A night to remember: A new website gives you the chance live the high life on a budget
The website lets London's jet set rent out their luxury penthouses while they're abroad
Christmas may traditionally be a time of good will but this is often lost in a haze of exhaust fumes as we venture on to the roads and railways to visit friends and relatives. Around four million Britons are also expected to journey overseas for the festive period by ferry or plane.
Yet regardless of who you are, where you go or how brilliantly you cheat at family charades, at some point you will have to return home. And, for many, this will entail strolling into a property that is cold, slightly less tidy than you remember and very possibly coated in the shrivelled needles of a dead Norwegian spruce.
Thankfully, it doesn't have to be this way. A range of internet-based property companies now make it possible to rent your home on a short-term basis to visitors from around the world, meaning that your property can be occupied, warmed and thoroughly looked after whenever you're away.
Better still, websites such as onefinestay.com not only do the hard work of attracting the visitors, they also clean your home from top to bottom and take care of any maintenance issues that might occur during the stay, making the whole process almost entirely hands-free. A visit can be one night, three weeks or three months – it all depends on how long you want to keep away –and can costs a little as £119 per night.
"The best way to imagine it is a five-star hotel stretched out across London," explains the founder of One Fine Stay, Greg Marsh.
"Before anyone arrives, we place toiletries in the bathroom and five-star linens on the bed. The home is also very carefully cleaned and we have someone on site to welcome the visitors. Plus, we give every customer an iPhone in case anything goes wrong, which, inevitably, it does as sometimes boilers or taps simply just break," says Marsh.
You can forget about people travelling the globe to stay in a cramped London bedsit too, as One Fine Stay specialises in high-end properties offering the type of desirable luxury that ordinary Londoners themselves aspire to. This is particularly resonant with Americans or Australians who've already visited the city and want more authenticity than a faceless hotel, or those who've seen the movies of Hugh Grant and want to experience a slice of the floppy-haired lifestyle.
"Notting Hill is particularly popular with Americans because they think they understand it and have already heard of it," explains Marsh.
While the firm's properties are luxurious, however, they remain first and foremost private homes. So before anyone arrives with a suitcase, the homeowner is free to decide if any areas, such as a study or certain cupboards, should be kept off limits. These are then locked or securely closed with tamper-proof tape, so homeowners can be certain their personal effects won't be rifled through.
"It gives you a lot more privacy that you would imagine," adds Marsh, whose own two-bed Georgian home has hosted any number of British and foreign visitors through the site.
For added security, the company holds the credit card and passport details of anyone who stays in a home and videoes every inch. So even if a light-fingered traveller happens to arrive from deepest Wyoming, they won't escape with anyone's purloined trinkets.
In return the homeowners receive a flat-rate fee for every day the property is rented. Yet as the concept is best suited for people who are away for a minimum of four to six weeks every year, it is often just as important for them to have the property occupied while they're relaxing in a spa or tying up a foreign business deal.
"We do it to help pay off the mortgage and keep the property aired," explains Jerry White, whose two-bedroom flat in Wimbledon is rented an average of two weeks every month because his business takes him out of town so often.
"We keep all our stuff in storage boxes under the stairs and when the guests have gone they put our sheets and bedding back on for us.
"The first time they visited they brought along a team of four cleaners who even cleaned the oven, which hadn't been touched for about 10 years."
Unlike most of the One Fine Stay properties, White's suburban home largely appeals to families who want to stay in London but avoid the extra congestion of the city centre. It's also very popular during the Wimbledon tennis tournament and is already fully booked for the 2012 Olympics.
He's by no means alone in experiencing a 2012 boost either: similar websites such as myfriendshotel.com, roomarama.com, crashpadder.com and airbnb.com have all witnessed an influx of foreign bookings since the ticket allocations for London 2012 were finalised.
Agri Ford, who owns a listed five-bedroom Victorian house in Highgate, is even planning to sleep in her extension for the duration of the event because every room in her home – including her own bedroom – has been booked by foreign visitors via the airbnb website, which allows homeowners to rent their properties by the room.
Ford, 60, explains: "A Russian family has booked three rooms – a mother, father, three children and their friends. Plus, I have bookings from a Canadian, an American and an Australian. So I'll be giving up my own bed for three weeks."
Unlike One Fine Stay, this is a far more hands-on process, so Ford will clean and cater for her temporary lodgers throughout their stay. Her more regular clientele is also largely made up of retired couples looking for a clean, affordable base to tour the UK, rather than the sort of dream London pad offered by One Fine Stay.
At another end of the age spectrum, Kate Dew, who has been using crashpadder.com to rent out a room in her ex-council flat near Battersea Power Station for the past year, has regularly housed twentysomethings who've travelled to London for far more important reasons than sightseeing and tourism.
Dew explains: "I have hosted a lot of people from Spain, Portugal and Ireland who have come to London because there's just no work for them at home. If you want to find a job in London it is very expensive to stay in any sort of hotel, so I suppose I am the cheaper option. It's quite sad really because some of them are actually quite desperate and I have ended up trying to help them find jobs."
Dew adds: "I initially did this purely for the money – literally, just to help pay the mortgage. So it's been really nice to discover that I can help people out by doing it too."
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