AZ Republic

Home sellers turn to live-in house stagers

http://www.azcentral.com/realestate/articles/2009/05/11/20090511homesit0511.html

Last year, when Jim Guido needed to downsize and sell his home, his biggest concern was keeping his children in the same school.

That’s when he stumbled across an ad that looked like a mistake: $1,200 per month for a 2,800-square-foot house with a private pool in a gated Cave Creek community.

“It was really a godsend for me,” said Guido, who contacted Scottsdale-based HomeTenders of America about the property. “The house was perfect for us. It fit all our needs.”

Not only was the rent price correct, Guido said pool care and yard care were included. Their duty as “home tenders” was merely to furnish the home nicely and keep it spotless for Realtors to show on a moment’s notice.

Seven months later, the home is under contract at a price that pleased its sellers.

“I think it worked out for both of us,” Guido said. “The buyers kept saying how much they liked our furnishings.”

In this down housing market, companies are matching sellers with live-in home stagers in a bid to give them an edge. Locally, both Showhomes and HomeTenders of America train home “managers” or “tenders” who are technically independent contractors. They pay a fraction of typical rent, utilities and renter’s insurance and keep the home looking like a model one for buyers.

On the downside, they also have to move – sometimes quickly – when a property sells.

“We say it’s a great lifestyle for someone who can live an organized life,” said Dana Reynolds, who along with Kathy Haase is a local Showhomes franchise owner. “It’s kind of a hugely coveted group to be in.”

With a flood of unsold homes on the market, Showhomes and HomeTenders work with homeowners, Realtors, banks and builders. Their clients get a nicely decorated home, lower insurance rates because the home is occupied, and ultimately a chance to sell for more than the vacant home might fetch.

Haase and Reynolds, who specialize in $1 million to $5 million homes, said their program continues to grow, boosted by the number of vacant luxury properties on the market. There are more than 3,000 luxury homes for sale in Greater Phoenix that are listed for $1 million or more, said Mike Orr, founder of the real-estate research Web site www.cromfordreport .com.

Showhomes has more than three dozen active home managers and several bank-owned houses lined up to fill – in part to mitigate liability from unsupervised pools.

Companies such as HomeTenders make money from the tenders’ monthly fees; others, such as Showhomes, charge the owner a pre-negotiated fee at closing and keep the managers’ monthly fees.

Greg Dols, assistant vice president for consumer lending at Gilbert-based Union Bank, is working with Showhomes to bring in more managers for its bank-owned luxury homes and to minimize their risk of vandalism.

“We’ve had one (vacant) home broken into five times,” said Dols, adding he thinks the Showhomes program ultimately makes the homes more desirable to buyers.

“I’ve gone into a lot of empty homes, and they just look cold and uninviting,” Dols said. “I believe when we do get a buyer for the (Showhomes-managed) home, it’s going to sell for more.”

Both companies say it’s a huge savings over merely staging a home with furnishings. Haase said staging-only services for luxury homes can cost clients about $4,500 to $6,500 per month with a four-month minimum, without any of the added benefits of keeping a home occupied.

John and Cyndee Bezik, who own HomeTenders of America, said they filled more than 150 local homes with “tenders” last year. They have 40 Valley homes in the program – most listed for sale in the $500,000 to $800,000 range – and an additional 30 screened tenders lined up for properties as they become available.

“We need homes more than we need home tenders,” said Cyndee Bezik, adding that she’s often flooded with calls from people wanted to be tenders.

“If I have 10 homes available, I will get 100 calls a day,” she said. “We have to go through a lot of calls before we find the right person to live in these homes. We’ve never had to kick anyone out for not following the rules because we do so much due diligence up front.”

John Bezik said about 60 percent of his home tenders are empty-nesters older than 50. Many have relocated to the Valley for a job but haven’t been able to sell their home in another state. Others lost their home to a foreclosure or needed to downsize for financial reasons, but have nice furnishings.

“We understand there are people who have fallen on hard times,” he said. “This is a perfect program for them.”

Reynolds said some of their home managers have been through a foreclosure or a divorce; others simply want a short-term obligation while they adjust to new surroundings.

The latter was the case for Paige and Jeff Hren, who split their time between Phoenix and California. Jeff, an executive chef, and Paige, an attorney, pay $1,800 per month to manage a 5,845-square-foot, $2.6 million home in north Scottsdale’s Mirabel Golf Club.

“We’re getting extremely spoiled,” Paige Hren said of the home’s luxury features, including the kitchen’s two slab-granite islands and Wolf ovens, a master suite with his-and-hers vanities, toilets and walk-in closets, plus automated glass pocket doors in the great room that open to a private pool and a view of the 11th fairway.

When they saw an advertisement about the home-manager program, the Hrens admit they were skeptical, thinking the deal was too good to be true. So far, she said the only real challenge has been the 10-day window to move in and furnish the home.

Haase, also a home manager, said most of her managers pay $1,500 to $3,500 per month plus utilities, which can average $400 to $600 per month for a large luxury home.

Both programs screen the prospective managers/tenders and their furnishings to make sure they’re compatible with the home’s style and scale. Showhomes does not accept pets and prohibits smoking inside the home. HomeTenders makes exceptions for some pets and prohibits smoking inside or in front of the home.

Both use interior designers to add final touches once the occupants have moved in.

Scottsdale Realtor Karen Picarello said she has used HomeTenders for her vacant listings and is baffled that more sellers don’t utilize the service, which comes with free landscaping and pool care.

“It’s such a good deal,” she said. ” . . . If it (a home) doesn’t present well, it may still sell, but you’ll lose a lot of money.”

Brandon Norwood is another Valley resident who decided to downsize while maintaining a luxury lifestyle. He said he was paying about $8,000 per month to rent a 5-acre Troon North estate when he found out about Showhomes.

For the bargain price of about $3,700 per month including utilities, the 33-year-old sports agent opted to manage a new $3.8 million home in Paradise Valley.

“Who wouldn’t want to save $40,000 a year?” said Norwood, who relocated to Phoenix from Seattle, where he still owns a home. “It’s been great. We’re in a beautiful place, and business is going well.”

Norwood said so far being a home manager has been easy.

“You make the bed when you get up, tie the curtains back and spray the sink,” he said.

Showhomes pays for a manager’s move if the homes sell within 30 days; HomeTenders covers moves if the property sells within 60 days.

“I moved five times last year,” Haase said, adding that in today’s market, most of her home managers stay in their properties about six months.

Bezik, a former Realtor who started HomeTenders a year and a half ago, said he’s confident the business fills a long-term need.

“The economy being what it is is helping this business now, but when we go back to a normal market, this will be needed,” Bezik said. “There are always going to be homes that are difficult to sell if they are vacant.”