‘Ghost’ occupants of luxury homes

The boom-bust nature of the American economy has now spawned ‘ghost tenants’, people who are essentially high-end house sitters. It works like this. Suppose you have a huge luxury house that you need to move out of and want to sell. You don’t want to leave the house empty or with a caretaker because houses are easier to sell if there is someone actually living in them. But you don’t want to rent it out either because that creates other problems.

Well, it turns out that there is a solution. It appears that there are enough formerly wealthy people used to living like you who have fallen on hard times. They are now being recruited to occupy those homes and pretend that they are the occupants because they know how to live in it in the correct style and not trash the place.

Bob and Dareda Mueller and their three grown sons are … part of an “elite group” of middle-class nomads who have agreed to an outlandish deal. They can live cheaply in this for-sale luxury home if it looks as if they never lived here at all.

The home must remain meticulously cleaned and preserved: the temperature precisely pleasant, the mirrors crystalline clear. If a prospective buyer wants to see the home, they must quickly disappear. And when the home sells, they must be gone for good, off to the next perfect place.

That they do everything an owner would do — sleeping, making memories, learning the home’s quirks and secrets — imbues an otherwise-empty home with an unmistakable energy, say executives with Showhomes Tampa, the home-staging firm that moves them in. It also helps the homes sell faster, and for more money.

All surfaces must be regularly cleaned; weeds eradicated, car oil spots removed. Clothes in closets are to be organized by color, and contestable items — heavily religious books, personal photos — must be removed or neutralized. Every item has a rule, and everything must be exact: the rotation of pillows, the fold of towels, the positioning of toothbrushes. Even the stacks of novels casually left on the bookshelf are placed and angled with pinpoint detail.

The article profiles the people who have chosen to live like this.

The Muellers once lived in an opulent lake house bigger even than this $750,000 estate, which graces the 10th hole of an exclusive golf course in one of Tampa’s wealthiest suburbs. But after a financially shattering fall from grace, this home, their fifth in two years, has become a surprising lifeline: Bob, 60, and Dareda, 56, now both work at McDonald’s and scrape to pay the bills.

Living this kind of life is not easy. And not that cheap either, since the Muellers pay the company that arranges this $1,200 in rent. One wonders why they don’t simply move into their own place and use that money for a mortgage or for rent. But it appears that they cannot bear to get rid of all their upscale furnishings and other stuff. Living like this enables them to keep them and live in the style to which they are accustomed, even if they have to move at short notice when the house sells. It also helps them maintain the illusion that what they are experiencing is a temporary phenomenon and that when they are wealthy again, they will still have all their stuff to move into their own new luxury home.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Sounds to me as if it is the Muellers who should be getting paid in this deal. They are acting almost like department store window designers, and if they don’t have another vacant luxury house lined up, they will probably incur large expenses when they need to find another place to move into.

  2. Kevin Kehres says

    $1200 in rent is pretty darn cheap in Tampa. Fair market value of the rent in that sized property could easily be quadruple that.

    So, I’m not exactly brimming with sympathy for them–they’ve figured a way to keep their lifestyle, with all their “upscale furnishings they can’t bear to part with”, at a fraction of the cost. In effect, they’re being subsidized a couple thou a month by the owners.

    And I “get” that owners’ subsidy, FWIW. The last real estate downturn before the more recent one, I rented a condo for a year at a loss, because that was the best I could do. And sold it at break-even.

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