Ray Bellan, his wife and their 13-year-old son recently moved into a new $875,000 four-bedroom home on five acres in Barrington Hills, Ill.

They pay $1,000 a month -- less than the rent for many two-bedroom apartments. But there is a catch: They had to furnish the home to look like a showplace, and they must keep it tidy for prospective buyers who could visit at a moment's notice.

They also have to hit the road as soon as it is sold.

But when that happens, the Bellans likely will move to another unfamiliar high-end house where their furnishings again will be used as props to make the vacant property more appealing to potential buyers.

"You've got to have nice furniture," Ray Bellan said. "And you've got to show the house all the time."

Bellan and his family are new recruits to the ranks of home managers, a service that is becoming increasingly popular nationwide to help real estate agents sell expensive but vacant homes.

It is an axiom in real estate that the most difficult house to sell is a vacant one.

It is also true that the more expensive the property, the longer it is likely to remain on the market. That means the sellers, and sometimes the real estate agents, are left to deal with a lot of hassles.

Enter home managers. They pay the utilities and maintain the lawn, pool and other parts of the house in return for a substantially reduced monthly rent. The owner continues to pay the mortgage.

"A lived-in house is alive," said Judith Cohen, a sales agent with Keller Williams Realty in Barrington, Ill. In fact, Cohen has a home manager living in her former house while she tries to sell it.

What sort of people can live the nomadic life of a home manager? Those who enjoy decorating and are flexible and organized.

A sense of adventure helps, too.

Last year, Gay Hed and her husband, Steve, moved with their twins, now 5, into a home shortly before Christmas. Steve Hed is a builder and remodeler, and the couple moved into one of his new homes while they rented out their own.

When the new home sold quicker than expected, the Heds decided to become home managers until their tenant's lease was up.

"We've lived in three houses -- almost four," Gay Hed said. "I had decorated the first floor but not the second when the house sold."

Home management, she said, "is a great idea for young professional couples."

Downsizers and executives transferring to an unfamiliar city also make good candidates.

Besides being flexible, managers cannot smoke or have pets, and they must have furniture in a style suitable for an available home.

"Usually they are people without children because school becomes a problem," said Allen Schwartz, who owns a franchise of Showhomes of America, a company that has set people up in business as home managers in 30 states.

Schwartz and his wife have lived in 15 homes in 16 years -- from Chicago condos to Lake Forest, Ill., mansions. At any given time, they also have 15 to 25 home managers working for them.

Applicants are judged by their furniture.

"We turn down 19 out of 20 people who apply," Schwartz said.

The home manager in Cohen's residence is an executive who was transferred to Chicago. He and his family have a lot of furniture and needed a good-sized place to put it until the home they are building is completed.

The Bellans decided to become home managers when they relocated from Lake Forest and were not ready to buy a house.

Ray Bellan said the family "had to sort of change our ways so we are always organized." Of particular concern was his 13-year-old son.

Teenage boys "have their own housekeeping standard," his father said. But he said his son caught on quickly to the new routine.

"To tell the truth, he understands there is a higher power," Bellan said. "We don't have to nag at all. He picks up his things every day."

Bellan hopes when the next move comes it will be within the same school district, so his son will not have to transfer.

John and Linda Isebrand have been home managers for nearly two years. The couple and their 4-year-old son, Sean, are in their fourth home -- a four-bedroom 1930s house built on five wooded acres in Barrington Hills.

The asking price for the property, which comes with a heated pool, is $1.75 million.

John Isebrand is finishing culinary school and taking care of their son while Linda works as a tax attorney.

They became home managers after seeing a newspaper ad and deciding living cheaply in such comfortable surroundings was too good to pass up.

"For the fee, there is no comparison," John Isebrand said.

But as Sean approaches school age, they are beginning to look for a home of their own.

For now, Sean's toys are stored in containers for quick pickups and easy moving in the home manager's routine.

"We leave the house so that anyone can come in. Laundry is not out, no dirty dishes," John Isebrand said. "We've made it a habit that the house has to be ready to show before we go to bed. Sure there are a few dishes in the morning, and the beds need to be made. But we do that, and I'm out the door to take Sean to day care."

The biggest drawback in the job is moving. Home managers must pay for their moves themselves. And there is always the hassle of packing up and getting out the door.

"It's gotten more efficient with each move," John Isebrand said. "It went from really chaotic to a routine."

The trauma of moving is tempered by his wife's enthusiasm for each new home.

"She loves decorating the house. She is like a kid in a candy store when we get to a new house," he said. "She sees a sofa there and chair there. There is a reward for her all the time."

By staying in so many residences, the couple have learned what features they do and do not want when they finally buy a home of the own. A view and a walkout basement are musts. But they never want a cook-top range on the center island in the kitchen.

The biggest thrill of living in the homes?

"It has been watching our son in some of the yards," Isebrand said. "The home we had in the winter had a big slope, so we did a lot of sledding. The house we moved to in the summer had a private beach, and we watched him learn how to swim. Now we have a pool, and he is swimming in the deep end. We have hundreds of rolls of film and video."

Ray Bellan, his wife, Maria, and son, John, 13, are new to the home manager business. They furnish a house to be shown to prospective buyers.