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‘Ghost tenants’ live in luxury homes at apartment prices

The Mueller Family lives together in a 4,800 square foot Tampa, Florida home, but they only pay $1,200 in rent every month. (Photo courtesy of the Mueller Family)

Bob and Dareda Mueller used to own a large, beautiful home on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

“We were in a golfing community, we were actually on the lake, and it was about 4,800 square feet,” says Bob.

But then they lost everything.

“It was the real estate crash, we had probably too much of our assets in real estate,” Bob explains. “The downturn of the economy just brought us to having to sell them for next to nothing or really losing money on them.”

The couple lost their lavish home and their properties, but they still had their lavish home furnishings; a baby grand piano, a $10,000 Pakistani rug. So a friend told them about Showhomes, a home staging company that actually moves families, and all of their belongings, into homes that are on the market.

“The advantage is, the whole house is being staged,” says Linda Saavedra, Showhomes’ Tampa, Florida franchise owner. “There’s food in the pantry, there’s clothes perfectly organized in the closet. It looks like a model home, it almost looks like no one lives there, yet someone does. The buyer naturally thinks the home seller still lives there. They don’t know that it’s a home manager that’s living in the home.”

The Mueller’s have lived in five Tampa homes in two years, moving every three to eight months. They live like ghosts, keeping the homes meticulously clean and uncluttered, not displaying any family photos. A designer perfectly arranges all their belongings when they move in. The deal is, they have to make themselves scarce when a potential buyer comes over for a tour.

“We don’t just make our beds just any which old way, it has to be made exactly according to their standards,” Dareda says. “We never go to bed with dishes in the sink. I keep the soap, shampoo also, shaving, all those things, not in the shower, but it’s in a drawer.”

The ghost tenants, or home managers, as they’re officially referred to, can potentially move as often as every 60 days, as long as it takes for a home to sell. But it’s completely worth it for Bob and Dareda who both now work at McDonald’s and would never be able to afford living in the 4,800 square foot home, complete with pool, that they’re currently living in.

“This is a large four-bedroom, beautiful home, four and a half baths,” says Dareda. “If I was renting this, it would probably be in the neighborhood of over $3,000 a month. We pay $1,200 a month.”

Showhomes hires movers for the home managers, but the Mueller’s are responsible for packing and unpacking each move, so they’ve paired down their belongings considerably. Linda says it’s a win-win situation. Home managers get to live cheaply in expensive homes, and it costs the seller far less than a typical staging.

“If the home owner were having the home fully staged, the home owner would have to pay us to rent all of that furniture, which would be significantly more than what we collect from the home manager,” Linda says. “So while the home manager is living in that house, we actually pay for the home owner, their electric bill, their water bill, their lawn service, their pool service. They’re saving money by having the home manager in their property.”

Linda says houses that have been stuck on the market for months will suddenly sell once inhabited by a home manager, and usually for 25 percent more than if it was vacant. It’s such a sweet deal, home managers often stick with the luxury nomad lifestyle for quite a long time.

“In California they have home managers who’ve been with them for almost 15 years,” Linda says.

“After having multiple properties, it sounds like a dream, yet there are at least five bills that go with each home. So it’s been kind of nice not to be responsible for the real estate tax, for the roof, for the maintenance. We don’t have any intentions of leaving Showhome’s program anytime soon.”

The Mueller’s currently share the home, and the rent, with their three 20-something sons.

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