When the Mueller family sits for dinner, the leftover broccoli and crepes are already wrapped in plastic, the kitchen is beyond spotless, and the rest of the home is so tucked-away tidy it looks like they just moved in. In a way, they have: Every inch of furnishing, every little trinket and votive candle, sits precisely as designers placed it five months ago. That would make them the most perfect suburban ideal, except for one catch: This isn't actually their home. Bob and Dareda Mueller and their three grown sons are, instead, part of an "elite group" of middle-class nomads who have agreed to an outlandish deal. They can live cheaply in this for-sale luxury home if it looks as if they never lived here at all.
The home must remain meticulously cleaned and preserved: the temperature precisely pleasant, the mirrors crystalline clear. If a prospective buyer wants to see the home, they must quickly disappear. And when the home sells, they must be gone for good, off to the next perfect place.
That they do everything an owner would do — sleeping, making memories, learning the home's quirks and secrets — imbues an otherwise-empty home with an unmistakable energy, say executives with Showhomes Tampa, the home-staging firm that moves them in. It also helps the homes sell faster, and for more money.
"They have to live a very different, very difficult life," said Kim Magnuson, a sales director. Added franchise owner Linda Saavedra, "The home managers act like human props … and (with buyers) it's like magic. It works phenomenally well."
The Muellers once lived in an opulent lake house bigger even than this $750,000 estate, which graces the 10th hole of an exclusive golf course in one of Tampa's wealthiest suburbs. But after a financially shattering fall from grace, this home, their fifth in two years, has become a surprising lifeline: Bob, 60, and Dareda, 56, now both work at McDonald's and scrape to pay the bills.
It has allowed them to start over with the painstaking gloss of perfection, but it has also brought up tough questions about what it means to have a home. Is it worth sleeping in a mansion if it means living as a ghost?
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Bob was the pastor of a small church in Missouri when Dareda's father, a McDonald's franchise magnate who raised thoroughbred racehorses in the St. Louis suburbs, suddenly passed away. He left them the family ranch house, a turn-of-the-20th-century yearling farm and a sizable inheritance. Suddenly, they were rich.
The family adored real estate, led by Bob, the son of a house painter, who studied architecture in college and collected house plans as a boy. On Sunday afternoons, the family toured homes for fun, the boys learning to say stuff like, "Dad, it's not a solid core door."
So with the couple's newfound wealth, they converted the farmhouse into a bed-and-breakfast, called Green Pastures, and amassed a weighty portfolio of investment properties. They also bought a sprawling French Country home, with a housekeeper, barrel ceilings and a view of the Lake of the Ozarks. Dareda dreamed of the boys coming back home with wives and kids of their own.
"When the housing downturn came, it hit us really hard, and the things we'd invested in fell through the bottom," Dareda said. Even selling their home and draining their bank accounts couldn't help them stay afloat. When a friend told them about Showhomes, they trucked down to Florida, homeless but heavy with stuff: a baby grand piano, intricate bronze statuary, a $10,000 Pakistani rug.
Their first home here felt, to them, startlingly small, and Bob agonized over whether the family had made a huge mistake. Eight months later, on the day after Christmas, the home had sold and it was time to move. The family that had long decorated to excess, with 12-foot-tall Christmas trees, made ornaments out of construction paper.
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Showhomes has for years offered sellers their home stagings and "makeovers," but the firm's signature is deploying managers to the cavernous, dreary, desolate shells they call "naked homes."
Filling vacant houses with stuff, the firm said, "enhances the focal points, softens age and minimizes flaws." But adding in fake homeowners adds something else entirely, Saavedra said, turning quasi-spiritual: "There's an energy there. You can feel it. There's something. There's life."
Showhomes managers live in about 15 Tampa Bay homes, most of them valued at more than $500,000. Some have lived in the homes for 18 months, others, less than a week. Few qualify, because managers are expected to bring their own upscale furnishings and compulsion for hyper-cleanliness. Most, Saavedra said, are "people in transition."
Showhomes pays moving costs but the Muellers pay the firm about $1,200 in rent, plus all household bills. Showhomes decorators decide where things should go, and managers are responsible for faultless precision, enforced by rigorous, random inspections.
All surfaces must be regularly cleaned; weeds eradicated, car oil spots removed. Clothes in closets are to be organized by color, and contestable items — heavily religious books, personal photos — must be removed or neutralized. Every item has a rule, and everything must be exact: the rotation of pillows, the fold of towels, the positioning of toothbrushes. Even the stacks of novels casually left on the bookshelf are placed and angled with pinpoint detail.
Gatherings of more than 10 people require approval, and managers must always be prepared for surprises. Dareda has raced across town to get the home "show ready": lights on, soft music playing, Febreze Fluffy Vanilla subtly spritzed. She said, "You just think … by golly, we're going to just go do what it takes." A training manual states, "Our motto is 'A SHOWING IS NEVER REFUSED.' "
Serving as the unseen caretakers for a wealthier couple they'll never meet doesn't bug Dareda, she said, because "when I live in somebody else's home it feels like I already know them." She points to one of the sellers' last vestiges, the drapes that puddle at the floor, which she calls an old-style display of wealth.
"I can tell by looking at her drapes how meticulous and what a lovely lady that she is, to me," she said. "Even though I've never met her in person, I kind of have a thought of what she's like."
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When Dareda wakes at 4 a.m. for her early shift, she ensures the home is immaculate, its floors of maple herringbone and Italian porcelain gleaming, all trouble spots polished or cloaked. Bob, a part-time pastor at Grace Harvest Church in Holiday, checks again before heading into McDonald's, where he is one of eight shift managers at a location helmed by a general manager who is 23.
Devin, 25, Camden, 23, and Jordan, 21, their sons who moved in to help split the rent, said they're happy to help their parents but sometimes chafe under the rules. Camden, a part-time voice coach, said he often feels embarrassed when he has to cancel sessions at home to wait out a showing with the family at Starbucks. He has taken to "periods of rebellion," marked largely by not making his bed.
Bob said he often feels as if he has stepped backward, but that it has also felt good to get back to their roots. Dareda said, "I hate the fact that we went through that, and yet, it really helped me understand what people go through." Added Bob, later, after dinner: "I think that's something I won't forget, when I'm wealthy again."
The couple said they don't know when they might choose to leave the program for their own home, taking all their statues and fine china and real estate books, like How Come That Idiot's Rich and I'm Not? Bob said he wants to build a new house, someday, though now he's just focused on one house at a time.
After dinner, they go to sleep in their perfect house knowing when they wake they might have to say goodbye. But even if they go, they said they'll still carry with them a lesson: How exhausting, and freeing, it is to start over, in a life that's anything but precise.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252. Follow @drewharwell.