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.
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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.
“The home managers act like human props, and (with buyers) it’s like magic,” says Linda Saavedra, a Showhomes Tampa franchise owner. “It works phenomenally well.”
Filling vacant houses with stuff, she says, “enhances the focal points, softens age and minimizes flaws.” But adding in fake homeowners adds something else entirely, Saavedra says, 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 says, 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.
As the Showhomes training manual states, “Our motto is, ‘A showing is never refused.’ ”