A drone buzzed over a backyard pool in Middle Island, delivering a ring box to Carley Jean-Charles, who knelt in front of his surprised fiancee-to-be and proposed.
Jean-Charles, a 32-year-old school social worker from Brooklyn, said he wanted a “grand gesture,” choosing a pool setting over a catering hall because it felt more versatile. “It wasn’t our home, but we felt like it was our home,” said Jean-Charles.
The homeowner, Kyle Williams, needed to make sure the ring didn’t fall into the pool and that the guests were happy. “I was nervous,” said Williams, 43, an auto body worker. But all went smoothly, and Charles’ fiancee, Akira Maragh, 31, a nurse from Brooklyn, said “Yes.”
Like Williams, scores of Long Islanders have been treating their pools as moneymakers through Swimply, which launched three years ago as a market for private pool rentals that some call the Airbnb of pools. Some homeowners have been drawn by headlines of an Oregon couple who made $177,000 in less than two years. But most sign up to make perhaps a few thousand dollars a summer to cover expenses such as pool maintenance or medical bills. Others say their children’s interests have changed and they aren’t using the pool as much anymore, so why not cash in.
And with the recent uptick in inflation, some who have rented out their pools say they are thinking of expanding and renting out other areas of their homes to boost their incomes.
More than swimming
Sometimes, little swimming is involved as the backyard pool paradises morph into venues for events, including baby gender reveal parties, bachelorette bashes, birthdays, kiddie get-togethers and family reunions.
“I figured it would just be people, families looking for pools,” said Matthew Williamson, 47, of East Moriches, a senior manager at a medical supply company and owner of a new saltwater pool overlooking Moriches Bay.
His first booking was a training lesson for 1-year-old Boo, a Samoyed who loves the water but had had difficulty understanding she had to jump in the water during a dock-diving competition in July.
That all changed when Boo’s owner, Mae Sitler, a fashion and social media influencer from Medford, and her boyfriend leapt into Williamson’s pool. “Then she was constantly jumping,” said Sitler, 27, of Boo during their one-hour visit, which cost them $150. She later posted on Boo’s Instagram account a photo titled, “My parents rented a pool for me.”
Williamson, who said he loves meeting fellow dog lovers — he puts out free doggy biscuits — made about $1,000 in five bookings by the end of August. He is one of the few on Swimply to welcome dogs.
In Dix Hills, fashion designer Movado “Snow Est” Thomas rented a pool for a swimsuit photo shoot for two hours for his Established Lux clothing line.
“He wanted a nice background setting,” said Emanuel Catechis, owner of the pool, who lists his property as “Palm Tree Resort” on Swimply. “You have the palm trees, you have the waterfall, you have the grotto.” Catechis, 46, a branch manager for a mortgage lender, charges $150 per hour for use of his pool and said he has already made five figures this summer.
A growing business
All this has been a big splash for Swimply, founded in 2019 by Valley Stream-based Asher Weinberger, the company's COO, and Bunim Laskin, the COO, who works for the business in California. Part of a growing sharing economy in which people monetize their assets, the company, which hosts in the United States and Canada, has doubled its bookings year over year and has seen 225% growth in new hosts since its launch in 2019, a spokeswoman said.
The action has not stopped, even though home-based rentals, including Swimply and Airbnb, are illegal in some Long Island towns. Some hosts are wary of publicity, saying they know of pool owners getting cease-and-desist letters.
Long Island is one of Swimply's strongest markets, Weinberger said. This summer, it had about 100 pools for the Island. The popularity has been partly fueled by residents in New York City, where pools are scarce. Others want a pool away from crowds due to religious requirements or a desire for privacy.
With the pandemic hitting shortly after Swimply’s launch, its founders worried about the business staying afloat, but then people began searching for safe escapes when beaches, parks, restaurants and entertainment venues were shut down.
“We were maybe the only game in town,” said Weinberger, 36.
Recently, Weinberger and Laskin added Swimply Spaces, where homeowners can list their sports courts, movie theaters, yards for yoga and other spaces for rent.
The demand for private rentals, from cars to homes, is a trend fueled by the younger generations, said Sitler, who went a second time to Williamson’s pool with a friend and their dogs.
“People really enjoy these types of different experiences,” Sitler said. “Especially my generation — a lot of us can’t afford to buy a house. People are putting their money toward experiences instead.”
How it works
Pool owners set the hourly fees, which on the Island range from $20 to $200 for up to five guests and go up from there for more guests. They can charge for amenities, such as barbecue grills, a heated pool, speakers and sports courts. They can list their own rules, from no weapons to no pets to maximum number of guests and can reject bookings they feel are unsuitable for their property.
Swimply insures the pool host for up to $1 million in general liability claims and $10,000 in property insurance per incident, Weinberger said.
There’s work — cleaning the yard and pool, sanitizing furniture, readying the bathroom or ordering a portable bathroom for guests (if owners don’t want them entering the house) and more. There is the cost of electricity for water features, maintenance and impact on cesspools.
A key factor is comfort in having strangers at the house. While Swimply checks the identities and backgrounds of both pool owners and renters before allowing bookings, neither party gets full names and contact information, with communication done via the site’s messaging feature.
Swimply gets a 15% commission from each booking from the host and another commission from the user, depending on the number of guests.
Pool users can rate their hosts on the website, and behind the scenes, hosts can rate pool bookers also, a way for Swimply to police and kick off those who don’t comply with rules.
One pool host caught an online user trying to book his home for a large party when he noticed the person’s Facebook page was advertising tickets to a party at a “secret” location — the same date and time that the renter had requested for his party. Swimply kicked the renter off its platform.
Others cite obvious red flags, such as renters’ promises to bring their own security and speakers. Many pool owners share tips, warnings and updates on Swimply Host Community, a private Facebook page set up by a pool owner.
Williams and his wife, Fabiola, suggest being mindful of neighbors. They once asked a DJ playing music on their block to turn it down a little. (He did.)
Their guests, who pay $75 an hour to rent their “Bay Paradise” have been respectful, said Fabiola Williams, 40, an associate director of human resources. As of the end of August, the couple had made about $9,000 from 20 bookings, Kyle Williams said. Recently, they rented their yard to a family celebrating the birthday of a toddler born during the pandemic whom relatives were meeting for the first time. Next, the Williamses are considering renting out their movie room, game room and other areas of their home.
A host of connections
Real estate attorney Michael Mandelstam, 38, of West Hempstead said word-of-mouth has made his pool, set back about 200 feet from his house for privacy, a favorite in the Orthodox Jewish community.
He understands the needs of those whose religion calls for modesty and kosher requirements for his barbecue grill. Recently, as one of his guests was leaving, Mandelstam asked if he wanted to accompany him to his synagogue. They went.
Then his pool was booked by Queens college student Kinza Sheikh, 19, and her sister, both asking him to stay away from the pool while they were there and to send his wife instead for anything needed. It turned out these women were Muslim. “I thought it interesting that these Muslim ladies have the same religious requirements,” Mandelstam said.
Sheikh had no idea until she got there that she would be having her first-ever conversation with a Jewish person, whose pool she had picked after her first Swimply experience at another pool was not quite comfortable.
“We started comparing religions and lives,” Sheikh said, noting, “We’re the same even though our religions are different.”
Now, Mandelstam's pool is the only one Sheikh will rent. “I know my beliefs are going to be respected," she said. "I’ve found a private pool where I feel comfortable in my own skin and not judged.”
Ana Menendez of Westbury joined this summer and titled her pool listing, “Peace and quiet” because that’s what she often needs in her job as teacher.
By the end of August, she had made about $4,000 in 19 bookings, calling it “the best decision I’ve ever made” — until the 20th booking.
For a birthday party for four young adults, about 25 extra guests showed up, she said, and although they were polite but loud, many drank alcohol and smoked marijuana before fighting on a neighbor’s lawn as they left. “It was like a smokeout in my backyard,” she said.
At the time, a Swimply representative was available only through live chat and told her that charges for the extra guests were rejected by the main guest’s credit card, Menendez said.
“I have made good money but have learned some lessons, as with any business,” she said. “Things have to get tweaked to make it run smoother.”