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Kai Ryssdal: There was a tiny glimmer of hope for the housing industry this morning. According to the Commerce Department, construction spending didn't fall as much last month as experts had been guessing. But it's still plenty hard to sell the houses that are being built right now. That's especially true in places like Nevada and California, where suburbs that were overbuilt and overpriced look like ghost towns now.
Developers are more desperate than ever to clear those foreclosed or unsold homes off their books. So they're stealing a page from the realtor's playbook. Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman tells us some builders are trying to stage the next real estate turnaround.
MITCHELL HARTMAN: It's a Wednesday morning, and I'm headed toward a cul-de-sac of luxury homes in a gated community called Fox Run Estates about 90 miles north of Los Angeles. Each home has a three-car garage on a landscaped half-acre.
MARK SUCKERMAN: Here, wait a second, I'll come out.
Mark Suckerman thought he got a good deal when he bought this home recently for just $480,000. Turns out, though, it wasn't all good.
SUCKERMAN: It is a nice neighborhood. But there's no kids playing in the street, you don't hear lawn mowers going. I mean, there's nobody here.
But Suckerman says there were people barbecuing next door when he came to the open house, and he even met them when he came back for a weekend tour. His family moved in last Tuesday, and the neighbors' houses were empty.
SUCKERMAN: So who were those people?
Who those people were were actors. Hired to play neighbors in an increasingly cutthroat real-estate market, where "staging" a home now means much more than just putting out fancy deck furniture and baking cookies.
These days, savvy realtors sometimes "stage" whole neighborhoods, mowing lawns on abandoned properties, hiring dog walkers to stroll the streets. And when the financial stakes are high enough, employing professional actors to give the place a truly "lived-in" feel. I get to see this played out the following weekend.
There's a steady stream of potential home buyers coming through, as well as others who may or may not be their future neighbors.
FEMALE ACTOR: Can I get you some cookies, or maybe some coffee?
The actors "staging" this house have worked in commercials and repertory theatre. They asked that their names not be used.
FEMALE ACTOR: Well, I'm a professional actor. I play a lawyer, and she's also a mom. She's just not going to have enough time to bake you brownies when you move in.
MALE ACTOR: When I saw the call for a "living-theatre" piece I thought it'd be brilliant. Of course, I play the father, who's a little more laid back and fun to be with. Of course, I can talk to you about my power tools. In an American accent, of course.
FEMALE ACTOR: Nobody wants to hear about the power tools, Roger. That's not working.
MALE ACTOR: I'll talk about my power mower, then.
FEMALE ACTOR: As I said, we're method actors.
Their role isn't limited to chatting over the backyard fence. They might invite their future neighbors to a Little League game. The teams are borrowed from another town
or attend a "staged" church service and sing hymns.
Consumer advocates charge this is false advertising, and they say it may even be illegal to fill empty homes with temporary neighbors, then move them out once a sale closes.
But developer Randy Denaro says nothing they're doing goes over the line.
RANDY DENARO: Look around. You don't see anybody impersonating a cop, do you? Because why? Because that would be illegal. It's an image of a nice neighborhood, even if it's not nice right now.
After all, Denaro says, the run-up in home prices was partly built on smoke and mirrors, and the recovery might have to be as well.
I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.
Thanks to the following for helping to stage our April 1 feature:
Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center