August 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Live-in home stagers enjoy fantasy lifestyle in mansions

They occupy upscale houses to give them personal touch when shown to prospective buyers

Craig Craft vacuums the floor of a $1.7 million mansion on July 29, 2014 in Atlanta. '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,' he says.Craig Craft vacuums the floor of a $1.6 million mansion on July 29, 2014 in Atlanta. Through a program called Show Homes of Atlanta Craft and his roommate Eugene Sullivan live in the house for a fraction of the cost of rent. The house, which is up for sale, must be kept in pristine condition at all times because they never know when a real estate agent might show up with clients in tow. (Brant Sanderlin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) (Photos by Brant Sanderlin / MCT)

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. 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 a unique cadre of house sitters called on by real estate agents 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 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 Atlanta homes range in price from $200,000 to $6 million. 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.

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.”

Although rent is low, Craig Craft must keep the Atlanta mansion where he ... (MCT)
Craig Craft takes a photo of the $1.7 million house he is currently ... (MCT)