On the House: When selling a house is a show, complete with actors

Posted: May 22, 2011

American Public Media's Marketplace radio program appears to be fascinated by unusual trends in real estate.

(I hate to pick on the program, which I listen to frequently, but I didn't start this.)

Two years ago, it reported on real estate agents in Los Angeles hiring professional actors to populate a neighborhood during a weekend tour by buyers.

Consumer advocates cried foul, and the buyers were ticked off, too. It seems the development of 90 houses was empty, a victim of hard times, and they believed they had been sold, well, neighbors.

Caveat emptor, especially in the land of make-believe.

But, to clarify, this was not the first such example I could remember. In 2006, Centex Homes, now part of Pulte Homes, came up with "HomeLife" - staging homes with "real people" - at a development near, as it happened, Los Angeles.

In one performance, the "model" family spent about three hours pretending it was Mom's birthday. They baked a cake and sang "Happy Birthday," and the children drew and framed a picture of a Centex house, CNN reported.

Yet Barb Schwarz, author of Home Staging: The Winning Way To Sell Your House For More Money, observes that "staging a home is about depersonalizing it," since you are selling the house, not the furnishings and certainly not the people in it.

Fast-forward to 2011: On May 2, Marketplace reported on a Tennessee franchisee of a national staging company, Showhomes, that outfitted foreclosed houses with temporary residents to make the properties more attractive to potential buyers. As if cut-rate prices weren't attractive enough.

It's true that, because of the large number of bank-owned properties, many houses go to seed while the legalities are sorted out. But rather than waste a lot of effort creating such fantasy, why not develop procedures to process foreclosures and short sales more quickly?

Just a suggestion . . . .

Whenever I hear of a "trend" like this, I always have to ask: "Is it happening here?"

So I put the question to Don Sepety, a Prudential Fox & Roach agent who specializes in foreclosure sales.

"This was done on an experimental basis in 'target' areas, and then the banks had trouble getting the tenants to move," Sepety said, even though they had signed an agreement that they would.

Basically, he said, they responded: "I'm not moving! Evict me!"

Sepety deals with a dozen different lenders now, and not one of them is considering renting a foreclosure. "I get a lot of calls from people asking if the bank will rent the property, and the answer is always no," he said.

Gloriann M. Ellis, an associate broker at Weichert Realtors in Media, had a new home for sale for which she considered finding short-term tenants. She said she contacted a company that places people and furniture in vacant homes, for corporations and individuals as well as small banks.

Prospective renters are scrutinized as well as the furniture is, she said - you want someone who will cooperate when you tell them it's time to move.

The "renters" pay less to live in the house in question than they would if they had gone through normal leasing channels, but they are required to keep the property in order and be available for showings from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

As soon as the house goes to agreement of sale, its occupants are given 30 to 45 days to move out.

Perhaps to another bank-owned house in another town, just in time for another enterprising reporter to "discover" this trend.

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design.

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or Twitter: @alheavens.

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