I’ve swapped my NYC apartment for decades. Here’s how to have a memorable (but frugal) adventure
Countries around the world are reopening to tourists and you may be itching to fly somewhere—anywhere far from your New York City apartment where you have been hunkered down and cooped up for the last 15 months. And somewhere, in another country, is someone eager to stay in your place.
Swapping your New York City apartment is a time-tested way to travel affordably—either domestically or abroad—and it offers you the added pandemic benefit of being able to skip crowded hotels and also limit your meals among unmasked diners in restaurants.
But depending on whether you live in a NYC co-op, condo, or rental, there may be prohibitions against swapping that you need to know about before you book a trip. You also need to be sure that swapping is something you’re comfortable with—there’s no daily room service when you’re staying in someone else’s apartment. Read on to figure out if swapping is for you and how to make it work.
Doing as the Romans do
If you travel to enjoy Rome as the Romans do, soaking up native culture and interacting with locals, a vacation swap may be just the ticket to your next adventure. The top two rules are you can’t be squeamish about people you don’t know staying in your home (and sleeping in your bed), and you must be willing to put in a bit of legwork. An inclination toward flexibility is also helpful. In the end, it is a matter of trust when you turn your keys over to strangers, and head off to stay in their home.
For my maiden voyage into this wonderful world several years ago, I swapped my Manhattan co-op for a 10-day stay in a farmhouse about 90 minutes north of Rome, smack between the ancient cities of Viterbo and Tuscania. The owners, a couple with two teenage daughters, took over my three-bedroom apartment that I converted into a two bedroom for their visit, heaping piles of our household detritus in the third and locking it up. I brought lots of luggage to Italy, including my three kids, my youngest brother (“The Manny”) and his fiancée (“The Manny’s Nanny”).
It was an amazing experience, despite being mid-August and molto caldo. We alternated days at the beach with exploring Italy within a two-hour driving radius: Rome to the south, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Orvieto, returning home with lots of dirty clothes (no laundry facilities at la fattoria) and a lifetime of memories.
London calling…Dublin, Marseilles, and Colorado too
Six months later I negotiated a swap in London over the February school break, scooping up rock-bottom off-season airfares. We returned to London for another swap the following year with a family that so perfectly matched ours we made this into an annual tradition. That is, until the year they couldn’t get away and we were invited to come as their guests. You know what? We are still great friends today. And I believe they’ve even forgiven us for letting a second-floor bathtub overflow, staining their living room ceiling. (Oh! British plumbing!)
After that, I was off and running. I’ve swapped my apartment for a long weekend in Dublin, an Easter break in Provence, a massive ski chalet in Steamboat Springs (we brought another family with us!), a tennis resort in Boca Raton.
Is it legal in NYC? Yes, Virginia, it is! But…
New York City has a few unique challenges for apartment swappers. In general, swapping apartments in NYC is allowed, according to Andrew Rudansky, press secretary for the New York City Department of Buildings. He tells me that so long as no money changes hands, your swappers are considered guests, and can stay in your apartment while you are not present for up to 30 days.
“Monetary compensation” includes swap credits, chits, IOUs, cryptocurrency or even a gift certificate to Masa left as a thank you, Rudansky says. Take heart: “To my knowledge, there has never been an issue of a swap arrangement presented to an administrative tribunal or court,” he reports.
…your building may not allow it
But you are not home free. You still need to check your lease if you are in a rental, or proprietary lease and house rules if you are in a co-op to find out whether you can have overnight guests in your apartment when you’re not home. (A condo is generally the most flexible housing situation, but you should find out if your building has any prohibitions as well.)
Attorney Aaron Shmulewitz, a partner at Belkin, Burden, Goldman in New York City, points out that buildings he works with typically have rules that mandate guests are not permitted in the absence of the owner or lessee of the apartment—at least not without prior written permission of the board or management.
“Co-op and condo boards are very security conscious,” he notes. “They don’t want strangers wandering around the building.”
Many owners of co-ops and condos in Manhattan are aware their buildings frown on Airbnb-type rentals and require registration of their guests whether you are or are not in residence. Even absent this, it is not a bad idea to let staff know that you will have friends staying in your apartment while you are away, either through BuildingLink, verbal, or written notification.
In addition, you should also check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy to see what it says about having guests when you are not present. Better to be safe than...you know.
Bottom line: Check this out prior to plunging in. One workaround would be to consider a variation on the home-for-home simultaneous exchange, known as a hospitality swap. You remain in residency while your swappers are in your apartment, and then arrange a visit to your guests’ home for another time.
Insider tips for the swap wannabe
Once you’ve cleared the hurdles for a swap adventure, dig into the abundance of information on the internet about swapping. I strongly recommend you don’t DIY a swap via Craig’s List or Facebook; do shell out the minimal (compared to a single night in a hotel) membership fees and join any of the well-established home exchange organizations. They will present you with thousands of options and, in turn, advertise your apartment and serve as a useful resource
Here are specifics of what I have learned works best for both sides of a New York City-based swap arrangement.
Rule #1 is that New York City is #1
If you play your cards right (i.e., post an attractive description of your apartment on a large swap network) you will be besieged with tantalizing offers. In time, I became weary of fantasizing over weekly proposals to explore exotic locations I’d never dreamed of (i.e., Kuala Lumpur, beautiful but not realistic), so I moved my listing into stealth mode, removing it from view while retaining my membership.
My routine evolved into one where I would seek out listings that seemed like they’d work best for my gang at the times we wanted to travel. I would then be the one to take the initiative, approaching owners who had indicated a desire to come to the city to find out availability and their willingness to swap. I’d put the odds at one in three they’ll say yes.
‘Meet’ the swappers
The more information you exchange with your swappers before you exchange, the less opportunity for (at best) confusion or (at worst) disaster. This is not just about your quirky dishwasher, but also about general comportment in your building. Might a neighbor knock on your door and present you (or your startled swapper) with a fresh-baked apple pie, or is MYOB the prevailing culture?
House rules regarding noise and use of common amenities like the laundry room should be emailed in advance, printed out, laminated, and left in plain sight. A note of introduction to immediate neighbors explaining that your friends the Tauchens from Berlin will be feeding the fish while you’re traveling may keep tongues from wagging (perhaps). And explain to your swapper that in New York co-ops, discretion is always the better part of valor.
Not cheaper by the dozen
One consequence of your prize asset is that time and time again, the four people scheduled to arrive in two days morphs into six guests because you are told (and not asked) that your swappers decided to bring along their twin teenage nieces who of course will be happy to sleep on the couch. You have to decide if you are going to hold the line on occupancy (and stay within the letter of the law for your building) or just shrug.
Cramming five people into a studio for a week can mean excessive wear and tear and they may turn up the volume to 11 or give the impression that your apartment has morphed into a clown car. I have at times suggested firmly offloading freeloaders at a nearby hotel “and here is the number.” Once I relocated incoming swappers to my sister’s (fortunately) vacant apartment—working it out from the airport as we were boarding our flight. The last thing you want while you’re chilling in Capri is a stern note from your landlord or managing agent.
And now for something completely different?
You know the old Benchley saw, there are two classes of travel? First class, and with children. If you will be bringing yours, seek out swaps that are not only child friendly but where the family has kids about the same age. This means that your destination will be set up best for your family and yours for your guests. But also consider lifestyle. Will you want to cook most of your meals? Do you care if there’s international cable service or are you OK watching reruns of “Friends” dubbed in Hungarian?
If you are unencumbered, the sky’s the limit. Go ahead, trade your high-rise home for an ivy-covered riverside cottage, and give your swappers a taste of the New York high life while you settle in to…serenity.
The devil is always in the details
A few more words of wisdom.
- Recall what baffled you when you were new to your building and your neighborhood. If it’s perfectly safe in daytime but you generally grab a cab after midnight, give your guests a head’s up. If your nearby vest-pocket park holds concerts three nights a week, leave a schedule. Let them know what your regular haunts and habits are so they can follow suit.
- Caring for the beta fish is likely negotiable, a dog is more responsibility. Even if the cat will be relocated, make sure you note her prior presence. Our only vaguely negative experience was arriving at a home in the English countryside where the eau de spaniels (wet spaniels, in fact) permeated the place. We lived, and learned to ask going forward.
- Clarify what someone living in your space needs to know. Quirky freezer door that needs a push? A toilet that tends to run? Electrical systems around the world can be baffling. Exchange information about the location and functioning of the circuit breakers.
- Compile a list of check-out procedures. Be as specific as possible. Always clarify cleaning arrangements. If you have a regular housekeeper and your swapper does as well, you might arrange to have each come at the end of your respective times. If not, plan to hire a service. Who wants to be mopping the kitchen floors on their way to catch a 6:45 a.m. flight? Oh, and don’t forget to mention where to leave keys. This is critical.
- As with all travel adventures, expect the unexpected. The worst-case scenario is if a party is forced to cancel at the last minute due to an emergency. It happens, and it has happened to me. Map out an exit or accommodation strategy. And don’t sweat the small stuff. Once I planned to use the family’s SUV which they’d thrown into the deal (we called it the swapmobile) to ferry people to the airport, planning to return it and catch a cab back. Except the car didn’t start; the battery was dead and the clock was ticking. Ok, so we had to all take cabs and spend a few more bucks than we anticipated. Not a big deal.
Oh, and by the way, the swap experience is not really at all like a Nancy Meyer movie. It’s highly improbable you will find your soul mate on your swap adventure. But in so many ways, it’s much, much better.
Mary Lowengard is a writer and editor who has been in a New York Real Estate of Mind since 1971.
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