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RISMEDIA, June 17, 2009-(MCT)-Dave Hill lost his job several months ago, yet the family is able to do just fine on his wife’s teaching salary.

That’s because the Hills also are professional “home tenders,” who contract with Salt Lake City-based Designer Home Tending. Folks such as the Hills pay on average only $600 per month to live in digs that often are luxurious-in the Hills’ case, a 7,000-square-foot home high atop the east bench in Davis County.

In exchange for highly affordable rent, the Hills furnish and occupy the home, keeping it clean and neat-and ready to show prospective buyers at a moment’s notice. The seller, a contractor who built the showpiece at the height of the housing market boom only to see it languish vacant during the downturn, is betting that a furnished and occupied property will be more inviting to potential buyers.

Designer Home Tending is the creation of Cathy Cardenas, who started the company three years ago after a decade in radio and television. Designer Home Tending operates in nine markets: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Orange County, Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco in California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Boise, Idaho; and the Salt Lake metro area.

At any given time, she has 300-350 tenders in homes in those areas.

So just how does Cardenas make money? It’s not from charging sellers, who don’t pay anything for the service. It’s the nominal monthly “rental” fee paid by those who occupy the homes that goes to Cardenas. Multiply that amount by hundreds of homes in markets throughout the West, and you have the formula for a profitable company.

But spend any amount of time with Cardenas and you get the impression that it’s not exactly easy money.

She must spend a lot of time marketing and promoting her business to Realtors and builders and marketing her service in any way she can, such as talking her service up on social networking sites. There are competitors in the markets where she operates. (Just search Google for “home staging.”)

Cardenas also must screen potential home tenders and arrange all aspects of their stay, right down to the liability insurance.

Not all homes end up being sold. Some are foreclosed, others are taken off the market and still others become traditional rentals.

But the goal is still a sale-and Cardenas said more than 300 homes with tenders in them have sold in the three years that she’s been in business.

Nate Larsen, co-owner of home builder E Builders in Lehi, is working with Cardenas to get two of his newly constructed homes sold. One is the home in North Salt Lake occupied by Hill; the other is in Highland in Utah County.

“We had the houses listed for sale for quite some time and weren’t getting any action,” Larsen said.

Part of the motivation to work with Designer Home Tending, he said, is the fact that insuring a vacant home more expensive than insuring one that’s occupied.

Plus, over the winter, the tenants handled snow removal so the house could easily be shown. And having tenants reduces the possibility of vandalism and theft. Tenants also pay the utilities.

But will tenants in a home help get it sold?

Veteran Salt Lake City Realtor Jillinda Bowers said an occupied home generally does sell faster, and at a better price.

“If you have the right kind of furniture, and not too much of it, the house shows a little nicer,” Bowers said.

And with a furnished and occupied home, sellers don’t appear as desperate to sell, compared with trying to sell one that’s vacant.

That said, Bowers cautions that the wrong tenants can make a home harder to sell.

Cardenas acknowledges that finding good home tenders can be difficult. It’s simply not a job every one can do-or even one many would want. Tenders must not only be responsible and tidy, but also be willing to do general upkeep such as mowing the lawn.

They have to own nice furniture, and the furnishings need to look appropriate in the home they are tending. Then there’s the issue of utilities. Many of these homes are quite large, which increases heating and cooling costs.

And tenders must be flexible and willing to move, sometimes as quickly as two weeks after move-in. (The Hills have been lucky in this regard-the North Salt Lake home they moved in to last October hasn’t yet sold.)

Those with children have to worry about the possibility of changing schools, and about keeping kid-related clutter under control.

But above all, tenders must be able to cope with the fact that a Realtor could show up with a client at any time. “The home has to be in show-ready condition all the time,” Cardenas said, noting that she makes unannounced weekly visits to homes her tenders occupy.

Hill said he’s fine with all that because of the super-low rent. He and wife Rachel first heard about home tending several years ago after they got married. They decided to get involved and are on their third assignment, the first two being in Draper and Kaysville.

The Hills don’t know exactly when they are going to stop tending and settle down. For now, it suits them, especially until Hill finds another job.

“It is work, but I’m getting to live in a $2 million home for the cost of a studio apartment,” Hill said. “What’s not to like about that?”

Copyright ©2009, The Salt Lake Tribune
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.