TRANSCRIPT : EPISODE 53

Trading your NYC apartment for a cheap(er) vacation

Emily Myers (00:01):
I'm Emily Myers and this is the Brick Underground podcast, covering everything you need to know about New York City real estate, whether you're buying, selling, renting, or renovating.

Emily Myers (00:12):

Well, this episode of the podcast offers something a bit different. We are talking about putting your New York city real estate to work by trading it for a week or two somewhere else. Not permanently, of course, but as an affordable vacation. If you've ever considered swapping your apartment for a place in another part of the country, or indeed a different country altogether, this might be the year a surge in demand for short term rentals and fewer listings are pushing up prices in vacation destinations. And if you're traveling with unvaccinated children, you might well be looking for your own place so you can skip crowded hotels. Well, swapping presents an affordable option because it's free—when you, how to swap you're trading your living space for someone else's without any money changing hands. And the good news is that New York City is always in demand, particularly now that most pandemic restrictions have been lifted and culture and entertainment venues are opening their doors. So how do you go about swapping your place in New York City for an Italian farmhouse or a cabin in Tahoe? Well, Mary Lowengard is a contributing writer for Brick Underground who has done just that swapped her Upper East Side co-op for places in Europe, as well as here in the U.S. and she's here to share some of her tips, Mary. Hi!

Mary Lowengard (01:28):
Hey. I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you.

Emily Myers (01:30):
Well it's great to chat with you? So by all accounts, you're a veteran house swapper. What got you into this?

Mary Lowengard (01:37):

Well, actually it was Walt Disney. We went down one year for Thanksgiving to Disneyworld with my three children. And we went over to Epcot and I'm standing there and I'm staring at the Tower of Pisa, and I'm thinking, I think I can take them to the Tower of Pisa for less than I'm spending on this Disney vacation. And that was November. And the next summer we were in Italy, staring at the Tower of Pisa.

Emily Myers (02:03):
Okay, excellent. So what have your experiences been? Have they all been positive?

Mary Lowengard (02:09):

They have been 99 percent positive? Honestly, it has been an amazing adventure and that's exactly what it is. It's an adventure. You have to look at it as an adventure. If you like adventure, travel swapping is for you. If you like to have your bed made in the morning and know exactly what you're going to do every day, it's just fabulous for me. Actually, the best thing is cooking in someone else's kitchen, you get to, you know, use their utensils and their cookbooks and their crazy stoves with the centigrade markings on them. And that has been terrific. And especially at the time of Covid, obviously you can take away from restaurants and eat selectively, but that would be a big plus for me, would be the ability to be home in my own home or someone else's home and cooking.

Emily Myers (03:00):
So for the uninitiated, how do you start the process of, of swapping your place in New York city for somewhere else?

Mary Lowengard (03:07):

Okay. I think you have to start with your own head and say, what do I have here? What do I have here to offer someone? Who would be interested in staying in my place, assuming that it's okay with your building, that they stay in your place, which we'll talk about later. I think you really have to see it as an opportunity to clean your place up, declutter really good, Marie Kondo time, if that's been your ambition. What do you have to offer? I have a great apartment. It's a family apartment, and I knew that I should offer it as a family place. I don't think that, you know, maybe a couple might be happy here, but it's great because I do have room. And the first thing that I did was shut one room off, to get ready for my swappers and advertised it really as a two bedroom instead of a three bedroom. And then on the other hand, on the other side is you've got to start looking for something that you want to go and do.

Emily Myers (04:01):

Yes—because it seems to me there are some practical and then some slightly more emotional hurdles to overcome when you're, how swapping the practical ones being like you said, decluttering, to make your place feel like more like a hotel than somewhere you've been hunkering down from the pandemic for a year. And then the emotional hurdle about someone's sleeping in your bed. I mean, you mentioned having a place to lock away your precious items. You chose a bedroom, which you could lock. I mean, that seems like a really sensible option.

Mary Lowengard (04:30):

It could be a closet. If you have a car someplace, you could put things in your car and lock it up. If you're not including that in the swap, I would think for New York City, you wouldn't be doing that. Nobody needs a car, but you may need a car at the other end. So you might want to negotiate that, you may have a mother-in-law, you know, as room for your stuff or whatever, or you can just, you know, move it around or some people just mark things saying, please leave this alone. If you want the good china left alone. And it's basically a trust relationship that you're developing here with these people, they're in your house, you're in theirs. You trust that, you know, they're going to treat your stuff respectfully and you will treat their stuff respectfully. So that's really where you start with that.

Emily Myers (05:11):

Okay. So you've got your place squared away. Everything is complicated in New York City. If you live in a condo or a co-op, does the board get to intervene on your plans? You live in a co-op.

Mary Lowengard (05:24):

Yes, they do. Yes, they do. Well, you have to figure it out. What is allowed, the first thing you have to figure out is, is it specifically prohibited for you to swap apartments? Many co-ops not all but many—and the attorneys will tell you that all of them—have provisions in the proprietary lease or the occupancy agreement, whatever you have on the co-op or on the condo that you cannot have guests in your apartment. If you are not present. I think that that's exaggerating a bit, but you do have to kind of consider what kind of culture you have in your building. And if strangers walking around are going to raise eyebrows, you might want to think about an alternative that I proposed, which is a variation.

There are three kinds of swaps, and this is one of the variations is to have a hospitality swap where you stay home and basically open your apartment—whatever other space you have, whether it's a sleep couch or, or a bedroom or two bedrooms or four bedrooms, um, to the swappers and then presumably wherever they are. And, and they don't have the same kind of restriction. So you do have to check and see—same thing if you have a lease—to make sure that it doesn't say you're not allowed to, most people do let their brother-in-law come when they go on vacation and stay. And the other thing is to kind of assess what kind of neighborhood you live in, in terms of immediately in your building, you know, are your neighbors friendly and are they going to ask questions? And you also have to orient your swappers too. For me, co-operative life. Like don't go blabbing in the elevator that, oh, we swapped, you know, we're friends, we're friends. And frankly, by the time you get through orienting the whole orientation process of learning about, you know, where their laundry is and what kind of things they're going to leave behind for you, you are friends. So it's not too much of a stretch to say you have friends coming to stay in your apartment.

Emily Myers (07:19):

Yes. On the legality of it. New York City is obviously very strict about short-term rentals and it's illegal to rent your place out for less than 30 days unless the owner or lease holder is present. But here there's no money changing hands. 

Mary Lowengard (07:36):

As long as there's no money changing hands. So be very careful about that. Especially one thing I would caution is if you are in a rent controlled or a rent stabilized apartment—that should reign supreme in terms of preserving that relationship, but for everybody else, um, just make sure that you don't say, oh, "well I want some key money," or something like that because it's an unfair, you know, you feel that you are giving more than you're getting or whatever. It's just not that kind of deal. I think it's probably okay to leave a bottle of wine behind for your guests. Um, but uh, beyond that, that's the only hitch is that it's, it's a no-cash transaction. The other thing is that there are some swap companies. I know, you know, we'll talk about them that, uh, offer you points for swapping and that would be construed as cash. So I think you have to be a little careful about that as well, but no gift certificates to fancy restaurants, things like that. Just play it straight and narrow.

Emily Myers (08:33):
Actually. I mean, do you advise using one of these exchange, uh, sites that sort of facilitate the swap? I mean, how did you go about finding someone to swap with?

Mary Lowengard (08:45):

Uh, well, I stumbled on, you know, one of the sites. Yes. I, a hundred percent endorse getting, getting a membership in one. There are many of, I'm not going to say any are better than the others. You can go online and find them. Um, but it, they really do lay it all out for you. They will train you, they will educate you. They will give you a list of questions to ask your swapper and they will give you the book, which is the dream book, which you get, which has all the properties. And, um, you will advertise your place in there in the best, putting your best foot forward. And, just go with that. But I would definitely not try to go this alone, unless it's with a friend I'm talking about complete strangers swapping in, you mentioned you've done it with a friend and that's sort of a different, a different level of swapping. This is, I'm talking about complete strangers swapping and it's just been great. I've made friends, I'm still in touch with many of my people that I swapped with. Just rolling back a little, there, there are three kinds of swaps. So I mentioned already the hospitality swap. There's a straight swap, which means that they come to your apartment and you go to theirs roughly at the same time, sometimes somebody may linger for a day. So they get to know you, um, and then take off or there's a crossover. So they just get to lay eyes on you, which is not a bad idea either. And the third kind is what I call an open jar, like an open jar flight, where somebody wants to come to your place. You're not going to be there, but you can't go to their place or vice versa. So it's left either, generally, you want to negotiate the second piece of it. But a lot of times you end up with people owing, you swaps and you owing people swaps. And I have plenty of them. I can tell you that just never worked out on either end and it's kind of the world is round and it all kind of works out in the end.

Emily Myers (10:32):
So you've got some, you've got some credits to take. 

Mary Lowengard (10:35):

Credits that I, we won't take at this point. I had an Irish family staying here who had a place in Dublin and in Spain that they offered me. And I think at this point, I'm just not going to get there. On my end, I went, I've been to places where they haven't come here in the end, you know, anything can happen. And that's one of the nice things. I guess when you, if you have a hotel reservation, you're locked into it and you can't go at the last minute, you may, you stand to lose your money, but you know, here you can kind of jiggle and jaggle what's going on. I believe that one of, one of the swaps I did, which was in Florence a couple of years ago, um, the woman discovered she was pregnant and she didn't want to travel. So she went off and, and stayed with her parents someplace. And let me use her apartment, which was very nice.

Emily Myers (11:17):

Yeah. So there is a bit more flexibility, I suppose. I did look at some of the house swapping websites in preparation for our conversation. And I wondered if you have tips on how to choose a place. I mean, searching the listings can be quite overwhelming. Is it better to approach a swap with a specific destination in mind?

Mary Lowengard (11:33):

Everybody wants to come to New York City. Everybody wants to come and somebody wants your place assuming it's okay with your building or you can figure out a way to finesse this. Everybody wants to come to New York. So there are many families out there that will want to have your place. I knew that I wanted to go to France one year for break and, had a wonderful swap in the South of France there. And, I knew that I wanted to go to Dublin for a long weekend. And so I sort of took command. In terms of finding the company. I think your best bet is to just go online and type in 10 best current swapping home, swapping places. And you do want to do some prep for how you advertise a little bit, like being on a dating service. You want to put your best foot forward. Obviously want to have some nice photographs and you can be very specific. Generally. They, they want to know what timeframe you want, if it's school vacations or whether it's summers or whether it's winters. Um, there's a lot of ski stuff that goes on. It's not, it's really year round that it goes on and, um, and getting the access to their entire site. Many of them are open anyway—is just mouthwatering, just going through and saying, oh, look at this place and look at this place. So that way you can say, okay, this is a good match for me. And I'm going to, you know, go for it.

Emily Myers (12:54):
Does it make sense to match your family profile in terms of numbers of the numbers and ages of kids with a swapper?

Mary Lowengard (13:01):

Certainly ages. I learned that, you know, early on, because one of our earliest swaps was with a family in London that matched on the basis of our, our kids' ages. And that way, you know, the toys and the detritus and the size of the beds and things like that, all really pretty much match. I don't think that, you know, like I said earlier, you know, maybe an elderly couple would be okay, staying in my place, but it'd be much better. And for me to have a family in here and for me to go to a place where, um, we have, you know, access to smaller things, if it's small children or whatever.

Emily Myers (13:42):
Okay. So once you've agreed to swap what happens next, uh, obviously you've got information to share.

Mary Lowengard (13:50):

First you have to negotiate your dates and make sure that those match up nicely. And, the next thing is just figuring out the details of how everything works in your building, in your apartment, in your city. You know, you want to leave books for them, um, and make sure, you know, see if they need theater tickets and you really are a concierge for them, and they will be for you as well. And it's great. And I have, you know, boxes of old faxes and letters and things going back and forth and saying, oh, you know, what's your laundry situation? Or, you know, can we use your car to do this, to go on a day trip? Or, you know, is it better to take the train? And you just, communication is really key.

Emily Myers (14:33):
Obviously New York city is a city of renters. So we're all used to our leases, whether they're proprietary leases or rental leases, does it make sense to have a contract in these situations?

Mary Lowengard (14:43):

I have seen samples of agreements. I don't think it's really a contract. It would be more of a letter of agreement, which may, you know, are you going to sue them if they break a glass? I don't think so. Um, but I've never done it. I've never done it. It is basically a trust relationship that you're developing here. And again, assuming it's simultaneous, you know, you're in their house, they're in yours. You know, if it's not simultaneous how they left your house, if they're in your place, how you left their house and you know, that's kinda the nice thing about it, I think. 

Emily Myers (15:17):
Very much built on trust. So perhaps you can just share a couple of your experiences. I mean, you've had, you said you've had 99 percent good ones and ...

Mary Lowengard (15:27):
Do you want, do you want another one that wasn't ...

Emily Myers (15:29):
We have to find out what the 1 percent is?

Mary Lowengard (15:32):

Well, mine have really been positive all the way through and always an adventure. There's always something that happens. We did a swap within a swap at one point we were in London and we had decided that we wanted to go up to Oxford. And so I negotiated a swap for Oxford, which was an open jar. They were coming in at another time and we got to the house and they were lovely people. And they had dogs who weren't there, but we definitely could smell the dogs. And that was sort of a bummer, but it was fine. We lived, and we sort of learned to ask people if they had large dogs, either in residence or not.

Emily Myers (16:08):
That's actually a really good tip. Of course. So what are some of the other questions?

Mary Lowengard (16:12):

Speaking of dogs, if you have a cat, people are very, very allergic to cats, and even if you remove the cat, they can, you know, have an asthmatic attack and end up in Mount Sinai very quickly. So you do want to deal with the pets, you know, and are they going to be feeding your turtle or your fish or whatever, is there? So that's one thing you do want to find out about medical facilities, just as a precautionary, whatever. And what do you do for entertainment? What do you recommend? And you just kind of go with it. And it's just great.

Emily Myers (16:46):

I should say we have articles on every aspect of buying, renting and selling in New York City at Brick Underground.com, including guides to closing costs and a timeline for selling your apartment. Our market reports also take a look at data on deals and leases, which can help you navigate your housing goals, whatever they are. And we also love answering your questions. So please do get in touch either by the website @BrickU you on Twitter or @BrickUnderground on Facebook. I'm talking to writer, Mary Lowengard about apartments swapping for a cheap vacation. How do you generally close out a swap? I think when we swapped, we agreed to leave it clean and change the bed linens, but it's tempting to outsource that. What do you recommend?

Mary Lowengard (17:28):

You want to do is find out if somebody has a regular housekeeper and again, in term, in, in the spirit of not having any money change hands, you might suggest that you pay your housekeeper, they pay their housekeeper and that's it. And short of that, I would really recommend a service to come in. You just don't want to be scrubbing down the floors as you have a 7:00 AM flight bearing down on you. And it makes sure, and you just never know. I mean, things will be out of place—it's as if anybody was staying in your apartment and you just kind of have to go with that and just hope that, you know, none of the crystal has been broken. I mean, we've had some mishaps here and there, but mostly it's been very pleasant and you learn, you learn so much stuff. I had my first experience with a Dyson vacuum cleaner in a swap came home and said, I have to have that. I have to have that. And my worst thing are, like I said, I really love cooking in other people's kitchens. We got to France and it was just amazing. She had left eggs out. I was like, I'd never seen anybody leave eggs out. Apparently you can't do that in the United States, but there were, you know, eggs out and there were potatoes for us and it was just lovely. But, um, cookbooks! I just have to learn to order them on Amazon. So they have American measurements and I'm not, they're converting from metric system. because if you buy them over there, it's also heavy bringing back. And food, and it just was, it's just great.

Emily Myers (18:55):

Great. I'm just wondering how swapping kind of competes with say Airbnb. I mean, Airbnb, isn't quite, isn't swapping of course, because money's changing hands, but it perhaps is eating into the swapping market. Would you think?

Mary Lowengard (19:11):

Say, you know, it's probably the other way around, I think that swapping market is eating into Airbnb because Airbnb obviously, you know, makes its money on people charging. And there really is no money changing hands. You know, I don't think you can anticipate a bad experience, but the economics of it are just, you know, you can't, you can't beat it. You just can't beat it for free. I just don't see it. Qquite the same. And Airbnb is great, but it is expensive. 

Emily Myers (19:42):
Yeah. Are there any bits of information that you feel are essential when you're swapping your place in New York City that, um, that you've learnt during the decades in which you've been swapping?

Mary Lowengard (19:54):

One thing that has been consistent across the board is that when people hear that people are coming to New York city on a swap, they want to come—and it can be a friend, it can be a niece, and invariably, if I've booked for four people to come in, it'll be six. And you just have to decide whether you're going to allow that or ask them to go to a bed and breakfast down the street or take their own Airbnb or whatever. We do have a little bit of stretch capacity here, but not that much. And you don't want, and it's hard on your apartment, especially if you have a smaller apartment to have that many people, everybody wants to come to New York. So it will be, you know, their mother, they want to bring their mother along or afterwards. So you've got to really firm up how many people and then hope that that's what they end up doing.

Emily Myers (20:47):

Yeah. So you need to be prepared for more people to come than were originally planned. Okay. So what else should swappers be prepared for apart from increased numbers of residents and what tips can you share?

Mary Lowengard (20:59):

I think you have to think back to when you first got into your apartment and your neighborhood, and what really baffled you like was, is it that the subway steps are on the wrong side of the street? or is it that you have a funky dishwasher or whatever it is? The most important thing I always advise people is find out where their fuse box is. We have gone in and blown so many, you know, with all our American appliances. One place we went and they said, oh, you shouldn't have run the dishwasher at the same time as anything because it's only decorative. I had no idea that a dishwasher could be decorative, but it's really important to get that because you don't want to have them calling your super, um, in fact, I always leave instructions saying, call me all, call the super from where I am at whatever time and just have him come down. I think that having a checkout list of procedures above and beyond the housekeeper, you know, and make sure that they leave the keys where you want them left, because many keys have been walked off with is another thing. And really, as with all travel adventures, you just have to expect the unexpected. You know, it might be that they can't come at the last minute or you can't go at the last minute or something goes wrong in the apartment, just be chill about it and figure it out.

My favorite one was we were borrowing a family's SUV, we were in a ski resort and we had planned to shuttle the family in the car to the airport. And, we went in and then I was going to take a cab back after I returned the car and we'd left enough time. We went in and turned on the car and the battery was dead. So, you know, we had to call a bunch of cabs. It costs a little more, it didn't matter. We had a fabulous time.

Emily Myers (22:44):
So have you got any swaps planned?

Emily Myers (22:46):

You know, I'm starting to think about it. I really, I do think with, um, the cautionary tenor of the world these days, that it does make sense. I'm not planning to go anywhere immediately, but maybe by next spring I might start looking into it and now my kids are up and gone. So it's kind of a different proposition for me. So I'll see what, uh, what's out there.

Emily Myers (23:10):

Great. Well, Mary, thank you so much. I think that's, uh, been very informative and a bit of an inspiration. I have to say. I've been talking to writer and veteran apartment swapper Mary Lowengard. I'm Emily Myers. Thank you for downloading the Brick Underground podcast. For more information, head to brickunderground.com. The podcast is produced by myself and Jenny Falcon. Terry Rogers is our executive producer.