In the sublet economy, you can turn anything into extra cash: your house, your car, your boat, or your backyard.
Jaclyn Baumgarten grew up sailing on Lake Michigan. Her happiest memories take place on boats with her family, carefree on the open water; as adults, her older brothers both purchased boats so they could extend their nautical adventures. So when they each called one week to separately complain about the expensive upkeep on boats they barely used, Baumgarten set out to solve the problem.
Baumgarten turned her brothers’ headaches into Boatsetter, “the Airbnb for boats.” Boat owners can list their vessels on the platform, and people who want a day on the water can rent one for a few hundred dollars. The platform handles the peer-to-peer insurance and offers a network of captains who, for a fee, can take out groups without any sailing experience.
Boatsetter is among a growing number of startups forging new rental marketplaces for luxuries like boats, extra bedrooms, or backyard space. Call it the sublet economy. Everything you own can become an source of extra income, and everything you want to rent can be leased from a friendly stranger.
The model was pioneered and popularized by Airbnb, the now-ubiquitous home-rental platform. When Airbnb started in 2008, the idea of turning your house into a crash pad, or paying a few hundred dollars to sleep in a stranger’s guest room, was still fringe. There were some full-home rental websites like VRBO at the time, but single-room rentals were an option mostly for backpackers on a budget or cash-strapped college students.
Now, the rental economy is everywhere, and for everyone. There are Airbnb-style marketplaces for cars (Turo), for garage storage (Spacer), for private jets (Jettly). You can rent someone’s bed for a midday nap (Globe) or even take a dip in someone’s pool (Swimply).
“People are interested in turning their underutilized assets into something that can make them money each month,” says Spencer Burleigh, cofounder of Rent the Backyard, which lets homeowners turn their unused outdoor space into rental housing.
Rent the Backyard builds cottage-style studio apartments in empty backyards and then rents them out to singletons. The company covers the building costs; in exchange, it keeps half the rent. The website promises homeowners up to $12,000 in income a year.
In the Bay Area, where Rent the Backyard is building its first units, a squeezed housing market has sent property values soaring. For homeowners, selling backyard space offers some relief on the mortgage. For renters, it creates an alternative to increasingly costly and competitive apartment space. “It isn’t just taking a fixed pie and fighting over who gets a cut; it’s actually expanding the pie for everyone involved,” says Burleigh.
Hipcamp, the “Airbnb for campsites,” takes a similar aim. The platform connects campers with empty backyards and private lands where they can spend the night. For $50, you can pitch a tent in someone’s private flower garden near Mount Tamalpais State Park, just north of San Francisco. You can also find teepees, tree houses, and yurts to sleep in, along with private farmland and meadows across the country.
“Fifty percent of the US is privately owned, and often it’s among the most pristine land because there aren’t as many people on it,” says Alyssa Ravasio, Hipcamp’s founder and CEO. “Campers were so excited to have new places to go, and landowners were so excited to have a new source of revenue.”
Hipcamp’s campers are mostly young urbanites looking for an escape from the city, and perhaps a novel experience to share on Instagram. “One thing that’s really surprised us is that our landowner side is just so different—they tend to be really rural, older,” says Ravasio. Like Airbnb, there’s no obligation for hosts to hang out with their guests, but Ravasio says plenty do anyway, sharing knowledge about their land and lifestyle. She sees Hipcamp not just as a way to find cool camping spots but a way to connect people who would’ve never met each other otherwise.
The attraction to bespoke experiences drives some of the interest in this sublet economy. Patrons taking advantage of one of Airbnb’s “experiences” can take a cooking class or learn to DJ, but only Hipcampers can spend the night in a tent on a far-flung sheep farm. A cruise is a commodity, but on Boatsetter you can spend the day deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, sandbar hopping, or waterskiing. The commercialization of shared experiences extends as far as startups like BonAppetour and ChefsFeed, which invite you to join in on someone else’s family dinner, paying what you would for a fancy dinner to sit in a stranger’s kitchen and eat with them.
As people willingly share more of their homes, cars, boats, and lives, the startups brokering those experiences will have to deal with questions about liability. Lending used to be a privilege for those in the circle of trust. Now, with more people opening their doors to strangers, companies need to be prepared when that trust is broken.
For years, companies like Airbnb and Uber skirted responsibility by claiming that they are merely marketplaces. Both companies have begun to take bigger steps toward protecting the people on their platforms, but those assurances remain limited. Airbnb offers $1 million in liability insurance for its hosts, but an insurance claim doesn’t mean much when someone has stolen a precious heirloom or when someone dies because of a homeowner’s negligence.
Newer startups in the sublet economy are also grappling with how to manage that trust. Baumgarten says she spent eight months learning everything she could about boating insurance while building Boatsetter, since recreational insurance policies don’t cover renting. “We are now the only company that provides peer-to-peer insurance in the boat-sharing space, and we do that with our partnership with Geico Marine,” she says. The company also offers 24/7 on-water support in case of emergencies.
Catastrophes aside, there’s also the reality that sharing private spaces—like a backyard or a bedroom—can be awkward. A New Yorker writer who recently tried Swimply, the “Airbnb for pools,” found the dip refreshing but the pool deck grubby, littered with plastic beer cups. The homeowner, who had made assurances about privacy, remained visible through the back window. Alas, this was no hotel pool. But the “authenticity” of the sublet economy comes with compromises.