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House Broken

To get a leg up in a buyer's market, the real estate industry turns to a little-known niche: professional house sitters.

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Last weekend, Michelle Sifford and Jennifer Ding helped the Armstead family move into a house in Church Hill with lightning speed. In five days' time they fully arranged the furniture in the three-bedroom renovation, made sure the dAccor tied everything together and removed every speck of dirt. Most importantly, they made sure the family was ready to pack and leave again.

Sifford and Ding aren't renting the house to the Armsteads. They're contracting with them as home managers to live there while the owners try to sell it.

In August during the height of the real estate meltdown, Sifford and Ding opened Showhomes Richmond, which contracts with professional house sitters. While it might seem a potentially treacherous time to start a company, Sifford and Ding say the timing's just right.

“Estimates are that between 30 and 40 percent of homes in Richmond on the real estate market are vacant,” Sifford says. “So there's ample opportunity.”

Supporters tout the house-management business as one in which everybody wins. Furnished and decorated, which industry insiders call staged, such spaces are sold 78 percent faster than when the same houses are put on the market empty, according to the Real Estate Stagers Association. The rate will skyrocket if an insurance company can be persuaded to continue covering a vacant home — which isn't a given: Copper pipes and appliances can wander out of unoccupied homes. Real estate agents sometimes pay a small fee, but far less than they would for all the staging and upkeep that contractors take care of while living in homes they often could not afford to live in otherwise.

Despite their two sons, 4 and 17 months, Nichole and Stafford Armstead have agreed to keep the house in immaculate condition; showroom-ready 12 hours a day. House managers must comply with lengthy checklists for cleanliness. They pay all the utilities and keep the air conditioner on all day during the summer in case of visitors. If they're home before a real estate agent stops by, they're asked to turn on all the lights, play soft music, and, time permitting, bake cookies to perfume the house. Setting up the house with Sifford and Ding was like being on HGTV, Nichole says.

The Armsteads expect to be there for about six months, but aren't sure. “That is the nature of the adventure,” Nichole says. “But the pros far outweigh the cons.” They pay a fee similar to the cost of rent in their old West End apartment, but with much more space.

Nichole works at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and Stafford is a motivational speaker, but the Church Hill house gives them an opportunity to get their finances back in order. “Definitely it allows us to do some saving and allows us to get caught up on some things,” Stafford says.

If the home sells and another Showhome is available, the company will help the Armsteads move to the new space. If not, the family will have until the closing — usually a month to two months — to find a new place to live.

Sifford and Ding, both former executives at Circuit City Stores, stumbled into Showhomes while researching business opportunities after Circuit City folded a year ago. Showhomes, with 42 locations in 24 states, seemed the ideal recession-buster.

Business booms when the real estate market deflates, Showhomes founder Dan Ortega says: “We absolutely blow up when the market goes in the tank.” He sold the business in 2004, but still operates the Atlanta Showhomes franchise. Because of the financial crisis, business has doubled.

Ortega launched the business in 1986 during the savings and loan crisis. “See, the same economy that produces foreclosures produces people who need somewhere to live right now,” Ortega says. When times are good, the business pivots to corporate relocation clients and plays up its staging services.

John Bezik and his wife, Cyndee, own a similar business, Hometenders of America, in Scottsdale, Ariz. John says many of his contractors are former homeowners, empty nesters, or folks who have gone through a foreclosure, divorce or bankruptcy. In Richmond, Ding says they've interviewed potential contractors that run the gamut — from people displaced by a renovation to newcomers that haven't settled on a neighborhood. Mostly, she says, it's “people who just want to live large for less.”

Ding, Ortega and Bezik say they screen potential house managers through criminal background and credit checks. Tough times being what they are, bad credit won't necessarily keep someone out of the program.
“We're looking for good people with great furniture,” Bezik says. And furniture is key. Not only does there need to be enough of it, it needs to be in good condition. He's looking for some pop, but also the appropriate style. Country and western just wouldn't have the right appeal in a Victorian setting, after all.

Ding says they've interviewed more than 700 candidates for home manager since opening the business. The challenge has been matching qualified candidates with the right houses. So far, the Armsteads are the first. Although their older son has shown a tendency to line up his stuffed animals in order by height, his parents say they've been tidy but not fanatical before.

“Now,” Nichole says, “I have a reason to be a neat freak.”

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