when she heard that she had won a £5 million townhouse in Chelsea.
‘It’s a good feeling to know that you’ve got your own home,’ she said last month. ‘I want to live here and I’m going to enjoy every single minute of it.’
To help her along, Omaze has given her a cash bonus of £100,000.
That alone is a Christmas present most of us can only fantasise about, but let’s hope Ms Belle does not become the latest to discover that, when it comes to winning an Omaze home, the dream can be very different to the reality.