How do you imbue an empty mansion with the indefinable "energy" that comes from daily habitation? Find distressed rich people with nice furniture and precarious jobs at McDonald's to move in.
In a profile in the Tampa Bay Times, we meet the Mueller family, once-wealthy property speculators who were ruined in the subprime crash and are now working at McDonald's to make ends meet. But they are one of several former 1% families offered dirt-cheap rent at a massive, empty house in exchange for keeping it spotless and being prepared to move on a moment's notice, once their borrowed housepride lures a more fortunate family into moving in. They are the "right kind of people" to occupy the empty mansion, coming with their own high-end furnishings and an outlook and aesthetic that is impedance-matched to potential buyers for high-end Florida real estate.
Filling vacant houses with stuff, the firm said, "enhances the focal points, softens age and minimizes flaws." But adding in fake homeowners adds something else entirely, Saavedra said, turning quasi-spiritual: "There's an energy there. You can feel it. There's something. There's life."
Showhomes managers live in about 15 Tampa Bay homes, most of them valued at more than $500,000. Some have lived in the homes for 18 months, others, less than a week. Few qualify, because managers are expected to bring their own upscale furnishings and compulsion for hyper-cleanliness. Most, Saavedra said, are "people in transition."
Showhomes pays moving costs but the Muellers pay the firm about $1,200 in rent, plus all household bills. Showhomes decorators decide where things should go, and managers are responsible for faultless precision, enforced by rigorous, random inspections.
All surfaces must be regularly cleaned; weeds eradicated, car oil spots removed. Clothes in closets are to be organized by color, and contestable items — heavily religious books, personal photos — must be removed or neutralized. Every item has a rule, and everything must be exact: the rotation of pillows, the fold of towels, the positioning of toothbrushes. Even the stacks of novels casually left on the bookshelf are placed and angled with pinpoint detail.
'Human props' stay in luxury homes but live like ghosts [Drew Harwell/Tampa Bay Times]
(Image: McMansion, Elana Centor, CC-BY-SA)