Live-in home stagers enjoy fantasy lifestyle

Craig Craft only sleeps on the left side of his queen-sized bed so as not to unduly muss it up. Most of the toiletries in the bathroom are unopened, high-end hotel samples. The closet hangers are perfectly spaced and angled just-so. An orange-mandarin scent tickles the nostrils.

Each morning, at 7:30, Craft remakes the bed and places a mirrored tray with two crystal glasses and a Brandy decanter atop a faux mink blanket. He wipes clean bathroom counters and vacuums away carpet footprints.

Craft, a fastidious 43-year-old with a penchant for the high life, resides in Potemkin perfection inside a $1.7 million home in the Country Club of the South. The house is for sale. But Craft is in no hurry to move out because he doesn’t own it. He just “manages” it.

Craft is part of an unique cadre of house sitters called on by Realtors to help sell upscale yet slow-moving houses. The home-managing business boomed during the Great Recession as homes sat on the market for months, if not years. It slowed during the recovery but shows signs of again picking up, which doesn’t bode well for the residential market.

Home-buying is more than sales price, school district and length of commute. Buyers want to feel the house is right for them and get a visceral vibe that says, "Hey, I can see myself living here."

That's where Craft comes in. He gives the otherwise empty and impersonal Alpharetta estate a warm, inoffensive, lived-in look. In return, Craft gets to "live a life of luxury at apartment rent prices," according to Showhomes of Atlanta, a home-staging agency, while splitting the $1,200 monthly rent with a roommate.

“I can’t afford a million seven, but I can live in a home that costs that much,” said Craft, who works at IBM and has managed nine increasingly upscale homes in the past seven years. “I’m hanging out, enjoying the accoutrements of a fancy lifestyle for a lot less than the $8,000 a month the guy next door is paying.”

There are trade-offs, of course. Homes must be kept perpetually neat and clean — no coffee mugs in the sink — and ready for a Realtor’s visit on 20-minutes’ notice. The custodian must supply the furniture and homey touches, like the Braves cap jauntily placed by Craft on a table in the man cave. Once a home sells, the migrant manager has three weeks to pack up, leave and find the next abode.

Craft, though, embraces the living-somebody-else’s-dream lifestyle, especially on the 6.4-acre estate with 10-car garage and indoor basketball court once owned by former Braves and Falcons star Brian Jordan. He expresses no qualms about physically inhabiting a house without emotionally living in it. He’s fine serving as a human prop.

“Your life is as rich as all of your experiences,” Craft said. “Being in this program, I always have new experiences.”

The temporary life

He was born in Dallas, Texas, an Army brat comfortable with moving every few years. His mother was a nurse, but served as the extended family’s interior designer. She’d also get down on her knees to scrub clean the kitchen floor.

“She was so OCD” — obsessive-compulsive disorder — “when it came to cleaning,” Craft said.

He moved to Atlanta 20 years ago, bought a house in south Fulton with his wife and had three boys. The marriage ended (Craft said his wife was most definitely not a neat freak) and word-of-mouth eventually led him to Showhomes of Atlanta.

Home managers come in all family sizes, but divorcées, newcomers to Atlanta and people building their own homes top the custodial list. Recent divorcées with kids, for example, can remain in the same neighborhood so as not to disrupt their children’s social and school lives.

The recession created a new breed of managers who lost homes to bankruptcy or foreclosure but wanted to maintain their upper-end lifestyle. The program, though, also appeals to conscientious singles who can live large while saving enough on rent to sock away money for their own home or retirement.

“You’re living somebody else’s dream without having to pay much for it,” said Derrell Moore, who runs Showhomes Atlanta and has lived in 37 different homes in the past 15 years.

The Atlanta homes range in price from $200,000 to $6 million and are located mostly in Buckhead, East Cobb and along the Duluth-to-Alpharetta nexus. Showhomes Atlanta, one of 60 Showhome franchises nationwide, tallies 43 homes in its current inventory. In 2011, it averaged more than 100.

In addition to rent, managers like Craft cover utilities, renter’s insurance, landscaping and pool-cleaning fees. The manager also provides the furniture, which must be suitable for an upscale home. He or she is also responsible for moving expenses, a not-insignificant amount considering the average stay in an Atlanta home is two months or less.

Smoking and pets are prohibited. Parties are frowned upon. Other rules: No more than two cars allowed in the driveway. Sheets tucked in. Towels put in hampers. Toys out of sight unless “used for staging.”

“We don’t want managers to get a tenant mentality,” Moore said. “If an agent calls and wants to show the house at 4 p.m., we can’t have the manager say, ‘Aw, I want to take a nap.’ We can’t blow an opportunity to sell a home.”

Keeping things ‘perfect’

Mondays, Craft and roommate Eugene Sullivan vacuum and dust the 15,000-square foot house. Tuesdays, they do the windows and countertops. They clean bathrooms and blow leaves every other day.

Like his mother, Craft scrubs the granite kitchen floor by hand. A scented candle — Cranberry Mandarin Splash — burns in the kitchen. The roommates drink from plastic cups; they eat out virtually every meal.

“When I leave for lunch, I make sure everything is perfect,” Craft said.

He is the interior designer, the Art Deco-loving aesthete who scours estate sales and Red Baron Antiques for furniture. Sullivan is the jack-of-all-trades doing yard work, hanging pictures and plugging leaks.

"This is a job. We're not just vacationing house-sitters," said Sullivan, who does marketing work for IBM."But it is also my life. We do live here. If I die next week, I can say I lived in a mansion."

Creating an illusion is the essence of Showhome living. Craft, for example, bought a poker table even though he doesn’t play. No family photos grace the walls. A Christian, Craft doesn’t display religious paraphernalia per Showhome preferences. It’s colored water, not Brandy, in the bedroom decanter.

“Even though I live here,” Craft said, “I want it to look like I don’t live here.”

Showhome’s Moore likens the perfect for-sale home to a muscle. Use it — with real people and staged appurtenances — and it becomes alive, attractive and saleable. Don’t, and it grows flaccid, impersonal and unwelcoming.

“People buy perceived value and emotion, and we create positive emotion and the perception of value in a home,” Moore said.

Craft squirrels away $1,500 every month largely from living mortgage-free. He envisions his own catering business, a comfortable retirement and a well-appointed home — his own. Meantime, he’ll enjoy the life of a pseudo-millionaire anticipating his next move.

“Some people never get to start over in the life,” Craft said. “I get to start over all the time.”