A “home manager” will place  furniture, groceries, and other effects to prep (or stage) the house for sale

Prospective buyers who tour a house listed for sale at $899,900 in Naperville’s Ashwood Park subdivision may think the sellers have just stepped out for a moment. After all, there is food in the refrigerator, dishes in the cabinets, and clothes in the closets. The place looks lived in—albeit very neatly lived in.

In fact, there is somebody living in the house—a “home manager,” whose furniture, groceries, and other effects are all part of efforts to prep (or stage) the house for sale. The real sellers had signed up with Showhomes Naperville  so the house wouldn’t appear empty.

“You don’t want to show prospective buyers a vacant house, because that shows you’re desperate to sell,” says Steve Thomas, who owns the Naperville franchise for Showhomes, one of three in the Chicago area. “If it looks too staged, buyers [think], ‘They paid money to stage this. They must be desperate.’ The home manager gives the house the lived-in feel. Prospective buyers don’t know the manager is not the owner.”

According to Thomas, a Showhomes study shows that about half of the 35 Chicago-area homeowners approached by the company about a year and a half ago signed up for the service; their homes have sold for an average of 93 percent of their asking prices. The homes belonging to the sellers who declined the service are all still on the market, and their asking prices have dropped on average by 15 percent.

Sellers pay a flat fee to Showhomes once the sale of the house closes; this fee is established up front and does not increase over time if the house sits empty. As for the house managers, they usually take on these assignments because of recent changes in their lives, such as a job transfer or a divorce. “They want a place to live temporarily during the transition, but they don’t want to be in an ‘extended-stay suites’ kind of place,” Thomas says. Home managers must be nonsmokers and have no pets, Thomas says. “They have to have furniture that we think will work in some of the homes we represent,” he adds. Like an actual seller, the home manager gets about an hour’s notice to clear out of the house before a showing.

The recently divorced home manager for this Naperville property wanted to live near his children. He is paying rent—Thomas says it comes to about one-third what he would pay to rent a similar home—as well as handling utilities, lawn care, and snow removal. A professional designer sized up the home manager’s belongings and staged them, supplementing where needed with store-bought furnishings. The home manager can’t hang anything on the walls—the designer handles that—but he is encouraged to neatly leave out things like shampoo bottles and kids’ homework.

In another approach to staging a house, Virtually Staging Properties, a Georgia company, will digitally drop furniture and pictures into photos of empty rooms so that an Internet listing won’t reveal that a property is vacant.