This couple only rents out their lake house to “pay as you wish” friends

This article is reprinted with permission from The escape house, a newsletter for second home owners and those who want to become one. Subscribe to here. © 2022. All rights reserved.

When my wife and I moved back to Manhattan in 2009 from the empty nest where we raised our kids in the leafy suburbs, we decided to recreate our pre-kids groove: an apartment on the Upper West Side and a weekend home in upstate New York.

It took a while — we looked at 117 homes in the Hudson Valley, but that’s another story — but 13 summers ago we found a spot that seemed perfect for us: on a small, quiet lake, just over one hour from town. To one side we had a patch of woods and then a barely visible house owned by a rarely seen elderly couple. On the other side, much closer, was a small house with peeling red paint, but we were told it belonged to an elderly widow “who hardly ever comes to the lake”.

it was true The elderly widow spent a total of two nights in the house during our first years at the lake. Both times – two one night trips – we walked over and said hello. She said we could park cars in her (much larger) driveway if we had parties. We sometimes sent her photos of her flowering plants and generally kept track of the space for her. When lightning struck both of our homes, our handyman went over and shut off her electricity and we told her to call the utility company. We even had her in town for Thanksgiving once.

When the widow’s nephew, who was looking after the house, informed us that she was moving back to her native Germany and that none of her family wanted the house, we were disappointed. We loved having an empty house next to us, although it became a bit of an eyesore. Aside from requiring painting, the roof of the house was covered in thick moss. Sometimes, when the wind blew against us, we could spot traces of mold or mold stains. The stone walkways were brittle and dangerous. The deck fell off.

The new deck.

Timothy Harper

What we cared about was the likelihood that someone would buy it, probably someone with noisy kids and cars and pets, and almost certainly tear it down. Suddenly we would have neighbors above us, and tearing it down would probably mean at least a year of construction. Noise, saws, hammers, heavy vehicles, people yelling. Luckily we had gotten used to not having close neighbors.

Then the widow’s nephew came to us. “Before we launch it,” he said, “are you interested?”

No, we weren’t. We didn’t want or need another house, especially one that required a lot of work. We liked having free parking and no neighbors.

But then we thought about it. If we bought the house, there wouldn’t be any demolition next door. It wouldn’t be for kids and a barking dog and SUVs directly overhead. And it would be great for us to have more space.

Our kids in their 20s often brought groups of friends to the lake, and we loved that, even if it sometimes meant we didn’t know if there were four of us or six or 11 for dinner on summer weekends, until I tuned in to the Grill. Her friends often put up hammocks or tossed sleeping bags on the ground for impromptu sleepovers. If we had a small guest house next door, maybe our kids would visit us more often – and maybe we wouldn’t have to clean out if they wanted to take over our house for a weekend with a group of friends.

But could we afford to buy the house next door? Maybe. Just. Could we then afford to keep it? As? The obvious answer was to rent it out when our kids weren’t around. Airbnb ABNB,
or VRBO would give us the flexibility to save on weekends and holidays when maybe coming with friends.

We had never seen ourselves as landlords. We didn’t like the idea of ​​renting to strangers. Too much trouble, too much paperwork.

We decided to try something crazy: a guest house just for friends and family. No rent, no lease, no deposit. No ads, no listings, no marketing. If we could break even on running costs – taxes, utilities, maintenance, etc. – maybe we could afford to keep the house. In theory, our guests – all friends and family (except for our children and other close relatives, of course) – would contribute.

So we bought the house — that was in the spring of 2019, three years ago — and left it to our kids and their friends in its run-down state for a summer, with the deck blocked so no one could fall through. Then we spent most of 2020 renovating.


Before renovation.

Timothy Harper

Our handyman and his helper tore down interior walls and opened up the place so that it had a large kitchen, dining area and hanging space, and two bedrooms. They replaced the three (!) toilets, built a new deck, cleaned up mold and mildew and painted inside and out. We had the stone paths repaired and worked with a gardening team to clear the undergrowth and enhance the long-neglected garden. Everyone but me contributed design and decoration suggestions.

The place turned out to be a really attractive and appealing getaway and only a little over an hour from the Upper West Side.

Last year, through word of mouth and an email list of several dozen likely suspects, friends and co-workers, we began telling the story and promising that we would welcome contributions well below the typical $250-$400 range per night cool two bedroom cottage or cabin located on a beautiful lake for swimming, fishing, sailing and paddling. (No jet skis or gas engines.)


The renovated – and fully equipped – kitchen.

Timothy Harper

We have stocked the kitchen with basic necessities and good kitchen equipment, including a salad spinner. We got some new (or slightly used) furniture and repurposed some of our furniture. With our children we have decorated and furnished the place to our liking as if we live there, right down to the record player and a good selection of vinyl.


After renovation.

Timothy Harper

And I have to say, a few years after that crazy experiment, it kind of works. We’re hardly ever overcrowded with guests, but we’re moving in the right direction. We’re not at breakeven yet, but we’re getting there. And with some explanation, our guests seem to appreciate that this isn’t an Airbnb; It’s our home and we want you to use it as such.

“I’m a bad landlord and an even worse handyman,” I tell every guest. “If you have a complaint, if something needs fixing, go home and I’ll give you your money back.”

So far that hasn’t happened. In fact, we find that we are already getting regular guests. You fill up the olive oil or paper towels. They leave behind books and alcohol and buy records to donate to our collection. They leave crooked anecdotes and observations in our house journal (no guest book or thank you book).

Some of our guests are longtime friends looking for a getaway from the city. Some are friends or relatives of sea neighbors who we trust. Some are former graduate students of mine in their 20s and 30s who live in the big city and can’t afford a wooded getaway by the lake.


Timothy Harper

A few guests brought their remote work and turned off their computers at five to jump in the lake. Some guests have used the place as a writing retreat. Virtual concerts have been broadcast from the converted deck. We sometimes have happy hour or dinner with the guests we know best. Some tell me they consider the place their country home until they can afford one of their own.

“I’m a millennial,” one told me. “I’ll never be able to buy anything.” She said we would see her often for a long time. Good with us. She’s exactly the kind of guest we want.

When the basement flooded from a burst pipe on a Saturday night in the summer, the guy who lived there went downstairs, turned off the water and yelled for us to come over. He and his wife were really patient with the plumbing crew who rattled around for most of the next day.

As for the rates, I often tell people what others have contributed and no one has ever tried to downplay them. I often invite them to make an offer. Sometimes it’s more than we’d ask for and we say, “Thanks, this works for us.” Every now and then someone takes a close look; When a guy suggested $400 for a school vacation week, I replied that most people would pay $1,200 and he transferred the money in minutes.

By the way: The fact that we do not formally charge any rent and that people pay contributions voluntarily is not tax evasion. Whatever we call it, our accountant says, Uncle Sam calls it rental income for tax purposes.

We’re not break even – yet. But I’m encouraged. Perhaps the biggest relief is that I may not be as horrible a landlord as I thought I would be. I stick to the schedule of who arrives and departs when, and to put our whirlwind of a cleaning lady between the guests.

One of the few people we haven’t at least met before is the guest who’s next door right now – an English grandmother who’s here to spend some time with friends who live a mile down the lake: her son, her daughter in law and sweet 2 year old granddaughter.

“I’m a lame landlord and an even worse handyman,” I told her when she arrived. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to… call your son anytime.”

This article is reprinted with permission from The escape house, a newsletter for second home owners and those who want to become one. Subscribe to here. © 2022. All rights reserved. This couple only rents out their lake house to “pay as you wish” friends

Brian Lowry

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