I GUESS I LOOKED the perfect picture of discontent. I didn't mean to be ungracious, I explained to the woman behind the accommodations desk, but in four previous stays in hometown of Lima, Peru, I had so far found only two categories of lodgings: too expensive and too repulsive.

She smiled sympathetically.

"Why don't you try a private home?" she said, opening a notebook and pointing at a name on a list. "I haven't seen it, but I hear this one is quite nice."

Bed-and-breakfast accommodations have been around seemingly forever in Europe, but as "rich Americans" show strong signs of feeling pinched, more travelers are giving them a try. That's not just in England or Denmark, but in Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, Savannah, Charleston, San Francisco, and so on.

There are often differences in B&B arrangements. Few are as cheap as budget motels, but many are class acts, homes that are also historic houses and handsomely decorated, or they are in areas where budget motels don't exist.

The 19th-century de Loffre House in Columbus, Ga., for instance, is the home of Shirley and Paul Romo. Last January, they opened it to paying guest who enjoy the idea of staying in the heart of the city's historic district and within walking distance of half a dozen good restaurants.

Four suite-like rooms with period furnishings rent for $49.50 a night double, $42.50 single. Each has color TV, private telephone and bath, and the Rooms serve a continental breakfast of homemade breads and pastries in the airy dining room. They accept credit cards and reservations: Call (404) 324-1144 or write 812 Broadway, Columbus, Ga. 31901. Otherwise, there'e next to no concession to commercialism. They're in business but the accent is on "guest."

Sally Reger, who's operated Guest-houses, Bed & Breakfast, Inc., in Charlottesville, Va., since 1976, also stresses the "my house is your house" aspect of her rentals.

"I've tried to find interesting houses, ones that have charm, both because of their decor and the warmth and outgoing qualities of the hosts," she explains. "People come not just for Monticello but for relaxation and comfort -- you know, rolling hills, countryside, horses."

She prefers that people telephone her, Monday-Friday, 1 to 6, at (804) 979-7264, so that she can exercise her best matchmaking skills. About 40 homes, with accommodations ranging from $28 to $65 a night, are on her current list, along with six cottages and six efficiency apartments good for long stays.

At $65 you're likely to be lodged at a country estate that's on the Charlottesville Garden Tour and be treated to such touches as a four-poster bed and room fireplace, bowls of fresh flowers and monogrammed towels. At $28, there's more a home-like than mansion-like setting but still similarly handsome decorative details. However, the quality and antiquity of the furnishings of many homes means that they're "not suitable for very young children," i.e. they aren't accepted.

Of course, for many people, even those without small children, being a paying guest in someone else's home is likely to conjure up notions of tip-toeing in and out and constantly apologizing for disturbing someone else's peace.

"Oh, that's not how it is at all" says Paula Gris, who, with a partner, runs Bed & Breakfast Atlanta. "Our hosts are not only willing but anxious to have guests. They're actually a little dissapointed if someone has no time to talk."

Guests and hosts, she says, "psych each other out" and fall into privacy patterns. Guests usually make their own beds and tidy their rooms. Hosts (who charge $20 single, $24 double) vacuum and clean bathrooms, see to linens and serve breakfast.

Ah yes, breakfast. In Bermuda recently, I sat over tea each morning and lingered on just about every word that passed through my B&B hostess lips. Her "backstage Bermuda" stories were the equivalent of a full-course feast. I also ate better, thanks to her where-to-go tips, and found someone to talk to late at night: her.

The last part was a welcome bonus and led me to Rule No. 1 for guesting in B&B establishments: It is useful to tell your hosts about most, if not all, of your eccentricities.

Rule No. 2 is to ask in advance what's expected of you and what you can expect of them. If it's okay to use the kitchen provided you tidy up, that's good to know. If you book through an agent rather than reserving directly, it's sometimes easier to ask more pointed questions without fear of offending.

Another advantage of agents is that many maintain quality and cleanliness standards and can be counted on for an accurate description of properties. Some, like Sally Reger, try to draw you out and connect you with someone with complimentary interests.

B&B places have been sprouting fast. Frequently you can find them by telephoning a city's chamber of commerce or visitor's bureau. Many have lower rates for weekly stays. Here are some additional agency names and details:

The Bed and Breakfast League, 20 Nassau St., Princeton, N.J. 08540, (800) 257-9408 or, in New Jersey, (609) 921-1440 (open weekdays), has 132 homes in 19 cities and current rates of $12-$20 single, $16-$28 double. Hosts are being added, but most at present are in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

To rent, however you must become a member and pay dues of $45 a year for one person, $55 for a family. You receive a directory describing hosts and accommodations, everything from details on, say, the jacuzzi, to preference for nonsmokers. You choose, call the league, and they'll then pass on hosts' addresses and phone numbers. Introductory offer: You can send $4 for the directory before deciding whether to join.

Bed and Breakfast International, 151 Ardmore Rd., Kensington, Calif. 94707, (415) 525-4569 (weekdays and until noon Saturday). This is B&B in about 300 private homes, principally in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Lake Tahoe and other resort districts, plus Las Vegas, Seattle, Hawaii, and New York. Before renting you must fill out an application (send a self-addressed stamped envelope to get it) and make a $15 deposit. Then you'll be placed according to what's available.

Rates are $25-$44 for two, about 20 percent less for one, with full American breakfast. If you want to discuss options, by all means call and state your preferences.

Urban Ventures, 322 Central Park West, New York, N.Y. 10023, (212) 662-1234 (9-7, including weekends). No club, no application. Just B&B in Manhattan apartments, from the Village to 96th Street, East and West sides. Singles are $26-36, doubles $32-$48. Some rooms come with private baths, others don't, but all have been inspected for comfort and cleanliness.

It all addes up to another fascinating chapter in "As the World Turns."