Staging is all the rage in real estate. The theory, mentioned frequently on HGTV television programs, is that home buyers cannot visualize how they would live in a house if there is not furniture — preferably really nice furniture — artfully arranged in an uncluttered house.
Jonathan and Carla Cheifetz, owners of Princeton Showhomes, are taking the staging concept one step further. Their new business, a franchise of a Nashville-based company, puts beautiful furniture — and people to match — in vacant homes that are on the market.
Homemanagers are people who own impeccable everything — armoires, comforters, dish towels, suits, the works — and who are willing and able to move themselves and their belongings into a vacant sale at a moment’s notice, and then to live there — ever so neatly — as the house is being shown to potential buyers.
Testimonials on the company’s website, www.showhomes.com, tout a quick sale as the biggest benefit for home owners. But Cheifetz points out others. “We send cleaners and landscapers out every two weeks,” he says. Also, the homemanagers pay for utilities, and insurance rates tend to be lower in an occupied house than in a vacant house.
Showhomes specializes in upscale houses, so an advantage for homemanagers is the chance to live in a really nice house at a reduced rate. “It’s not rent,” Cheifetz emphasizes. “They are not tenants. We call it a ‘fee.’” The fee is generally 30 to 40 percent less than rent would be. Good homemanagers, says Cheifetz, have a chance to upgrades their digs quickly. “If a homemanager does a really good job with a $700,000 house, keeping it neat and clean, he may get a $1 million house next time,” he says. Indoor pools, seaside mansions, the homemanager can aspire to it all.
Homemanagers don’t actually have to be beautiful, but they do need to be well-organized. The corporate website tells potential clients that they can expect well-stocked closets that will very probably be color coordinated. No fork will ever be left in a sink. No towel will ever be casually tossed onto a bathroom floor.
Cheifetz, now in the process of screening homemanagers, says that there is a surprisingly large pool of potential homemanagers. Retirees trying out new communities are naturals. So are recently divorced dads. His wife spoke with the manager of a local extended stay home who said that he typically has 10 to 12 divorced dads under his roof at one time. “They’re paying $100 a day,” Cheifetz says, “that’s $3,000 a month.” For half that amount, give or take, they could be in a multi-bedroom home in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the area.
Other potential homemanagers are people whose lives have suddenly been downsized. “We do criminal checks, credit checks,” says Cheifitz. “It used to be that a blip on a credit record would be a problem, but no more. The world has changed.” He knows this first hand.
In June, 2008, he was downsized from his position at Deutsche Bank. He had worked there for 10 years and was caught “in the first wave” of Wall Street downsizings. Five months later his wife, Carla, lost her job as executive director of Lawrenceville Main Street.
It was the classic case of Wall Street’s woes trickling down to Main Street. “It’s a not-for-profit,” Cheifetz says of Lawrenceville Main Street, the organization that works to keep the town’s storefronts occupied and its streets attractive. “It depends on donors. Carla was the only paid employee. When the money dried up, they had to let her go.”
After long searches, both Cheifetzes “decided to invest in ourselves,” says Jonathan. They thought of buying a business, then began considering a franchise. They did “an enormous amount of due diligence,” says Cheifetz, and decided to buy into the company.
Their income will come in part from the fees that homemanagers pay. There are also fees that come when the home is sold. These, says Cheifetz, are billed to the home owner on a sliding scale, based on how quickly a home sells.
Cheifetz hesitates to speculate on how many houses Princeton Showhomes will be managing in a year. “The company’s top producer juggles up to 70 houses,” he says. “Lower producers have 10 or 12. We would love to have 20 to 30.”
Area real estate agents say that the inventory of unsold homes in the Princeton area, particularly at the high end, has rarely been higher. The ill wind that has emptied so many of these homes of their owners, who have had to move on, is just the thing the Cheifetzes need to inflate their new business.
Showhomes of Princeton, 38 Burning Tree Lane, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-512-1052. Jonathan Cheifitz and Carla Cheifetz, owners. www.showhomes.com.