Showhomes News: Forget fresh flowers and percolating coffee, human stagers are where it’s at
Pat Hermann poses before the mansion she stages in Minnetonka, Minn. AP
Steve Ladurantaye, Real Estate Reporter
Globe and Mail
Forget fresh flowers and percolating coffee, human stagers are where it’s at in the tough, high-end U.S. home market
Patricia Hermann is the ultimate house sitter.
In the past four years, she has lived in six monster homes in Minnesota, where she works as a nurse at the Minneapolis Heart Institute. The average emergency room nurse in the state makes about $70,000 – good money, but not enough to make the mortgage payments on the $850,000, five-bedroom Tudor-style she’s currently calling home.
Ms. Hermann is a “home manager” for Nashville-based Showhomes Home Staging, an nationally franchised network of home staging businesses. She pays a small amount each month – the amount is different in each market, but is usually around $1,200 to $1,500, or the average rent in a city for a decent two-bedroom apartment – and moves into empty homes that are languishing on the resale market. She’s a human prop, brought in along with fresh-cut flowers and some tasteful paintings to help a property feel “lived in.”
“I’ve been doing this since 2006 and I kind of take it one year a time,” said Ms. Hermann, a 63-year-old grandmother of three. “Maybe I’ll decide to get a place of my own again some day, but I’ve gotten so spoiled that it would be hard to move into a little apartment.”
The concept of home staging, often called “fluffing”, is an old one. But in the aftermath of the U.S. foreclosure crisis, it has taken on greater importance, as desperate homeowners try to set their properties apart from millions of others on the market.
Staging used to mean bringing in some snazzy furniture and making sure there weren’t any lingering odours to turn off prospective home buyers. But that is no longer enough. The housing crash has left some 20 million homes unoccupied and for sale, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of these are high-end properties being sold by people who took on too much and have since moved to rental properties or smaller homes. Others are empty because of foreclosures.
Regardless of the reason, vacant homes often sell for less than occupied ones. Buyers know the sellers are motivated to unload the property. Empty houses can depreciate quickly because maintenance is neglected, and buyers have a hard time picturing themselves living in what is currently an empty shell. In the U.S., buyers already have a lot of choice: For every qualified one, there about 40 homes available.
“The bottom line is vacant houses get low-balled by bottom fishers,” said Thomas Scott, vice-president of marketing at Showhomes.
Enter the professional house sitter, whose job is to keep the property in “pristine” condition in return for below-market rent. “We don’t let just anyone do this,” said Mr. Scott. “There’s pretty rigorous screening involved. You can’t have a criminal record, you need good credit and you can’t be a slob.”
There’s no particular demographic in play, but young professionals and even families are prime candidates, Mr. Scott said. Many of the home managers are coming out of a divorce and looking for short-term housing while they figure things out. Most managers stay on for a few years, while some have been around for a decade or longer.
Showhomes charges homeowners a fraction of a percent of the selling price and also makes money from the monthly fees it collects from its managers.
The Canadian market hasn’t seen human stagers yet, but Mr. Scott said the company would target model homes and homeowners who have been transferred to other cities.
There is no shortage of actual home stagers in Canada, however. They typically work with real estate agents to make a home look more desirable to prospective buyers, removing clutter, adding new furniture and rearranging things so there is better flow.
“Ten years ago this was just a cottage industry made up of housewives looking for something to do,” said Christine Rae, president of St. Catharines, Ont.-based Canadian Staging Professionals and co-author of Home Staging for Dummies. “Now there are savvy professionals making a good living.”
The goal of professionals in both countries is to ensure the changes look as natural as possible, so that the buyers don’t feel like they are walking into a movie set.
It has been a profitable business for Showhomes, which now has 65 locations and hopes to have 80 offices open by the end of the year. Some 450 people are signed on as house managers, and collectively they help sell about 1,000 homes a year.
As for Ms. Hermann, she’s torn between loving where she’s living and hoping the homeowner is able to sell the luxurious home. She has been there for nine months, and the longest she’s ever lived in one of the homes is 16 months.
“I think with this economy, I may be here for a while,” she said. “I feel bad for the homeowners, they get worried. But I know I’m helping. The house looks amazing.”
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