Do you live in a downtown loft? A suburban split-level? A classic home with stylish updates?

Then maybe your house oughta be in pictures — make that, in print ads, broadcast commercials or online videos.

“For an agency to rent a studio and then create a set that looked like a home that regular people lived in would cost too much and it wouldn’t feel authentic. It’s simpler to rent real homes and use them like sets,” said Charlotte Ariss.

The founder of Minneapolis-based Charlotte Ariss Locations, she heads a team of six location scouts who look for and line up properties around the Twin Cities. They are used as the backdrops for ads produced for major Minnesota companies as well as well-known national brands.

Ariss has built a database with digital images of hundreds of homes for her clients to choose from. While high-end homes with Italian marble and trend-forward waterfall countertops are always in demand, not all the properties on her roster are candidates for a layout in Architectural Digest. She also has photos of starter homes and tidy bungalows.

“We need houses that the average person will relate to,” she said. “Some clients are selling to mature audiences, and they want something where an established person or someone on a modest income would live.”

Her portfolio holds pictures of cabins, basement workshops, porches and patios, decks and docks. She’s ready if a producer wants a long driveway, a home library, a formal garden or a retro bathroom with original tile. She also lines up commercial locations for clients who need a dance studio, corner bar or doctor’s office for a scene.

The agencies have the budget to make the gig worth a homeowner’s while.

For a TV commercial, a homeowner typically pockets a day rate of $2,500 to $3,000 for the use of their house; for print ads, they earn $1,500 to $2,000. The video rate is higher because the hours are longer.

“When we sign someone up, everything is clear and in writing. My homeowners know when we will show up, what rooms we will use, who will be on set,” Ariss said. “I go out of my way to earn their trust; they give me the garage code and let me jump on their Wi-Fi. I want it to be a positive experience because I don’t want to use them one time; I want them to be glad to have us in again.”

Ever on the prowl to recruit new residences to her roster, Ariss walks neighborhoods and leaves introductory postcards or knocks on doors to cold-call homeowners. When she finds a home with potential, she meets with homeowners, signs them up, then sends a photographer to document their space.

“I’m always looking to find the next new thing. I can’t keep sending [agencies] pictures of the same houses over and over,” she said. While shooting was halted during Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, Ariss plans to resume May 19 — with new protocols in place to protect homeowners and crews.

Ariss began her career at an ad agency, then moved to Target, where she spent 14 years as a creative marketing specialist before launching her location scouting business in 2013.

The cost of the scout and renting the location are line items that are factored into the budget of the ad.

“Any commercial starts when the ad agency pitches the concept to the client. Once it’s approved, we come in to get a game plan going to bring their concept to fruition,” said Jodi Nelson with Rikshaw Films, a Minneapolis production company.

Brought on as the executive producer, Nelson works out a schedule, timetable and budget for the ad, and books the crews to execute the project.

“The first call is for location. I will have a feel for what the client wants when I contact Charlotte. She sends me some possibilities from her library,” Nelson said.

“I look over the files with the client and then go out for test shoots to a few of the possibilities. We do a walk-through to see the natural light, look at what the camera angles could be, make sure there’s enough space to get depth of field in the shots.”

Keeping homes safe

For weeks, it’s been quiet on the set, with no locations to scout, secure or shoot.

Across the country and in Minnesota, production of all sorts, from Hollywood movies to TV commercials, came to a standstill. Minnesota’s COVID-19 shutdown idled the Twin Cities corps of freelancers who make their living creating ads, industrial films and online content.

Up until the era of social distancing, creating a commercial brought a crowd of several dozen professionals descending on a house-turned-set.

That included the technical team with a director, producers, cinematographers and grips who arrive with an equipment truck (or two) loaded with cameras, tripods, microphones, playback decks, lights and a generator. The client who represents the brand, creative staff from the ad agency, actors and the hair and makeup artists who make them camera-ready are also present.

“During shutdown, we’ve worked as a community to establish new protocols to reduce the number of people on set to keep it safe for crews and homeowners,” said Ariss. “Thank goodness it’s warming up; we can use pop-up tents in yards and driveways so only the essential people will be in the house.”

Production is scheduled to begin again with the May 18 easing of the governor’s stay-at-home order. Ariss can count four jobs booked in homes on the first day that shooting can resume, with more to follow.

“These homeowners have said yes. We’ve explained the guidelines we’ve put into place, and they’re comfortable,” she said. “No one has backed out yet.”

During the extended work stoppage, Ariss created Sani-set, a new division of her company that will contract with a professional residential cleaning company.

“They will come into the home when shooting is done and do a deep clean of all hard and soft surfaces, using virus-killing disinfectants,” she said.

The sanitizing work will be scheduled after a day of work, extending the time that the home is off-limits to its owners. Now homeowners will get an extra $175 tacked onto their fee to cover a night’s hotel stay.

It’s a cautious foray into a new way of doing business for crews, clients and the people who open their homes to productions.

The coronavirus may ultimately lead to more work landing in Minnesota living rooms.

“I’m fielding calls from New York. It looks like they won’t open up as quickly as we will,” Ariss said. “I’m talking about changes we’re making. This signals to producers, we’re dialed in, we’ve been thinking about this. We’re ready to work.”

Here are five Twin Cities houses you may have seen in ads:

With its grand staircase and period architectural elements, this Summit Avenue mansion fits the bill for a producer looking for a lavish backdrop or for a project set in the Victorian era. House agent Charlotte Ariss secured the classic St. Paul home for the backdrop for the creative campaign promoting the 2017 Ivey Awards, which honored Minnesota theater artists. This location earned a little extra TLC from the crew. “We put rugs and runners down to safeguard the flooring, and protection around the door frames where the equipment and props came in and out,” said Ariss. “I was sweating that one!”

This Minneapolis home was the location for a Minnesota Twins spot featuring a day in the life of a baseball-loving boy who wore his ball glove while getting dressed, feeding the dog, reaching for his towel from the shower and taking the plunge in the backyard pool. “We needed a house with a great kid’s room, a kitchen and bathroom that a real family would have and a pool. Lots of boxes to check,” said Ariss. This century-old Colonial has been used for a half-dozen commercials, for clients from a health care system to a local food giant. “Our house isn’t fancy, but it has a warm, nostalgic feel. That’s what we like about it and that’s why they keep using it,” said homeowner Kelly Bent. “It’s so much fun to see your house in a commercial; there’s the rug in my son’s room, there’s our stove. And it’s fun to get that check. Other than getting up early to get out of the house, we don’t have to do a thing.”

This lakeshore lot in Shorewood, with its long sloping lawn and mature trees, hit the mark for a series of Hormel chili commercials. The ranch house that sits on the property has also been in demand. It has resisted remodeling and still has an old school paneled basement and a kitchen unchanged from the ’70s. Ariss calls it “a time capsule home.” Being tagged as “dated” is the kiss of death from a real estate sales standpoint, but it’s a plus for a location scout. “For a producer looking for a retro vibe, this house is authentic,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be dressed. It already looks like something from a baby boomer’s childhood.”


This Minneapolis house has been seen in commercials or videos for Valspar, Medica, UnitedHealth Group, Marshfield Children’s Hospital, Hasbro, 3M and Target. With its tall ceilings, long windows and original molding, baseboards and trim, this family home manages to read as both classic and fresh. Homeowner Anna Lowenthal Walsh, an artist, has a cheery, colorful decorating aesthetic. Producers often don’t change a thing in the rooms where they shoot, leaving her original artwork and handmade quilts in place, although for one ad, her distinctive furnishings were removed and replaced with neutral hotel-style art and furniture.
“I love to see how someone else plays with our spaces, using them in a different way than we do,” Walsh said. “At the end of the day, they put everything back exactly how they found it,” she said. “I enjoy the process; it’s worth any small inconvenience. I always say yes.”


Described as “just unfinished enough,” this expansive attached garage in a newer home in Long Lake hit the mark for the agency that conceived and created a Green Bay Packers commercial. A team of art directors, prop masters and food stylists gathered and then schlepped in a truckload of green and gold branded accessories and an elaborate cheese tray to deck out the site.“We can dress any location up or down, to make it look more or less high-end,” said Ariss. “We bring in house plants, lemonade pitchers, throw pillows, take big flat-screen TVs down or put one up.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis freelance writer and broadcaster.