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Be Their Guest

You can crash in a condo or on a couch. These folks have room to spare -- or share.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Laura's place in New York's Little Italy has a dingy blue bathmat, and she wears a Santa hat. Don's pad in Hell's Kitchen is all white, a cloud with four walls that could be perilous for those with muddy feet and a taste for red wine. Cristina's NoLita studio is flooded with natural light and includes laundry facilities, but the bed is a box spring on the floor. Ricky describes himself as "very talkative" and says, "I LOVE MY WIFE!!," a red flag in a shared-apartment situation. Marissa invites guests to crash on her green pullout sofa in the East Village. It looks cushy, yet I worry that my sleep would be dogged by dreams of swimming in a giant bowl of split pea soup.

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Now, Rad's House I could do: The private room in a two-bedroom apartment near Tompkins Square Park comes with fresh towels, kitchen privileges and a pair of brothers who play drums, eat bagels on Sunday and charge less than $100 a night.

I discovered these assorted sleeping arrangements -- and voyeuristic snapshots of New York apartments -- not on a "Roommate Wanted" corkboard at a local market but on Airbnb, a nearly year-old Web site that opens doors previously closed to outsiders. The site works like Match.com for travelers, pairing those who need a bed with those who have one to spare.

"It's anything between couch surfing and a hotel," said Brian Chesky, 27, who co-founded the site with his two roommates, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk. "However, our name is becoming confusing, because we've been growing outside our core concept. Air beds aren't really involved anymore."

By the founders' definition, a crash pad can be a gym mat on a rooftop deck, a futon in a married couple's apartment, an aerie in a Ritz-Carlton residence, a treehouse in the woods or a berth on a boat. You won't find a standard hotel room here, but you will find everything else.

* * *

Since launching last August, Airbnb has become an expanding, pillow-studded universe, and at last count, it boasted accommodations in 1,108 cities in 77 countries, including more than 870 properties in New York area alone. "We're only in the beginning," said Chesky. "We hope to have more rooms than the Hilton."

Anyone can post a lodging on the site, and any renter can take them up on the offer. The hosts are individuals and rental management companies, couples, singles, brothers, best friends, artists, musicians, nonprofit workers. The guests are equally diverse: European newlyweds, Australian journeymen, American families, a Washington weekender. Some of the properties appear on multiple sites, such as Roomorama and FeelNYC; others are exclusive to Airbnb. Prices start at youth-hostel levels and rise, though most are $150 or less. (The site tacks on a transaction fee of about 10 percent.)

For the most part, the people and places are not vetted, inspected or interviewed by the Airbnb guys. The site is self-policed: The users create safeguards through renter reviews, detailed profiles and kaleidoscopic photos of the property. "We are reputation-based, like eBay," said Chesky, who holds meet-and-greets with hosts when he is on the road. The company has installed one layer of protection, holding the money for 24 to 48 hours, until it has confirmed that the guest has safely (and contentedly) checked in.

To book a room, start by perusing the properties, then send a query about availability to prospective hosts. Once the responses are in, pick your favorite, submit a booking request and await further instruction, such as the host's contact information and key pickup time and location.

After hours of so-called research (more snooping than taking notes), I settled on two apartments (one private, one shared) and waited for replies. Twiddled my thumbs. Twirled my hair. Checked my e-mail compulsively, like a high schooler eager for her crush to return the interest.

The host has 32 hours to respond. If you don't hear back, the booking is canceled, the $1 charge for credit card authorization is returned, and you are free to start over. The Radparvar brothers of Rad's House confirmed within a few hours; Emily, the Reiki practitioner/actress/writer with the Upper East Side studio, was not so prompt. After I'd fidgeted at my terminal for more than 24 hours, the folks at Airbnb stepped in, providing me with a list of alternatives.


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