Charleston area home staging firm puts occupants in houses for sale

Lorelie and Coy Brown business is to tastefully furnish homes that are for sale in the Charleston area. (Brad Nettles/ 4/10/12

There are plenty of companies that will dress up a home for sale with decorative touches and temporary furnishings, but one local business goes a step further.

Lorelie and Coy Brown’s Showhomes Charleston also puts people in the vacant homes; people who move in until the house sells, keep things tidy, mow the lawn and pay the utility bills.

The tenants — Showhomes calls them “home managers” — bring their own furniture, which is supplemented by pieces and decorations provided by Showhomes.

“We interview their furniture as much as we interview them,” Lorelie Brown said.

Showhomes is a national franchise built around the idea that occupied homes sell faster and for higher prices while reducing homeowners’ carrying costs and deterring vandalism. It’s a twist on the practice known as home staging.

Home staging involves making residential properties more attractive to potential buyers, typically by decorating vacant homes with furniture, art and other touches.

“You have to have everything from the hand towels in the bathroom to a full master bedroom,” said Coy Brown, standing in Showhomes’ small warehouse of furniture, lamps, rugs and accessories.

The managers are Showhomes contractors rather than renters, so they don’t have tenants’ rights, and the financial complications of a rental property are avoided for the homeowner.

Living arrangement Home managers are screened by the Browns, and on average may live in a home for five or six months. When the home is sold, Showhomes could move the managers to another home.

Homeowners pay Showhomes a $1,500 set-up fee plus a half-percent commission when the home sells, but they can benefit from lower utility bills and upkeep and insurance costs until the home is sold. Home managers pay Showhomes a fee to live in the home, usually less than half the amount such a home would rent for, plus the utilities.

The home managers may be people relocating to the area who aren’t ready to buy, the Browns said, or people who need a temporary home while they are building one of their own. The homes are typically higher-end properties.

“Normally, it’s people who are in transition,” Coy Brown said.

The Browns of Isle of Palms decided to become franchisees in 2010 after Lorelie Brown’s mother learned about Showhomes while looking for a home in Florida.

“He still has the email I sent saying: We ought to look into this,” Lorelie Brown said, referring to her husband.

At the time, she was busy home-schooling the Browns’ three children and he was working in residential construction.

They did their research and decided to take the plunge and now have the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester market for Showhomes.

The home-staging aspect of the business allows Lorelie Brown to tap her training in design. She used to design day-care centers.

‘Learning curve’ The Browns have been running the business for 16 months now, primarily serving clients in Charleston County.

“There’s a big learning curve in teaching Realtors and homeowners about what we do,” Coy Brown said.

He said one home they staged previously had been on the market for more than 18 months and then sold in 29 days. While such results aren’t typical, Showhomes says occupied, staged homes sell faster and for higher prices than other listings.

“When we stage a home, we hold an open house for agents, with a full lunch,” he said.

That way, listing agents get a fresh look at the newly occupied and decorated house.

In February, the Showhomes Home Staging organization recognized the Browns’ franchise with a “circle of excellence” award for customer service and a “best in staging design rising star” award for home staging, in competition with other franchises open less than 18 months.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.