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Firm links housesitters, upscale homes. Looking for a sitter?

by Denise Lavoie

Renter, residential manager or upscale house sitter? House sitters, Janet and Neil Graner, are happy to cart 10-rooms worth of expensive furniture around on two tractor trailers between house sits. It seems that an upmarket property is more valuable when it is ‘dressed’ well and has that warm lived-in look. A rash of companies have sprung up in the USA which install ‘residential managers’ into vacant upscale properties for sale. So what’s in it for the Graners and others like them? In exchange for providing their own furniture and doing all the usual tasks required of a house sitter, they get to live in expensive houses for one quarter of the market rental price. I can’t help but wonder who pockets the rental income?

9 February 1997

FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Janet and Neil Graner have moved three times in six months, each time lugging 10 rooms of furniture in two tractor-trailers.

‘We say if we keep moving fast enough, maybe our children won’t be able to catch up with us,’ jokes Neil Graner.

That good humour comes a little easier in the comfort of their latest home: a $1 million contemporary colonial with 5 bedrooms, 4 1/2 baths, a gourmet kitchen, sunken living room, exercise room, three-car garage and in-ground pool.

But the Graners, who are building their own house, are only temporary tenants in this stylish Stamford home owned by former New York Knicks star Doc Rivers. They are upscale housesitters.

The Graners found the home through Home Marketing Associates, a Fairfield-based company that seeks tenants for vacant homes on the market. The company’s goal is to keep the homes cozy and attractive to buyers. Benefits for housesitters include short-term arrangements and paying a fraction of the normal rent.

Joanne Paone helped start the company in 1991, a time when corporate downsizings cost thousands of jobs in Connecticut and plenty of homes were up for sale.

‘We started working with the banks to put people in the houses,’ she said. ‘Once you put someone in the house, it didn’t have that distressed look. You bring in some warmth, some happiness, some family. No one wants to buy something that looks depressing.’

The renters – or residential managers, as they’re called – must keep the homes immaculate so real estate agents can show them to prospective buyers on a moment’s notice. They also pick up all utility, landscaping and maintenance costs.

The average length of stay is about four or five months, and tenants must move out on short notice.

Another company that provides similar services is Showhomes of America Corp., based in Dallas. Showhomes has 18 franchises covering 27 metropolitan areas. The Connecticut franchise in Westport currently has 50 houses filled and another 20 available for rent. The current selling price of their average home is $749,000.

Marc Puritz was worried about leaving his Stamford home vacant when he moved to a suburb of Dallas in June. Home Marketing placed a young family in the house to live there until it sold. ‘It gave me a sense of comfort, that somebody was taking care of the lawn and all the rest, to make the house appealing,’ said Mr. Puritz. ‘If the house had been vacant, who knows?’

Realtors like the service because they say it is almost always easier to sell a home if it is lived in. ‘They tend to sell for a higher price (when they are lived in),’ said Sherri Steeneck, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker. ‘For some reason, people associate vacancy with going for a lower price.’ Before placing renters, Home Marketing checks their credit history and references. The company also requires a hefty security deposit, which varies according to the listing price of the home involved.

A key requirement for renters is that they bring their own furniture, which must match the house – both in style and volume. ‘If we’re going to put someone in a house that’s selling for $5 million, you’d better believe they better have furniture that fits,’ Ms. Paone said. That was no problem for the Graners, who sold their own spacious colonial home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and had plenty of elegant furniture to bring along.

When their home sold in just five weeks, it caught them off-guard. They heard about Home Marketing from a friend. Within weeks, they were placed in a large, rustic colonial on Shippan Point, an exclusive section of Stamford. ‘It was just a perfect solution for us,’ said Neil Graner, 56, who owns an office equipment business in Yonkers, N.Y. ‘We were between houses and we didn’t want to sign a one-year lease, so this is just what we needed.’

The Graners settled in with the thought they would stay put until their new house was finished. But within five weeks, the house sold.Under their contract with Home Marketing, they had 30 days to move. They did it in two weeks, this time moving to an even larger house in Stamford.The 6,600-square-foot house they now live in has been on the market since August with an asking price of just under $1 million.

Home Marketing has about 40 properties for rent, ranging from modest homes to $5 million mansions. Rents, which are based on the list price of the home, range from a low of $400 a month for a condominium or small home to $1,500 for a home worth $2 million or more. The fee is usually about a quarter of what someone could expect to pay on the rental market, Ms. Paone said.

The people who rent the homes are often transferred corporate executives still looking for a home to buy or people who are waiting to close a deal on a new home. ‘You have to be very flexible,’ said Heather Hiltz, Showhomes’ placement coordinator for Connecticut. ‘(It’s not for) people locked into a school system, or locked into a town … people who really need to live a very controlled lifestyle.’

Renters see many benefits to the arrangement.Celine Stahl-Bayliss, a physician, moved into a $1.6 million home in Greenwich with her husband and three children after the family’s home in Southport sold just a month after they put it on the market and before they could close on a new home.

‘It’s been helpful for us in getting a feel for the community that we’d like to live in,’ said Ms Stahl-Bayliss, an associate medical director at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in West Haven. ‘The best thing for me was the fact that I could find something on fairly short notice and I didn’t have to sign a one-year contract.’

copyright South Coast Today

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Denise Lavoie

About the author: Denise Lavoie

Denise Lavoie is a Boston (USA)-based reporter covering the courts and legal issues.