People who skipped the recent District housing lottery may think they missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance to buy a house for as little as $250? In hot Columbia Heights? In blossoming Bloomingdale? In newly awakening Anacostia?

But the lottery has been around for 12 years, offering first-time home buyers a tempting avenue to homeownership--and putting boarded-up properties back on the city tax rolls. In those 12 years, about 1,000 units have been raffled off, including 187 single-family houses.

This year's event broke all kinds of records: 15,000 applications distributed, 2,500 people qualified to participate, 68 properties awarded. In part the response was because of an unusual turnover of single-family HUD properties in highly desirable neighborhoods. In part it was a reflection of the city's new allure.

As this year's 68 winners go through a shakedown phase--at least four have stepped aside--we look back at a few of the lottery's earlier homesteaders. Each situation is unique, but every property needed a helping hand and every homesteader made a similar commitment.

For those still kicking themselves, there's always next year. But remember: "Historically, some people don't realize how much work is involved," said District Homestead Housing Program director Lynn C. French. "The payoff is great, but it's not for everyone."