advertisement

In New York, a whole world of alternative lodgings is based upon what one critic called "the dirty little secret of American life, that no one has enough money." More supposedly well-off New Yorkers than you'd ever imagine are supplementing their incomes and balancing their budgets by inviting visitors into their well-appointed apartments, converting their homes into mini-hotels. My stepsister is one of them, actually. When she is short on cash, she simply arranges to stay at a friend's house for the weekend or for a week, and then rents out her spacious, Upper West Side doorman apartment. Her temporary guests get lodgings twice as big as any hotel room, in a wonderful neighborhood, for three-quarters the cost, and with a kitchen to boot. It's a win-win situation for both her and her guests.

There are also those New Yorkers who aren't as "nomadic" as my stepsister, who simply rent out a room within their apartments, often with a private bathroom attached. Though the privacy for the visitor isn't as complete, the prices are even lower.

And in that kind of "hosted" situation, visitors get a rare glimpse of actual life in Manhattan. They set up house in a real neighborhood, get to know the deli guy, the locals-only restaurant, and the bar around the corner.

What kinds of apartments are available to the visitor?

  • A tidy room off an artist's gallery in SoHo. In the mornings, you breakfast surrounded by elongated Plexiglass nude sculptures; at night, the French expat artist who is your host invites you to dine with his family in the apartment downstairs.
  • A town house in Greenwich Village with a decor Martha Stewart would applaud, where you sleep in an antique mahogany four-poster bed and awake in the morning not to traffic noises but to the calls of birds chirping in the backyard garden.
  • The first-floor apartment of a historic Victorian Harlem town house, where the walls sport African art, with African baskets in the corner for decoration. For breakfast, your hostess gives you coupons to the excellent French patisserie down the block.

As you can see, each of these New York B&Bs is radically different from the next, bearing little resemblance to the doily-and-dried-flower inns of New England and the Midwest.

And unlike many B&B inns in the rest of America, where a quaint decor translates into a huge upswing in price, these B&Bs are significantly less expensive than hotel stays. At the Harlem apartment, for example, a large, comfortable space with a full kitchen, a washer/dryer, and an in-room bathroom, is just $89 a night for one person, $99 for two, and $109 for three (there's a second brass bed in one of the two apartments). At the artist's loft, the prices start at just $110 at night. And while the Greenwich Village apartments are more expensive at $189 to $199 a night, a Gotham hotel room this luxurious and well-located would cost at minimum of $300 a night.

I drew the above examples from BedandBreakfast.com (www.bedandbreakfast.com), an online registry service -- just one of the many resources travelers can use to book this kind of stay.

Your Choices

In the world of New York apartment rentals there are basically two types of accommodations:

  • Unhosted apartments: Full apartments which the renters have entirely to themselves for the course of their stay. (Many agencies will not allow visitors to rent an entire apartment for fewer than 5 nights, though with certain units and at slower times of the year, a 3-night minimum might apply.)
  • Hosted apartments: Apartments which the guest shares with a New Yorker who lives on premises. Usually the host rents just one room and sleeps in another bedroom. Only a 3-night minimum stay is required for a hosted arrangement.

There are pluses and minuses to each type of lodging. At unhosted apartments, guests have total privacy. You can come and go at will without worrying about disturbing anyone, buy your own food, cook meals, and live essentially as you would in your own home. The downside can be the lack of any kind of guidance: If you need advice, there's no one on premises that you can turn to, and you're also alone if the toilet won't flush or the key jams in the lock (the rental agency or owner will fix the problem, but it will probably take a bit of time). Also, these types of rentals are usually a good 25% to 50% more expensive than hosted rentals.

At hosted rentals, you may feel constrained by the presence of the host and in some, but not all cases, may have to share a bathroom. That's usually the worst it gets. In the best-case scenarios, your host will act as an affable advisor, helping to pave your way in the big city, and perhaps forming a friendship that lasts beyond the visit. In fact, one unsung perk of doing a hosted rental is that you meet unusually gracious, resourceful, quirky New Yorkers. "Most hosts are off the corporate grid," explains Margaret Borden of City Sonnet. "We get a lot of artists, actors, musicians, chefs, and other creative types because these sorts of people have the time to do a second job and often need the extra income. Most are extremely well traveled and all really enjoy meeting travelers." In hosted situations, breakfast is usually included in the cost of the stay and, as I said before, guests typically pay less for this type of lodging.

Two very nice standard perks offered in both hosted and unhosted rentals are free local calls and Internet access. As with hotels, 99% of all B&Bs, of both types, provide cable TV in the bedrooms.

Here are four companies that have vetted the apartments they represent:

Affordable New York City (tel. 212/866-1880; www.affordablenewyorkcity.com). The largest of the services that handle both hosted and unhosted stays, Affordable New York City represents approximately 120 apartments, which is double the number of the closest runner-up. According to owner Susan Freschel, wider coverage means greater numbers of options for the renter: "I like to give potential clients four or five choices each time someone writes me," she says. "I give my clients more options than other B&B services." She also has an odd habit of underselling apartments, giving rather cursory descriptions of some truly fabulous apartments because she worries that thieves might try to use her service to case apartments before striking. So the home of an antiques dealer on the Upper West Side, where you sleep in an ancient Chinese wedding bed (don't worry, it's quite comfortable) surrounded by exquisite antiques, is described simply by the size of the room and its amenities. "I'd rather have the guests be happily surprised," explains Freschel. In business for 8 years, Freschel has a terrific reputation and a loyal following among both hosts and guests (about 40% of her bookings are either repeat customers or referrals).

At Home in New York (tel. 800/692-4262 or 212/956-3125; www.athomeny.com). For an apartment on the Upper East Side or West Side, turn to At Home in New York, which specializes in those areas and offers a total of 65 hosted and unhosted units. Lois Rooks, the owner, has to be the most hands-on of all of the agents, checking in guests herself at the apartments, supervising the cleaning staff, even buying new sheets and pullout couches for owners who are out of town. When I asked her how often she inspects apartments, she laughed and said, "Oh, I'm over at the apartments all the time; I can't count how many times in a year I'll see them." A former actress, Ms. Rooks has been in the business for 20 years and knows her territory (and hosts) backwards and forwards. My only complaint would be with the At Home in New York website, which doesn't show pictures for all properties. Rooks, however, will send large pictures by e-mail to anyone who is interested in a particular apartment.

City Sonnet (tel. 212/614-3034; www.citysonnet.com). City Sonnet places guests into some of the most exclusive and sought-after areas and buildings in the city. Lower Manhattan -- Greenwich Village, the East Village, SoHo and TriBeCa -- is their forte and they offer hosted and unhosted apartments in the very centers of these neighborhoods. Only about 10% of City Sonnet's apartment owners work with other agencies, so you'll find apartments here that are unique to this broker, such as a lovely chinoiserie-laden B&B on the Upper East Side, run by a globe-trotting Guatemalan expat; or a light-drenched SoHo loft of a professional chef who sometimes prepares a gourmet breakfast of roasted pineapple with raspberry sauce and fresh scones for her guests.

A fairly small agency with just two full-time employees, one part-timer, and a stable of approximately 50 apartments, City Sonnet picks its hosts with care, and checks up on them at least once a year. "We don't take on a place unless we'd like to stay there ourselves," says owner Margaret Borden. "If the apartment is ugly or the host seems weird or unfriendly, we simply don't work with them." As City Sonnet does not work with a large number of apartments, it's necessary to call at least a month to a month and a half in advance to reserve a place. Then it can take up to a week of phone calls and e-mails to complete the booking, as the staff here sees the process as one of "matchmaking." "There are bookings we won't make," says Borden. "If we feel that the guest really needs the services of a hotel or a facility that we don't have, we'll refer them elsewhere. We want to make sure that each guest has a quality experience."

NY Habitat (tel. 212/255-8018; www.nyhabitat.com) is one of the oldest and largest of the vacation rental companies -- so big, in fact, that it's branched out to cover stays in Paris, London, and the French Riviera. For New York alone it lists approximately 350 apartments at any one time (out of the 1,200 it has in its database); there are seven full-time staffers who inspect these apartments (generally once every two years) and follow up on complaints. These busy folks also take the pictures and write the dry but accurate descriptions you'll find on the NY Habitat website.

Approximately 85 per cent of NY Habitat's listings are for unhosted stays. Half of these come from huge companies that rent out dozens of furnished apartments at a time. As you might expect, these are not stylish, unique digs -- some of these big companies even rent the furniture they use, adding just one more layer of corporate blandness to the enterprise. That being said, the apartments are clean and utterly uncluttered. Unlike other agencies, NY Habitat offers a large number of oversized one- and two-bedroom apartments, perfect for families. Many of these can house four, six, or eight people quite comfortably (though Junior may have to sleep on a fold-out couch).

NY Habitat also works with individual owners who may rent their apartments for a few weeks when they leave town. This doesn't, however, seem to be the primary focus of their business, especially since NY Habitat has now instituted a policy of only working with hosts who can be upfront with their landlords or co-op boards about accepting short-term "boarders." It's a controversial issue (and I'll note at this point that NY Habitat is the only company in town with this policy). While hosting guests is not illegal (owners pay taxes on these stays, after all), it is frowned upon in some buildings, which is why other agencies will ask guests to be discreet when first checking into the B&B. The folks at New York Habitat refuse to do that. "I'm not going to ask someone to lie and say they're visiting a friend," says Nick Borg, manager. "I don't want one of my clients to get booted out mid-stay because a co-op board finds out about their presence in the apartment." In practical terms, this policy relegates NY Habitat to apartments that may be in the less attractive, less central neighborhoods on the eastern and western fringes of Manhattan, as these areas are less likely to be dominated by co-ops (many of which have house rules forbidding boarders).

This article is an excerpt from our New York City guide, available in our store now.