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For the 90s, a new breed of housesitter

by Nick Ravo

Nick Ravo’s 1992 article in the New York Times predicted the end of the ‘housesitter of days’ past’ in favour of the growth of an industry that employs live-in residential property managers. Over fourteen years later and…surprise! While many new companies are doing well placing residential managers into empty properties there are simply too many home owners who need live-in security and care for their pets for the traditional house sitter’s role to die out. The good news for home owners is that the choice of services on offer is ever expanding: pay a lot of money to a company to employ a residential property manager or get your own house sitter in who works for free!

31 May 1992

LIKE many people these days, Michele Pharao has been having trouble selling her home, a small one-bedroom condominium she outgrew in Bridgeport, Conn. But instead of selling at a loss or continuing to live in the too-small condo, she chose a lesser-known option: She rented out the condominium and, taking her furniture with her, moved into a house in Fairfield as a housesitter.

‘Where I’m living now is more spacious, and I’m saving money,’ she said.

Ms. Pharao, a 29-year-old electrical engineer who works for the TranSwitch Corporation in Shelton, has her housesitting arrangement thanks, in large part, to today’s highly competitive real estate market, which gives sellers whose homes are furnished and occupied an important esthetic – and hence marketing – advantage over those offering empty houses.

The arrangement has the additional advantage of freeing sellers, who might otherwise be stuck, to move on and still be able to get their houses back for a buyer on short notice.

The new breed of housesitters has little in common with those of days past. Rather than living rent-free, they pay a small monthly fee to a residential management service. And instead of watching over a bucolic estate for an entire season, they often live for a short time in a suburban home left vacant by a foreclosure, corporate relocation or the sluggish pace of home sales.

Moreover, these housesitters are not live-in caretakers or neighborhood handymen, who water plants, tend pets, patch leaks and perform other chores in return for free housing. Most rarely do anything other than routine housecleaning, lawnmowing and showing the house to prospective buyers.

They also often have backgrounds that are surprisingly similar to the owners of the homes they occupy. Some are transplanted executives. Others are at loose ends after a divorce or a lost job. And some, like Ms. Pharao, are impatient or stranded home sellers.

‘Real housesitters are almost nonexistent nowadays,’ said Jorie Fetty, an agent with Sea Realty in Southhampton, L.I. ‘I think the reason is that people can get renters and caretakers.’

To be sure, there are – particularly on the East End of Long Island, in upstate New York and in Litchfield and Fairfield Counties in Connecticut – small subcultures of traditional housesitters who advertise in local newspapers in rural areas or are hired by word-of-mouth. For the most part, though, they are seldom employed for more than a few weeks at a time – generally, when the homeowners take a vacation. The arrangements, usually, are informal and the housesitters are often longtime friends or relatives of the homeowners. In many cases, they are unmarried young adults who live at home or have just started out on their own.

Madeline Falk of New Milford, Conn., for example, is a single artist and a teacher who has been working on and off as a housesitter or live-in caretaker in Litchfield County for several years, but seldom for more than two or three weeks at a stretch.

‘It is nice because every place I go to is gorgeous,’ she said.

Ms. Falk, who is 28, is currently working as a live-in caretaker on a large colonial estate in nearby Warren, Conn. She also takes care of pets and, if asked, does other chores. She charges from $25 a week to $70 a day, depending on what the job requires. She lives at home with her parents when not housesitting or caretaking. ‘It is sort of a stop-gap and kind of like living out of a suitcase,’ she said. ‘I don’t know of anyone who does this professionally.’

Carolyn Conto, a 27-year-old teacher, moonlights as a live-in caretaker, charging from $25 a day to $300 a week. She said the longest she has ever worked as a caretaker was six months. And when an owner returns, she moves into a house owned by friends where she rents a room.

‘There are people that do this around here,’ said Ms. Conto, who most recently worked for a week as a live-in caretaker in Washington Depot, Conn. ‘But not many.’

INDEED, old-fashioned housesitters and live-in caretakers may be outnumbered these days by those employed by residential management services. These services – Home Marketing Associates of Fairfield, Conn., Showhomes of America in Dallas and Caretakers of America in Denver, among them – constitute a relatively new concept that started in the mid-1980’s in part because of the increasingly long time it took to sell a home in many parts of the country.

The services charge housesitters – who are officially called residential managers – a monthly fee that, in the New York suburbs, generally ranges from $450 to $1,000, depending on the listing price of the house. The managers also must furnish the entire house and pay for utilities, maintenance and a limited liability insurance policy to cover accidents or neglect. Furthermore, they must make the home available for showing 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and be able to vacate on five days’ notice.

Home Marketing Associates, a year-old company, currently has about 30 residential managers living in homes in Fairfield County, Conn., and Westchester County, N.Y. Showhomes of America, which is six years old, has about 70 managers in Connecticut, Westchester County, Long Island and New Jersey. The service is not available in New York City, largely because of co-op board and sublease restrictions.

Joanne Paone, marketing director for Home Marketing Associates, said that some of her managers have lost their own homes in foreclosures but still have a houseful of furniture and want to keep up the appearance of an upper-middle-class life style while conserving cash. Others, she said, are relocated corporate executives, who, usually because it costs less, would rather housesit than rent while they search for a home to buy, decide whether they want to live in a particular town or wait for a move-in date.

‘Fairfield County is a very, very active area,’ said Ms. Paone, who cited the county’s large number of out-of-work executives and the steady stream of corporate relocations to and from the area. ‘We have a doctor in one of our places who moved here from the Midwest, and he has sticker shock.’

The primary benefits for a residential manager are the flexibility of not being locked into a year-long lease and the reduced cost. For example, Ms. Pharao pays $450 a month to live in a three-bedroom Cape Cod. Since she collects $600 a month in rent for her condominium, which has an $850-a-month mortgage, she is paying $150 a month less in housing costs because of the housesitting.

The major drawback, though, is the specter of having to move with little notice although, if a home is sold, the five-day period is usually extended by a few weeks. Companies usually try to place their managers in a new home immediately. Even so, for Home Marketing Associates, the average stay in a home is 47 days. For Showhomes of America it is four to six months.

Ms. Pharao has had an unusually peripatetic existence. She has lived for a month in her current home in Fairfield, Conn. She had lived for three and a half months in Darien, two months in New Canaan, two months in Trumbull and five months in Westport.

Each time she switched she had to pay to have her furniture moved, which costs about $200 a move; she does her own packing. The furniture must also fill every room and match the style of the home.

‘It isn’t a problem for me because I have a lot of furniture, and it pretty much matches with everything,’ Ms. Pharao said.

Ms. Paone added that the burden of frequently moving several rooms of furniture was mitigated by the sense of home that familiar furnishings can create, particularly if children are involved. ‘If the child is sleeping in the same bed, they feel less uprooted,’ she said.

Nevertheless, the life of a residential manager can be unsettling.

‘That kind of scared us at first, but we also fell in love with the property,’ said Jim Benti, who three months ago sold his home in Southbury, Conn., and, as a manager, moved into a four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot estate on 23 acres in Ridgefield, Conn., that is listed for sale at $1.25 million.

Mr. Benti, 55, is a former sales manager whose company recently went out of business. ‘We wanted to get liquid and aren’t sure if we want to move south or not,’ he said. ‘We’re sort of in a holding pattern.’

He pays $1,000 a month to Home Marketing Associates to live in the main house on the estate, which also has a carriage house, an ice house that has been turned into a studio, a river running through the back yard and a field planted with flowers, corn and vegetables. ‘We almost rented a place in Danbury for $1,500 that’s not as nice,’ he added. ‘So, we’re saving at least $500 a month.’

The chief benefit for the homeowner, who pays nothing for the service, is that a home generally will sell faster if it is furnished and occupied. Insurance premiums are also lower for occupied houses.

‘I was skeptical at first,’ said Judith F. Polgar, who recently had a manager from Home Marketing living in her home in Darien, Conn. ‘I didn’t know what the legal complications would be. God forbid, someone doesn’t want to move out.’

MS. PAONE said that, legally, the company or the homeowner can take possession of the home any time because there is no lease. Instead, the manager signs a contract that does not grant the rights of a tenant. ‘Fortunately, we haven’t had any problems with anything like that,’ she said.

Ms. Polgar, whose home sold 12 days after a manager moved in, said the practice was an ideal short-term solution. ‘We knew the house would sell quickly, so it didn’t make much sense for us to get a tenant in there for a year,’ she said. ‘Long-term, I’m not sure if I would recommend it.’

Residential management services like Home Marketing Associates were born in the Northwest in the late 1970s and caught on in earnest in the oil bust of the 1980s in Texas. They usually find managers through newspaper ads and carefully screen the applicants. They are not, however, put off by recent credit or money problems since many prospective candidates consider housesitting only after they suffer a financial setback.

The services are promoted by real estate brokers, who also pay nothing for the service and are often used by corporate relocation companies, such as PHH Home Equity, and banks that are trying to sell foreclosed properties.

‘We are much better off trying to sell a property than renting it,’ said Dorthea E. Brennan, a first vice president at People’s Bank in Bridgeport, which in the last year has used Home Marketing to help sell six homes that have been foreclosed on. ‘And using Home Marketing accelerates the sales process.’

‘We’re thinking about trying it with condominiums now instead of just high-end properties,’ she added.

Besides residential management services there are other businesses that supply housesitters for a small daily fee. One of the newest is the National Association of Housesitting Seniors, which employs old people and has affiliates throughout most of the nation, but not in the New York metropolitan region.

There are also services that have caretakers stop by and make security and maintenance checks on homes but not stay overnight. ‘It is a good job for someone who is retired and not tied up all the time,’ said Harry Corbin, a caretaker in Southhampton, who has been making regular checks of three local estates since 1986, charging $100 a month and $15 an hour for any maintenance work that needs to be done.

‘It is a good service, people want it,’ said Lois King, the owner of Barclay & King, a real estate agency in Southhampton. ‘A lot of people who have homes here live in New York City, and the caretaker calls and says you have a leaky faucet, and they call the plumber and turn off the alarm and all the owner gets is a bill.’

copyright New York Times 1992

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Nick Ravo

About the author: Nick Ravo

Nick Ravo is a professor in Mass Communication at Lynn University, Florida (USA). He is becoming notorious as the teacher who asked his students to beg for change and to sell advertising space on their faces on Ebay. He wrote this article when he was a staff writer for the New York Times.