Bernie Schupbach needed to sell his home in the height of the real estate crash.
His home in Yorkville, Ill., was unoccupied. It had lingered on the market for a long time — and Schupbach, a radiologist in Aurora, Ill., was growing uncomfortable.
"To me, you worry about a pipe breaking in winter. You worry about the heat going out. You worry about vandals. You worry about animal infestation," he says. "My big concern was: There's nobody there, I'm 30 miles away."
Then somebody mentioned Showhomes to Schupbach and his wife, Lynn.
Showhomes is a home-staging company that helps people sells their homes. Its employees make minor suggestions like changing a paint color or fixing up a front door, but also de-clutter and depersonalize a home.
And nothing depersonalizes a home more than having another person, couple or family living in it — meet Showhomes' unique Home Managers program.
Home managers are actively recruited — and vetted — by the staging company, through avenues like real estate agents and Craigslist. Showhomes gets paid by both the homeowner and the home manager.
The home manager pays a fee that's one-third to half of what traditional rent in a specific market might be plus utilities, says Matt Kelton, chief operating officer of Showhomes.
Home managers go through a specific training program. They need to keep the house immaculate, disappear when potential buyers come for a showing, and, once the house is sold — never come back again.
Oh, and there's another catch: Whoever moves in needs to have enough furniture to fill the home, which is often a luxury property.
Kelton says that on average, home managers have a five-day "no peek rule," when designers take their furniture and redesign the house. He says homeowners often see their newly redecorated house and say, "Man, I wish I wasn't moving."
Kelton says the Home Manager program helps sell houses by making them look lived-in. An empty house, he says, gives off the perception that a homeowner is desperate to sell.
"To sell a vacant house, you're going to see a home that takes longer to sell. It's going to show the flaws of the homes right away," he says. "Something about having food in the pantry ... it's hard to put my finger on it, but there's some kind of emotional connection that happens."
Showhomes was founded in 1986 and now serves communities in 18 states. The company, with nearly 60 franchise offices across the U.S., was founded during the savings and loan crisis and oil bust of 1982 in Oklahoma, when interest rates were set at 17 or 18 percent and banks had huge amounts of foreclosed homes.
The company started to take homes that were sitting vacant and match them with people who were being relocated.
Many home managers are people in transition, like executives who have been relocated, or someone waiting for their new home to be built.
Alan Shuminer has been a home manager in Miami for about five years. When he first got involved in the program, he had just gone through a divorce and was looking for a place close to his three children.
Shuminer says he's an atypical home manager because he's in the program for the long haul. He estimates he's moved 10 or 12 times. Luckily for him, if a home manager is moving to another in-town Showhome, a franchisee pays for the move.
And it works perfectly for Shuminer. "I've done the house ownership bit," he says. "My lifestyle right now doesn't require me to be home very much."
Shuminer, a lawyer, says he hasn't lived in a house that's less than $1.41 million. He currently pays $2,600 per month for a 7,500-square-foot house — with a pool — that's listed at $3.3 million. (According to Kelton, the average home manager fee is $1,350 per month.)
Generally, Showhomes focuses on properties that among the most expensive in an area, Kelton says. Nationally, its average list price is around $750,000, but prices range from $200,000 to $12 million.
And Shuminer's favorite part of the program? "Going to a new house," he says.
He says he gets bored and too acclimated after a while; he reaches the point where he's ready to move. And it's easy for him, because after so many moves, he says he has a lot less stuff than he used to.
"I think some people see it as being unstable," Shuminer says. "The fact that I move around is just one of the idiosyncratic quirks about me."
Kelton says being a home manager means a very different kind of lifestyle. He said he's had managers in the Showhomes system for anywhere from 30 days to 10 years.
As for Schupbach, the radiologist, he guesses home managers lived in his house in Illinois for about two years. "I had somebody in the house. I knew that if something went wrong, they would tell me," he says.
Schupbach plans to retire in a year, and he and his wife are already preparing for their next move — and Showhomes is part of the process.
He asked the company's pros to come in as consultants, and tell him what he and his wife could do to make their house more marketable. He says it's hard for the individual seller to know exactly what a buyer wants.
"For me it's a win-win-win," Schupbach says.
Allie Caren is a digital news intern at NPR.