A weary survivor of several relocations around the country, Melanie Sabelhaus decided there had to be an easier way to settle into a new home.
So, three years ago, she formed Exclusive Rental Properties Ltd. in Baltimore.
Need a short-term stopover until you find your new dream house? Team members from Exclusive Rental Properties will find a house and decorate it from their own inventory -- including antique furniture and china, crystal and linens -- to provide a home for newly arrived executives.
Even when the clients have unpacked, Ms. Sabelhaus knows her work isn't done. She knows that they really want a new best friend, and she's it.
Melanie Sabelhaus and her partner, Elizabeth Schroeder, can't wait to give their new pals the lowdown on what's what in town.
They orient newcomers into their temporary community and point out where to handle daily errands. Need a date or a place to get married? They have arranged both. Have an impossible request? Theword impossible is not in their vocabulary.
The company has a leased inventory of 38 furnished properties around Baltimore. Federal Hill and Otterbein in South Baltimore are the most popular locations because of their proximity to downtown offices.
"What we sell them on is Baltimore," Ms. Sabelhaus said, noting that most clients come from suburban areas and are often apprehensive about living in the city.
"They look at a city and they're a little suspect of coming into an urban environment. We always tell them that once you've lived here for three or four months, you're always going to come back," she said. "You are going to come with the family to the Science Center and you'll be going to the galleries. . . .
"It's a slice of life as well. You walk into the Cross Street Market, they're all assembled in there. Every part of the city."
Monthly rental prices range from $1,100 for a modest town house to $5,000 for a large home. Telephone and utility costs are added to the monthly bill. Average stays are three to four months while the client looks for a permanent home.
Because of the national downturn in the housing market, clients are staying in their temporary houses longer, Ms. Sabelhaus noted. To help customers who can't sell their houses in the town they are leaving, the company will also quickly find unfurnished rentals for clients who have a truckload of furniture on the way.
From the company's 1,000-square-foot warehouse in Bare Hills, a house can be furnished and outfitted with curtains, pictures and knickknacks in one day. As self-taught interior designers, Ms. Schroeder said, "We look around and think what we'd need in a house and put it there."
While defining their niche in the business, Ms. Sabelhaus and Ms. Schroeder also had to define the elements that went into a home.
"Its not four forks and four spoons and two wine glasses," Ms. Sabelhaus said. "It's a set of place settings for eight, it's eight wine glasses, it's Ralph Lauren towels, linens or Laura Ashley [accessories]."
"Everything is quality, but we are really professional shoppers," she said. "We have to look for the best buys for the best quality and that's what makes it so much fun."
In addition to executives relocating to Baltimore, Exclusive Rental Properties also sells its services to movie crews filming in Baltimore, touring plays, consultants on short-term assignment and people who have to move out of a house quickly after a divorce or who lose a house in a fire.
Melanie Sabelhaus was still working as a sales manager for IBM Corp. in Baltimore when she started her business in 1987.
Her first step was to furnish a compact carriage house attached to her house in Owings Mills as a sample.
When starting the venture, the business strategy was to show prospective clients the carriage house and tell them everything else was filled at the moment. Once they had a lease, the two women ran out and found empty properties for sale and persuaded sellers to give them short-term leases.
"We never took a lease unless we had a client, and then it grew and grew and grew," Ms. Sabelhaus said.
She's already planning to expand the business into Washington this summer.
Executive housing is a trend that has been developing for the past 10 to 15 years and continues to expand, said Robert Greenwald, executive director of the National Interim Housing Network, a trade association based in Dallas that was founded last March.
The association figures that it costs 50 percent less to put an employee in a furnished apartment than in a hotel.
Greg Brewer, editor of Runzheimer Reports on Relocation, a monthly newsletter based in Northbrook, Ill., calculated the high costs companies incur when relocating employees. He said the national average to relocate an employee who owns a home is $45,620. That figure includes moving expenses, buying the house left behind and spouse-relocation assistance.
Average relocation costs drop to $13,193 for employees who rent their home.
"The No. 1 cost is homeownership. For executives with a six-figure income, the [relocation] rules are thrown out," Mr. Brewer said.
According to a survey of 170 relocation managers conducted last year by the newsletter, 47 percent pay for hotels and motels without cooking facilities; 23 percent use hotels or motels with cooking facilities; 20 percent use apartments leased monthly; 5 percent use corporate-leased apartments; and 5 percent use executive apartments designed to house relocating employees -- the type of lodging Exclusive Rental Properties provides.
Stephen Carley, president and chief executive officer of Fair Lanes in Baltimore, is a veteran relocater, having survived eight moves in the last 10 years, including abroad. When he came to Baltimore from Chicago, he stayed in a town house provided by Executive Rental Properties.
"They do the legwork for you and put you into a furnished apartment at competitive prices," Mr. Carley said.
Mr. Carley continues to rent a three-bedroom town house for three newly hired Fair Lanes executives. He believes that in addition to saving money, employees are more quickly integrated into the new corporate culture when they live together in the same house. "I actively encourage them to go into a town house," he said.