High-end house sitting

Tim Shufelt, Financial Post · Friday, Jul. 2, 2010

Perhaps you want to upgrade your current living quarters to something slightly more palatial, but that would require your riches to be slightly less imaginary.

So you could take the dignified route and accept that fate prefers to store you in a glorified shack, or you can masquerade in a delusional fantasy of boundless wealth.

Fantasy it is. And as it turns out, there are options for those looking to dislodge from reality.

A U.S. company specializing in spiffing up high-end houses for sale is taking the concept of home staging a step further with the incorporation of a specialty prop — humans.

Like any other home stager, Nashville, Tenn.-based Showhomes is paid by sellers to temporarily furnish a house on the market, and in doing so to make neighbouring listings competing for buyers look like soulless, empty boxes by comparison.

It’s a standard model: Bring in furniture, throw down some fake Persian rugs, hang a Matisse print on the wall, put a fern in the corner and leave a tray of chocolate-chip cookies on the kitchen counter. Then watch as prospective buyers outbid and pummel each other for the chance to become part of the domestic utopia laid out before them.

But Showhomes figured it could get other people to do the work for it, and even pay for the privilege, by marketing the listing as a sort of temporary rental property.

Hence, the opportunity for ambitious jamais riches. For monthly fees that pale compared with market rents, you can reign over a palace befitting your aspirations.

Yes, of course, there’s a catch. A bunch of them actually.

You have to outfit the place with “beautiful furniture.” And you have to keep the place impeccably clean and ready for viewings. So the slovenly need not apply. While Showhomes is going for that lived-in look, squalor won’t do. The company describes its ideal candidates as “tidy nomads.”

Also, you can be kicked out at any time once the home is sold.

Despite the downsides, it’s a model that piqued the interest of Jose Torrealba when his work transferred him from Toronto to Milwaukee, Wis., in 2008.

For a monthly fee of US$1,500 — less than half of his mortgage payments in Toronto — Mr. Torrealba was able to move his family into a 5,000-square-foot, US$1.5-million lakeside home.

Initially, the house got two to three showings per week, but that quickly dwindled to about one every couple of weeks, Mr. Torrealba said.

“When you’re looking at a high-end home, you don’t get too many potential buyers.”

After about a year in Milwaukee, the Torrealbas returned to Toronto having saved more than US$20,000.

But he said the experience is not for everyone. Viewings may occur with as little as an hour’s notice. “You can’t entertain all the time, you have to ask permission,” he said. So neither will Jay Gatsby types make good home managers.

But the upside can be tempting.

A 10,000-square-foot, US$1.8-million mansion near Nashville, Tenn., goes for US$3,500 a month. It has six bedrooms, six bathrooms, an in-law apartment and a media room, and would normally rent for around US$10,000.

Alternatively, the real estate market in Park City, Utah, a high-end ski resort town that is home to the Sundance Film Festival, has a glut of obscenely expensive homes built in the housing boom now sitting empty.

Showhomes is now looking for people to fill houses worth upwards of US$10-million that sit virtually on the slopes, “the kind of stuff you would see in Architectural Digest,” said Thomas Scott, the company’s vice-president of marketing. The monthly fee can be as low as US$2,000.

“If you like to ski and you want to live in Park City, this is an unbelievable way to live.”

In addition, those are the types of listings that tend to stay on the market for longer, extending the potential stay of home managers up to a year or two.

The shortest possible stay in any of the company’s homes is a couple of months, the minimum amount of time required to prepare the home and complete the sale process.

Mr. Scott says about half of his home managers are relocating to a different city.

“We joke that we love divorced guys because the wife takes the house and all the furniture and they don’t have anywhere to go. This is a great alternative for those guys to kind of pick up the pieces, live in some really nice house while they kind of rebuild their lives.”

On average, home managers stay for about five months, after which they can move to another listing at the company’s expense.

The average house value is just under US$1-million and many of them have been on the market for a year or more.

The relatively short stay of the company’s home managers is proof the model works, Mr. Scott said.

“The psychology is simple. A house that’s occupied, staged perfectly, kept in show condition and smells clean is always going to sell faster than the other stuff around it,” he said. “Vacant houses are simply vulnerable to lowball offers.”

And the company certainly has no shortage of supply since the U.S. housing bubble burst.

In the first quarter of 2010, more than 19 million housing units, representing more than 14% of the country’s total inventory, were vacant, the U.S. Census Bureau says.

“I hate to say I’m the one guy who really loves the housing market the way it is,” Mr. Scott said. “It’s really good for our business.”

And these days, homebuyers are certainly not looking to real estate as a good investment, so they must love a house before they buy, making home staging all that more important, he said.

While the Showhomes franchise chain is currently limited to the United States, it is only a matter of time before the company expands to Canada, with Toronto being at the top of the list, Mr. Scott said.

tshufelt@nationalpost.com

Read more: http://www.financialpost.com/news/High+house+sitting/3228868/story.html#ixzz0so3XK5rB