Swimply is like Airbnb for renting strangers' backyard swimming pools. We tried it. Was it weird?

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We have grown comfortable with our so-called sharing economy. We forget that Airbnb offers us a stranger’s bed for the night (or longer). Uber puts us in a stranger’s car. Those are just the ubiquitous ones. Peerspace gets you a stranger’s backyard, barn or basketball court for a bridal shower, birthday party or bat mitzvah. Outdoorsy will loan a stranger’s RV. Sniffspot caters to dog owners in need of fenced-in lawn for off-the-leash time. JustPark rents your parking space. GetMyBoat is self-explanatory.

Then there’s Swimply.

Which feels different. It’s not really different. It just feels kind of different. The best way I can explain it — having used the app recently for the first time — is legitimized pool hopping. As a kid, my friends and I would climb neighborhood fences and spend an anxious 15 or 20 minutes luxuriating quietly in a stranger’s pool, trespassing benignly until a porch light popped on and we scrambled off, like 16-year-old cockroaches. Swimply — which came to Chicago a year ago, and is now offered in 125 cities worldwide — might rent you that same stranger’s swimming pool by the hour, usually while they are home.

But old habits die hard.

SHHHHHHHHH,” I said to my wife and 6-year-old daughter.

They were playing Marco Polo in a heated in-ground pool we did not own in Lake County. We rented it on Swimply for 90 minutes, as a goodbye to summer, and because we live in Chicago, where private pools are sparse. Still, I didn’t want to be a bad guest. A set of posted guidelines asked that music be played softly (neighbors can get “sensitive”). It also offered the owner’s Wi-Fi password, a gentler variation of:

HAVEFUNBUTPLEASELEAVEMEALONE.

Which is why our pool game became:

“MARCO!”

“POLO!”

“SHHHHHHHHH!!!”

Not that the owner of the pool minded. She was pleasant for someone welcoming city rabble into her backyard on a Sunday. We stopped in front of her house, she came out and said HELLO! Please park in my driveway! Self-conscious, I blurted: Is renting your pool weird? This feels kind of weird, doesn’t it?

At first it felt like, she said. But she gets so many customers now, it’s a little less weird.

I wondered if, despite the generous welcoming and the cost — $75 an hour — I could feel transported to something approaching tranquillity, particularly while walking around a stranger’s backyard shirtless in swim trunks, in broad daylight. I would get into their car without hesitation, but their private waters? Not included in the cost of a Swimply backyard pool is your inhibition, which Swimply cheerfully ignores.

“You know, my sense is that the personal and public boundaries we once held on to for a long time have been steadily falling ever since we collectively decided we were willing to be captive in someone else’s moving vehicle,” said Pradeep Chintagunta, a longtime marketing professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “But then attitudes (on private ownership) do evolve, and younger customers are willing to push those limits now. I just hope it doesn’t get to a point where people rent underwear.”

Actually, clothing rentals — from websites like Nuuly and Rent the Runway — have been proliferating for a while, though the market for used underwear, at the present, still remains something of a final frontier.

Backyard pools, on the other hand?

At a glance, as of the fall equinox, as summer ends and autumn begins, Swimply still offers aboveground pools in Chicago and Carol Stream, and large in-grounds in Northfield, Lemont, Wheaton, Des Plaines. Too cold now? There are indoor pools in Long Grove and Prospect Heights. Some offer grills for extra; some bundle their backyard grill into the cost of their pool. Some offer tennis, pingpong, a fire pit, pool toys. Some charge for towels but many don’t. Several are less than $40 an hour. Some are so fancy you wonder why the owners would need the occasional $100 an hour. Victoria Kent, of Irving Park, will rent you the very cute wading pond (4 feet wide, 4 feet deep) in her backyard for $60 an hour.

“I put my feet into it, had a cocktail, and thought, ‘I work from home, I should monetize this backyard,’” she said. “And it’s been low-key. People are respectful. Some come and just read a book then leave. It’s like they needed some anonymous space to escape for an hour or two.”

If you can afford it, it’s endless summer.

Or another reminder that living in Chicago and having regular access to a pool means you have a membership to a good YMCA or an expensive athletic club. This after a summer when Chicago public pools — some of which were the creation of the egalitarian Works Progress Administration — opened late, faced lifeguard shortages and irregular hours. This in a climate where large cities are staying hotter for longer.

Swimply claims to have put 1 million people in private pools since it began four years ago. Despite unsuccessfully pitching itself on “Shark Tank” as “the Airbnb of pools,” the company’s timing was good, taking off as just as the pandemic forced people out of public spaces. By late 2021, it had raised $40 million, from investors that include (ironically) co-founders of Airbnb and Lime, the e-scooter provider.

Still, Swimply’s origins were modest, said Bunim Laskin, the company’s Gen Z co-founder and CEO, who created Swimply in suburban New Jersey and has since relocated to Los Angeles. “We started out of necessity,” he told me. “My mom had just had her 12th kid. We were all home, no means to go to camp or even travel. We needed something to do.” He offered yardwork to a neighbor with a pool in exchange for his family using that pool. “Within weeks, those people were making the same arrangement with other families.” He then went to Google Earth and found backyard pools in the area and started calling the owners, offering to broker rentals. He circulated his number. “After that, the phone did not stop ringing.”

Laskin had stumbled onto a truism: “Pretty much all backyard pools are underutilized. Even owners who say they use it a couple of times a week often don’t use it that much. But they’re paying for it anyway.”

After Swimply takes 15% from each rental, pool owners have made, on the high end, $10,000 a month; but on average, Laskin said, they make a few thousand here or there. In Chicago, with its shorter swim season, owners say they take in closer to hundreds here or there. But, they add, they’re doing little.

Indeed, our experience in Lake County was the definition of casual. Not neglectful, just thoughtfully chill. We entered through the tennis court — yes, la-di-da — and eased into the warm water. I sneaked glances at the back patio windows but never noticed anyone monitoring. A bathroom for changing and showering was easily found through a cellar door. Pool toys and life jackets were on the deck. There was a caddie stocked with sunscreen and barbecue tools. As well as a fire pit, a patio full of lounges, a speaker for Spotify.

Sunlight poked through the surrounding canopy. The rush of nearby traffic was the only sound.

That and my 6-year-old squealing, splashing and insisting on doing cannonballs.

I could see why some owners on Swimply don’t rent to parties with kids. And why some don’t rent to large parties of adults. Who wants a bachelorette party or a fraternity kegger in their backyard? Mostly, owners set their own rules — some don’t want glass bottles, some don’t want booze or cigarettes, some ask that any evidence of a party be disposed of in the trash. Kent had to add “a no-nudity clause after we had one topless moment.” Greg Brzowski, who rents his aboveground pool in Edison Park, realized too late that 15 people in his backyard was way too many people, so he set a limit to the size of parties.

He was also startled when, soon after listing his pool, because the app wasn’t alerting him to rentals, “I’d have no idea people were coming. They’d just show up, knock at the door and ask where my pool was.”

He said the problem was fixed.

But on an app that blurs the private and public so intimately, larger problems were inevitable.

Swimply asks pool owners to follow local laws and requires them to tell neighbors; the app even includes a page for their neighbors to report incidents and annoyances about the owner. But Laskin said that because Swimply “was community driven at first,” he had not anticipated the biggest issues. Airbnb faced opposition from neighborhood groups and hotels. Uber is a rallying concern for the taxi industry. And Swimply — largely in Western states right now — is facing communities that say the app violates zoning laws against using a private residence for commercial reasons.

As for liability: The company offers owners up to $1 million of insurance coverage (plus defense costs for any legal dispute) if a guest is injured; it also offers up to $10,000 for property damage incidents. Still, a 7-year-old girl drowned in June in a New Jersey pool rented through Swimply. Laskin told CNN Business the company decided it was a “pool incident” at a property whose owner received high ratings from past customers and not a “Swimply incident.” Swimming, he added, “is inherently something that requires supervision, discipline.”

All of which is to say nothing of the existential fears and self-loathing that Swimply (and Airbnb for that matter) raises — the questions of ownership and loss of privacy, the growing cost of leisure and nature. Namely, if you could afford this nice pool that you’re enjoying right now, you wouldn’t be renting it from a stranger. If you had not gone into journalism maybe you wouldn’t be shushing every MARCO! POLO!

“I wish we had a pool,” my daughter said while toweling off.

“Yeah,” I said. “Tell me about it.”

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