The Mueller family have a unique living arrangement – they are, in fact, part of an ‘elite’ group of middle-class nomads who have agreed to a very peculiar lease agreement. They get to live in for-sale luxury homes at dirt cheap prices, but of course, there’s a catch – the house must always be in squeaky clean, in case it gets bought, and they have to be ready to move out immediately.
So while the Muellers get to enjoy the very best of houses, they need to keep things meticulously clean and maintain a precisely pleasant temperature. The mirrors have to be crystal clear at all times, and the bed needs to look like it’s never been slept in. They need special approval if they want to have more than 10 people over. When a prospective buyer wants to view the house, the family needs to disappear. And when the property is sold, they’ve got to pack and move to the next luxury destination.
It seems like a bizarre way to live, but there’s a very specific reason for it – according to real estate companies, houses sell better when they’re being lived in. Families like the Muellers lend an unmistakable energy to an otherwise empty home. The effect of their presence is so great that home-staging firms say they’re able to sell homes faster and for more money. The Muellers pay the firm about $1,200 for rent and household bills, and the firm reimburses costs every time they need to move.
“The home managers act like human props and (with buyers) it’s like magic. It works phenomenally well,” said Showhomes Tampa franchise owner Linda Saavedra. Filling vacant houses with stuff ‘enhances the focal points, softens age, and minimizes flaws’. And the fake homeowners adds something that’s impossible to simulate – life. “There’s an energy there. You can feel it. There’s something. There’s life,” said Linda. But she admits that it isn’t easy for the Muellers, living the way they do. “They have to live a very different, very difficult life.”
The Muellers themselves were rich at one point, living in an opulent $750,000 estate in one of Tampa’s wealthiest suburbs. Bob, 60, had invested heavily in real estate and he had soon amassed a weighty portfolio of investment properties including a sprawling French Country home. The Muellers also used their newfound wealth to convert their farmhouse into a bed-and-breakfast called Green Pastures. Unfortunately, the Muellers’ dream world came crashing when the real estate industry plummeted. “When the housing downturn came, it hit us really hard, and the things we’d invested in fell through the bottom,” said Dareda, 56. They were forced to sell their home, empty their bank accounts and take up the offer from Showhomes.
Photo: Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times
The first home that the Muellers lived in felt stiflingly small compared to what they were used to. For a while, Bob wondered if they had made a mistake. Eight months later, that home was sold, and the family had to move once again. Bob and Dareda have both taken up jobs at McDonald’s to help make ends meet. The couple might choose to leave the program at some point, but for now it seems to be providing them with a sense of security.
Also helping the couple are their three sons – Devin, 25, Camden, 23, and Jordan, 21. They’ve moved in to help split the rent, but the rules are sometimes hard to follow. Camden, a part-time voice coach, doesn’t like it when he has to cancel sessions and wait with his family at Starbucks during a showing of the house. He sometimes ‘rebels’ by not making his bed.
Dareda and Bob, however, cannot afford the luxury of rebellion or even just a lazy day. They’re up at 4am for an early shift – ensuring the home is immaculate, the floors are sparkling, the Italian porcelain is gleaming, all the trouble spots polished or cloaked. Outdoors, weeds must be eradicated and car oil spots removed. The closets have to be organized by color and all personalized items need to be out of sight. The rotation of pillows, the fold of towels the positioning of toothbrushes – everything must be perfect. And all this must be accomplished before they leave for their jobs at McDonald’s.
Surprisingly, Dareda is quite alright with serving as an unseen caretaker for a home that’s not hers. “When I live in somebody else’s home, it feels like I already know them,” she said. Even though Bob considers their present living arrangements to be a huge set back, Dareda prefers to look at the bright side. “I hate the fact that we went through that, and yet, it really helped me understand what people go through,” she said.
“I think that’s something I won’t forget, when I’m wealthy again,” Bob added.