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Website Aims to Turn Vacant Houses into Model Homes

Boca Raton, FL-A concerned citizen, Valerie Szymaniak, who has worked in real estate for more than 20 years, recently launched a new website (www.myvacanthouse.com) to help reduce the adverse impact that vacant homes for sale have on surrounding neighborhoods.

Myvacanthouse.com addresses the nationwide epidemic of vacant houses on a grand scale, but applies its unique solution one house and one neighborhood at a time. The site serves as an interactive one-stop destination that links individuals who own vacant homes or the banks that own foreclosed homes with on-site home managers.

These live-in property managers stage the vacant house while it's for sale, agree to maintain it in model condition, pay the utility bills and pay a fee that could partly offset the carrying costs. The site even allows the homeowner to see photos of the prospective manager's furniture and read about them to help choose the right home manager for the house.

In exchange for their services the home managers enjoy the benefit of reduced-price houses for rent at a time when millions are looking for ways to reduce monthly expenses.

The concept is not new, says Ms. Szymaniak. For decades so-called home managers or live-in home stagers have been used to help sell vacant houses. Most real estate professionals agree that an occupied home has greater emotional appeal and charm than an empty one, and usually sells more quickly and commands a higher price."I developed an interest in vacant home staging about five years ago while I was looking for a house to buy," recalls Ms. Syzmaniak.

"I realized thatmany homesdidn't show well, especially vacant houses. If potential buyers like the way a house is decorated and the ambiance that's created, they spend much more time in the house. They can imagine themselves living there." Model homes are designed to ignite that feeling and emotion, she describes. "When a house is empty, it has no personality or atmosphere and people tend to focus on theflaws, because that's where the eye settles, i.e.dark tile, bad paint, and old counter tops. When a house has beautiful furniture and all the little accessories that make it look inviting, people generally don't even notice the color of the floor. There eye settles on the furniture and the accents."

When the marketbegan to slow down, staging a vacant house became even more important, she says, butthe cost of traditional stagingcan be prohibitive over time. "Bankshave the greatest needright now - not just to enhance the marketability of REO's but also to make sure they areproperlymaintained. Many banks outsource some type ofproperty management butthataddresses only one aspect of the problem. The house is still empty and unappealing, and if it's been vandalized, they discover it 'after the fact'. Having a responsiblelive in stager can be a strong deterrent to vandals or thieves and they also provide the critical visual marketing. And since the live in stager pays a modest 'fee' to live there,it's a net gain instead ofa loss for the bank until the house sells."

Vacant and foreclosed homes are not just bad for their owners. They're bad for other homeowners in the neighborhood, too, because they create an eyesore and a temptation for thieves and vandals. They could also lower the value of the surrounding homes. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were 2.3 million vacant houses on the market at the end of 2008, but that number is growing as the economy continues to deteriorate. "Having the vacant house occupied by a live-in stager can solve many problems," she says. "The houses are furnished and kept clean, the yard and pool are maintained, and vandals are deterred. The homeowner's insurance premiums may even go down and the live-in stager will pay the utilities as well as a nominal fee to live there."

The purpose of the service is not to transform these vacant houses into income-producing investments, but to provide a combination of modest rent payments and fee-free maintenance and home staging while the house is being marketed for sale. Live-in managers agree to be ready to vacate on short notice when a buyer is found and many then move on to become house sitters and stagers elsewhere.

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