Showhomes: Winning the House Lotto

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 | Posted by Marni Jameson

I should be in Vegas. Just when I thought my luck had run out I won a long shot with 100 to 1 odds. Partly because I make my bed every day.

The lucky streak began with a great job offer — except that it was out of state. More luck followed when my youngest daughter, who’s in high school, not only didn’t mind changing schools but also wanted to move to Orlando, where the job was. Then a lovely family came out of the blue and asked to rent our Colorado home, leaving me free to work anywhere. My husband supported the change wholeheartedly, although it meant we were in for a tsunami of upheaval.

I felt lucky.

Now all that stood between me and the job was a place to live. And not just any place. As someone who’s devoted half a career and two books to home design, I admit, I’m a house snob.

Being new to the area I wasn’t ready to buy a house. I’d have to rent. Plus, for the time being, my family would need to rent two places: one in Orlando for me, another in Denver where Dan is working and seeing our two daughters through the school year. Our goal (or why do this?) was to keep the sum of our two monthly payments equal to or less than the mortgage on the house we were renting out.

All this added up to one fact: I was heading for a housing demotion.

Nonetheless, last month I headed to Orlando with a strict budget and a positive attitude. A good-natured real estate agent toured my daughter and me around seven or eight rental homes in our price range. The first one was dinky and dated. The second was dinky, dated and smelly. A third was wrapped in chain-link fencing. One was so bad we didn’t even go in. The experience was, as my level-headed daughter put it: “Soul crushing.”

“I’m trying not to be a snoot,” I said to Dan from the hotel room. “But these places aren’t fit for fleas.”

“Dad, she’s not exaggerating,” our daughter confirmed.

“Well, maybe this isn’t going to work.”

Just as I thought my luck had run out, and was rethinking everything, a friend sent me a link to an article that had just appeared in the newspaper. The story, “Million-dollar lifestyle on a middle-class income,” featured a company that looks for people with good taste and nice furniture to live in luxury homes for sale and help stage them. In return, the live-in stager pays a greatly reduced monthly fee.

Pick me! Pick me!

I call Showhomes Orlando, one of more than 75 Showhomes offices in 25 states. Though it’s a weekend, I convince the director of operations that we have to meet. Now. We meet. We talk. We look at properties that need stagers. He tells me what’s involved.

“You have to keep the place neat,” he said.

“I won’t even get the towel wet.”

“We have to do a background check.”

“I once got asked to leave a wine bar when I stood on a chair to see if the chandelier was crystal or plastic,” I confessed.

“We need to see your furniture.”

I go home and send him 50 furniture photos.

One week later my furniture and I had won the audition.

“Home staging isn’t for everyone,” said Nancy Smith, part owner of Showhomes Orlando. “We only accept 1 percent of the people who apply.”

“You’re kidding? How did I get so lucky?”

“You were perfect for us. We liked your furniture, and you knew from the start what we were trying to accomplish.”

Vegas, here I come.

For those with the right furniture and the right attitude, being a live-in stager is a winning proposition. It’s also a plus for sellers, who pay from zero to a small fee for the service, and for Realtors. Here’s how the concept works:

If you’re relocating to a new area, not ready to buy, don’t want to commit to a lease and want a beautiful home (me!) this is a great option. Home managers exchange flexibility, good decorating skills and a pledge to be tidy, to live in a beautiful home for a lot less than they would pay to rent it. On average, managers pay about 30 percent to 40 percent of what homes would rent for, plus utilities.

If you’re selling the program reduces your holding costs while accelerating your home’s sale. Showhomes claims that staged houses sell faster than vacant homes for an average of 10 percent to 15 percent more. Plus, homeowners get their utilities and yard services covered, and also save on home insurance, which is lower on an occupied home than on a vacant home. A live-in stager also discourages squatters and vandalism.

If you’re a Realtor you appreciate showing a property that is well furnished, clean and ready-to-see all day. Because an empty house gives off a desperate vibe, a lived-in-staged home attracts fewer low-ball offers.

The wild card, of course, is that the home will sell, which is the point. But Showhomes has a great track record of placing its stagers (the ones that behave) directly into another home that needs staging. I’m placing my bets that it will all work out, because I’m feeling lucky.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.

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