Temporary residents give vacant homes a lived-in look to help agents sell them

Tenant's belongings become props in showcasing property to buyers

October 10, 2004|By Sharon Stangenes | Sharon Stangenes,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Ray Bellan, his wife and their 13-year-old son recently moved into a new $875,000, four-bedroom home on five acres in Barrington Hills, Ill.

They pay $1,000 a month, less than the rent for many two-bedroom apartments. The catch is that they had to furnish the home to look like a showplace, and they must keep it tidy for prospective buyers who might visit at a moment's notice.

They also have to hit the road as soon as the house is sold.

When that happens, the Bellans probably will move to another expensive, unfamiliar house, where their furnishings again will be used as props to make the vacant property more appealing to potential buyers.

"You've got to have nice furniture," Ray Bellan says. "And you've got to show the house all the time."

Bellan and his family are new recruits to the ranks of home managers, who provide a service that is becoming increasingly popular to help real estate agents sell expensive but vacant homes. In the Mid-Atlantic region, such homes usually cost at least $1 million.

It's an axiom in real estate that the most difficult house to sell is a vacant one.

It's also true that the more expensive the property, the longer it is likely to sit on the market. That means the seller, and sometimes the real estate agent, is left to deal with a lot of hassles.

Enter the home manager, who pays the utilities and maintains the lawn, pool and other parts of the house in return for a substantially reduced monthly rent. The owner continues to pay the mortgage.

"A lived-in house is alive," says Judith Cohen, a sales agent who has a home manager living in her former house while she tries to sell it.

The nomadic life of a home manager appeals to those who enjoy decorating and are flexible and organized.

A sense of adventure helps, too.

Last year, Gay Hed and her husband, Steve, moved with their twins, now 5, into a home near Chicago shortly before Christmas. Steve Hed is a builder and remodeler, and the couple moved into one of his new homes while they rented out theirs.

When the new home sold sooner than expected, the Heds decided to become home managers until their tenant's lease was up.

"We've lived in three houses, almost four," says Gay Hed. "I had decorated the first floor but not the second when the house sold."

Home management, she says, "is a great idea for young professional couples."

People seeking smaller houses and executives transferring to unfamiliar cities also make good candidates.

"Usually, they are people without children because school becomes a problem," says Allen Schwartz, who owns a franchise of Showhomes of America, a Mobile, Ala.-based company that has set people up in business as home managers in 30 states. The nearest Showhomes franchise in the Mid-Atlantic region is in Virginia.

Schwartz and his wife have lived in 15 homes - from condominiums to mansions - in 16 years. At any given time, they have 15 to 25 home managers working for them.

Showhomes of America has placed managers in homes throughout the Baltimore-Washington area, says Thom Scott, director of operations for the company. He says typical clients include companies that move executives elsewhere and purchase a house to make the move more convenient for the employee.

Besides being flexible, house managers can't smoke or have pets, and they must have furniture in a style suitable to the available home.

"We turn down 19 out of 20 people who apply," Schwartz says.

The manager in Cohen's house is an executive who was transferred to Chicago. He and his family have a lot of furniture and need a good-sized place to put it until the home they are building is completed.

The Bellans decided to become home managers when they moved to the northwest suburbs of Chicago and weren't ready to buy a house.

Ray Bellan says the family "had to sort of change our ways so we are always organized." Of particular concern was his 13-year-old son.

Teenage boys "have their own housekeeping standard," the father says. But, his son caught on quickly to the new routine, Bellan says.

"To tell the truth, he understands there is a higher power," Bellan says. "We don't have to nag at all. He picks up his things every day."

Bellan hopes that when the next move comes, it will be within the same school district so that his son won't have to transfer.

John and Linda Isebrand have been home managers for nearly two years. The couple and their 4-year-old son, Sean, are in their fourth home, a four-bedroom 1930s house in Barrington Hills.

The asking price for the property, which comes with a heated pool, is $1.75 million.

John Isebrand is finishing culinary school and taking care of their son while Linda works as a tax attorney.

They became home managers after seeing a newspaper ad and deciding that living cheaply in such comfortable surroundings was too good to pass up.

"For the fee, there is no comparison," Isebrand says.

But as Sean approaches school age, they are beginning to look for a home of their own.

For now, Sean's toys are stored in containers for quick pickups and easy moving.

"We leave the house so that anyone can come in. Laundry is not out, no dirty dishes," Isebrand says. "We've made it a habit that the house has to be ready to show before we go to bed."

The biggest drawback of the job is moving. Home managers must pay for their moves. And there is the hassle of packing up and getting out the door.

"It's gotten more efficient with each move," Isebrand says. "It went from really chaotic to a routine."

The trauma of moving is tempered by his wife's enthusiasm for each new home.

"She loves decorating the house. She is like a kid in a candy store when we get to a new house," he says.

By staying in so many residences, the couple have learned what features they will want when they buy a home of their own.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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