House Can Have a Lived-In Look Without Being Lived In


A house just isn’t a home without furniture and knickknacks. That’s why some real estate agents report that selling a vacant house is almost always tougher than selling a home that’s occupied.

To get a lived-in look, however, it isn’t necessary that a house actually be lived in. A few pieces of rented furniture and a few accessories can make a house look friendlier and less stark. A temporary caretaker may also help create a more lived-in look and improve a seller’s chances for a timely sale. An empty house suggests to buyers that the owner may be desperate to sell, while a home with a few nice accessories is more likely to evoke a warm and fuzzy feeling from would-be buyers.

“Furnishings sell a home more quickly. It’s difficult for buyers to visualize living in a vacant home,” said Harriet Clune, a regional manager in the Woodland Hills branch office of the Jon Douglas Co. “A home shows better furnished.”


As many as 20% of Clune’s residential listings are vacant at some point before they are sold, she said. Many properties are being sold by lenders that foreclosed on the previous occupant. Still others, Clune said, are empty because the seller got a new job elsewhere or found a bigger, better home.

“Many times, people will leave one or two rooms furnished so then when people enter the house, their first impression is of a warm, homey look,” Clune said. She also tries to dress unoccupied homes with a silk ficus tree in the living room, a few jars on the kitchen countertops and towels in the bathrooms. Newly painted walls are important to cover shadows created by art that has been removed from the walls, and clean carpets can help remove the reminder of the furniture that is no longer there.

Finding a short-term tenant is another way to increase the appeal of a home that would otherwise be empty, Clune advised. She has tried this with one of her own homes and recalled having a very positive experience. “The tenant got a discounted rental rate and kept the house looking good for six months,” she recalled. Clune advised owners to thoroughly check out would-be renters before allowing them to move in and try to be sure that the renter has nice furniture.

“It’s hard for people to think of an empty house as a home,” said Heather Simms, branch sales manager for Coldwell Banker Residential in Westlake Village. In the winter, an empty house is physically colder and, in the summer, the air inside is generally warmer and more stale. Voices echo through an empty home and create an eerie feeling, Simms added.

All these factors detract from the appeal of a residence and the final sales price. “When buyers see an empty house, they think of a desperate seller and it brings down the price,” Simms said. Larger homes are at the biggest disadvantage when they are empty, she said, because they appear more hollow and because the seller may have to slash the price to get the house sold.

Savvy sellers may want to consider a number of alternatives to merely listing an empty house for sale. Furniture rental companies can fill an empty house in relatively short order. The problem with this approach is that most rental stores don’t also stock accessories and the cost of furnishing several rooms can add up quickly--depending on the size of the rooms and the quality of the furniture.


Another option is calling a home caretaker company such as America’s Home Tenders in Glendale. This company finds caretakers with their own furniture for empty houses, and the caretakers pay a monthly fee to the company that generally totals about one-quarter to one-third of the market-rate rent for the home that is being tended. The owners don’t get to collect any rent, but they don’t have to pay for the agency’s services. Caretakers pay for utilities, gardeners, pool care, homeowner association dues and renter’s insurance. The agency pays for a $1-million liability policy and the property owner is required to keep paying homeowner insurance.

Alan Dias, partner in America’s Home Tenders, said he is tending six homes in the San Fernando Valley priced between $250,000 and $619,000. The average time that his caretakers spend in a house until it is sold is about three to four months--although some homes may stay on the market for up to a year. Dias said he avoids calling the caretakers tenants so that they may be required to vacate a home within 10 days of being notified by the agency. “We ideally like to visit them where they are currently living, or get pictures or video of their furniture,” Dias said.

“All of our caretakers are professionals and, for one reason or another, they are in need of temporary housing. We have had fairly few problems recruiting caretakers.”

The Denver-based company was founded in 1985 and has been in business in Glendale since March, 1993, Dias said. Since then, the company has handled about 80 local homes.

“Our statistics show that well-maintained homes sell better,” Dias said. “An empty home immediately screams distressed sale.” Besides, he said, “an agent selling an empty house doesn’t usually have time to air out a house, open the windows and lighten it up before showing it to a prospective buyer.”

The caretakers who sign up with Dias’ company are required by contract to keep the home is top shape for a visit by a real estate agent at any time.



I must admit--I find it hard to imagine how many professionals with nice furniture would agree to pay even a discounted rent for a home that they may have to move out of on very short notice. Dias insists that there are plenty of takers and that his operation is making money. “If we carry even 20 homes generating $500 to $600 a month, it’s a profitable business.”

Wayne Duling, president of Model Interiors in Newbury Park, offers yet another option for sellers with an empty home on their hands. Model Interiors basically outfits new model homes and a few resale homes with temporary furniture and accessories for 25 cents to $1 per square foot. In some cases, Duling has done all the design work for free and provided temporary furniture at no cost to the homeowner in exchange for being able to use the home as a temporary showroom for his clients. This free arrangement is only an option if you have a spectacular estate home, Duling said.

Model Interiors has a 5,000-square-foot warehouse full of furniture and accessories to give any house a lived-in look, Duling said. He stocks all that’s needed for a rag-doll girl’s room, a boy’s sports room and even a polo-inspired room--complete with boots and a whip. Overall, he said, he has decorated about 30 homes for sale in the San Fernando Valley. The final price for Duling’s services depends on how showy a seller wants to get. He’ll even fill china cabinets, put place settings at the dining table, hang mirrors on the wall and make it look like someone with good taste is living in the home.

Violet Wade, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential, recalls that Duling fully outfitted a 7,000-square-foot home that she had listed in North Ranch. The house didn’t sell, but Duling did get lots of furniture sold out of the temporary showroom.

But Wade isn’t convinced that empty houses necessarily take longer to sell. “If a property is not moving, it’s usually because of price,” she said, adding that what works best isn’t more furniture, but a lower price.