For five months, Sandy Crawford watched uneasily from her new home in Georgia as her old home in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood sat on the market with little interest from potential buyers. Discouraged, she turned to Showhomes, a company that places people — and their attractive furniture — in vacant homes. A fastidious man moved into Crawford's house, and things changed. "The house looked fabulous," she said. "Every little thing inside and out was constantly being watched and taken care of. Within 30 days, maybe 40 days, we got an offer. A lady from California offered $5,000 more than we were asking. Then the guy who bought it offered $5,000 above her."
Showhomes is a national home staging company with local franchises in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pasco County. It matches people looking for a nice house to live in temporarily at a reasonable cost with sellers who have already moved out.
The company capitalizes on one of the realities of real estate: Many potential buyers shy away from empty homes with bare floors, stark rooms and cold, naked windows.
"Seeing how somebody lives in the house makes a big difference," said David Vann, an agent with the ReMax Metro. He recently arranged for a Showhomes "home manager" to move into a vacant house that wasn't getting great reviews from prospective buyers. It sold three months later.
Sellers who hire Showhomes pay a one-time setup fee of 50 cents per square foot. That covers the move-in costs of the so-called home manager and what it costs Showhomes consultants to decorate the house to a T. The home manager pays the monthly utility bill, any required lawn or pool maintenance, and a monthly fee to Showhomes that's about a third of what a comparable house would rent for. The house has to be ready to show to prospective buyers on short notice seven days a week.
When the home sells, the seller pays Showhomes a percentage of the price — 1 percent or less, depending on how many days it takes to sell. For August, the company is offering a flat rate of $2,500, including setup and the sales fee, for any house priced above $300,000.
Real estate agents are still very much in the deal.
"The whole goal is to get (prospective buyers) to fall in love with the house, and then it's an emotional buy," said Rebecca Schleifer, sales and marketing manager for Showhomes St. Petersburg.
Showhomes has gotten exposure recently on Oprah, HGTV, National Public Radio and other media, and the St. Petersburg office gets hundreds of calls or e-mails a week from people who want to cut their expenses by becoming home managers. Only about five a week qualify, according to Schleifer. The background check and references weed out a lot, but most don't pass the furniture cut or lifestyle check.
"We go to their house and see how they live. You have to have high-end stuff if you're going into a million-dollar listing," Schleifer said. "But they could have great furniture and be messy."
Pets and children are usually deal killers, but not always. Another client of Vann's just bought a house listed by another agent that was maintained and furnished by a home manager with a family.
The home manager "had three or four little boys under the age of 5. I mean it was unbelievable how she could put those kids in the car and be out of there on an hour's notice" for a showing, he said. "You wouldn't believe how neat and picture-perfect that house was."
Several local staging companies provide a similar service by setting up furniture and "scenes" in vacant homes, but they usually don't stage the whole house. And many home managers have several flat screen TVs, stellar furniture and great art. That's often more than a staging company has in its inventory.
Chuck Barrow is living as a home manager in his third Showhomes house. It's 4,000 square feet on the water with views of the Sunshine Skyway, a boat dock and a price tag of $1.2 million. His baby grand piano, home gym and 60-inch flat screen fit in well.
Barrow's business, financing heavy construction equipment, is down right now, so he's not ready to buy a house. After a divorce a few years ago, he discovered he could live as a home manager in a great house with room for his daughters for a lot less than buying and somewhat less than renting.
Now, he is paying $1,400 a month to live in the house on Pinellas Point — "the most I've ever paid. But I was paying $300 a month to keep my boat in a marina. I can go get an apartment for $1,200 a month and it's really nothing special at all, or I can live in a million-dollar house on the water. I have dolphins in my back yard every day."
He has even put his office near the Veterans Expressway in Tampa so that he can choose from Showhomes properties in Pasco, Pinellas or Hillsborough counties. If the home he lives in sells, he has 30 to 60 days until the company places him in another home.