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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. There are also those New Yorkers 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.

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

Unhosted apartments: Full apartments that the renters have entirely to themselves for the course of their stay. (Many agencies will not allow visitors to rent an 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 that 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 apartments provide cable TV in the bedrooms.

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

For Hosted Stays

Affordable New York City

Contact Info: tel. 212/533-4001; www.affordablenewyorkcity.com.

Prices: Hosted stays: $95-$120 single or double with shared bathroom, $130-$150 single or double with private bathroom. Unhosted stays: $150- $250 per night in a studio apartment, $185-$250 in a one-bedroom, $300-$500 per night in a larger apartment.

Examples of available rentals: With deep-red walls, beautiful antiques, and oil paintings galore, one Midtown share looks very much like a set from a Merchant-Ivory film (not surprising, as the hostess is a set decorator). As the bathroom is shared, these elegant digs go for about $120 per night. Or rent in a landmark building in Chelsea, with full kitchen, 14-foot ceilings in the bedroom, and a large living room lit by a room-wide skylight. Or bunk down in a duplex apartment, considered a one-bedroom but large and private enough for four. Its massive windows and terrace bring in the outdoors.

Pluses: Large selection; expert staff.

Negatives: Will not accept children under 10; does not handle properties outside of Manhattan.

Tip: When she can, owner Freschel will accept last-minute bookings, and during slow periods she is open to bargaining (just don't try it in May, June, Oct., Nov., or Dec.).

The largest of the services that handle both hosted and unhosted stays, Affordable New York City represents approximately 120 apartments, which is more than 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; her website gives cursory descriptions of some truly fabulous apartments. 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. So if you have additional questions, either call and ask, or study the many photos up on her site (they aren't doctored). In business for eight 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).

City Sonnet

Contact Info: tel. 212/614-3034; www.citysonnet.com.

Prices: Hosted stays: $110 to $125 single in Brooklyn, $140-$175 single in Manhattan; $125-$145 double in Brooklyn, $150-$175 double in Manhattan. Unhosted apartments: $175-$300 for doubles and triples, $350-$700 for rentals that can sleep up to eight.

Examples of available rentals: An artsy studio with full kitchen right on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, available for unhosted stays. Or a screenwriter's antique-filled guest room (there's even a four-poster bed) near the Theater District.

Pluses: Excellent customer service; well-located, personality-filled apartments.

Negatives: No last-minute bookings; probably won't bargain on prices.

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 smaller 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 works with a small 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 several days 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."

At Home in New York

Contact Info: tel. 800/692-4262 or 212/956-3125; www.athomeny.com.

Prices: Hosted stays: $100- $135 single, $135-$175 double, $200-$225 triple. Unhosted apartments: $180-$250 studio, $225-$280 for one or two-bedrooms.

Examples of available rentals: A very private room in a two-floor apartment in the Union Square area, filled with art objects from all over the world, collected by the owners, who are professional photographers. Elsewhere, "Mi casa es su casa" is the motto at a high-rise in the East 60s, where the gracious host even allows guests to throw parties on her oversized terrace. Across town, on the West Side, views of Lincoln Center and the river add to the luster of an oversized one-bedroom unhosted rental in a doorman building.

Pluses: Prime locations; personality filled apartments; highly personal service.

Negatives: Not as many options as larger agencies.

Tip: There is some wiggle room on prices here, so don't be shy about bargaining.

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 30 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 pull-out 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 22 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 enough pictures of the properties. Rooks, however, will send additional large pictures by e-mail to anyone who is interested in a particular apartment.

For Unhosted Stays

NY Habitat Contact Info: tel. 212/255-8018; www.nyhabitat.com.

Prices: Hosted stays: May go for as little as $62/night in Brooklyn, but generally range from $90-$160 single occupancy, $100-$200 double. Unhosted stays: Studios average $138, one-bedrooms average $150-$165, two-bedrooms average $280-$350, 3-bedrooms or larger average $400.

Tip: Like the other agencies, the staff here is sometimes willing to bargain, so give it a try (they have a lot of apartments to move).

Examples of available rentals: A high-rise two-bedroom with river views and polished wood floors in the West 30s, corporate decor, sleeps up to six. Or a Theater District two-bedroom that sleeps up to eight people, four on fold-out couches located in the dining room and living room. Clean and roomy with a large balcony; bland-looking furnishings. Or an East Village one-bedroom walk-up, home of a stylish "performance artist" with silver taffeta drapes, quirky antiques, and a bathtub in the kitchen.

Pluses: Excellent customer service; large number of units available at any one time; a higher-than-average percentage of family-size apartments and uncluttered corporate-style apartments.

Negatives: Steeper-than-normal fees (35% commission); many apartments in the somewhat bleak midtown West and far Chelsea area.

NY Habitat 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 2 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% 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. In practical terms, this policy relegates NY Habitat to apartments that may be in the less attractive, less residential neighborhoods, primarily in the West 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s as these areas are less likely to be dominated by co-ops (many of which have house rules forbidding boarders).