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Tampa Bay backyard pools are for rent, so I took the plunge

Swimply invites the sweatiest among us to dive in. But what about bathrooms?
Times columnist Stephanie Hayes relaxes in the pool that she rented in a Seminole Heights backyard on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa. The pool was listed for rent on Swimply, an Airbnb-style pool rental service that lets individuals and groups rent people's backyard pools by the hour.
Times columnist Stephanie Hayes relaxes in the pool that she rented in a Seminole Heights backyard on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa. The pool was listed for rent on Swimply, an Airbnb-style pool rental service that lets individuals and groups rent people's backyard pools by the hour. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 20

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — The sound of dogs barking signaled we were at the right place. We were at somebody’s house to use the swimming pool.

The barking also signaled… oh. We were at somebody’s house to use the swimming pool. Intimidating? Refreshing? Humbling? We were going to find out.

Borrowing backyard pools is the conceit of Swimply — in my mind, that stands for half-swim, half-wimp in terms of getting one’s nerves up. The Airbnb-style online marketplace helps homeowners rent out their swimming pools by the hour. In these madcap, sun-drenched months, low-stakes floating becomes an especially enticing business model.

After surfing the app, a photographer and I decided to visit the Tampa home of Laura and Tanner Summers, both 32, for a few hours of Investigative Leisure. Did I just invent a new series? Anyway, Laura, sunny and friendly, let us in the gate. Only upon our request (begging, pleading) did she unleash her magnificent dachshunds, Winston and Wendall, to wiggle a couple laps around the pool.

Laura Summers, 32, shows off the space in her backyard and pool area that she rented in a Seminole Heights backyard on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa.
Laura Summers, 32, shows off the space in her backyard and pool area that she rented in a Seminole Heights backyard on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Summers got lucky with a real estate sale and had a pot of funds to fix up the pool area in their Seminole Heights abode. It became their pandemic project. They added a small putting green, a bar, an outdoor TV box, a new deck. The result was social media-worthy.

They ran across ads for Swimply on Instagram and joined in May, knowing their pool would be a prime contender.

“I never grew up with a pool,” Laura said. “I always thought it was the best thing ever when I could go to a friend’s house with a pool.”

Swimply rents more than 25,000 pools across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Costs range from $15 an hour to several hundred. She and Tanner charge $40 an hour for up to five guests with an extra $5 per person thereafter. They aren’t getting rich, just making side money. Swimply keeps 10 percent, she said, so they come away with $36 an hour.

The idea was born when Bunim Laskin, then 20 and the oldest of 12 children, noticed his New Jersey neighbor’s pool often sat unused. He asked if his family could take a dip and paid a small fee to offset her maintenance. Pretty soon, he said, the whole neighborhood was paying to swim there. He and co-founder Asher Weinberger scanned Google Earth for homes with pools and knocked on doors.

In 2020, Laskin appeared on the show “Shark Tank” looking for an investment from the notoriously tough panel of celebrity tycoons.

“Is this really for real?” said Mark Cuban. “Who in the world thought this was a good idea?” said Robert Herjavec. “I think the whole idea is really nuts,” said Barbara Corcoran. Laskin left without a deal.

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The pandemic was good for the swimming business, though. Now Swimply claims to have 100 new people asking to become hosts each day, with some making six figures a year. Laura has encountered those mega-users in the private Swimply Facebook group, she said, mostly in parts of the country with fewer pools.

She showed us around, pointing us to foam noodles and a grill. A Seminole Heights mural beamed from over the fence. As I posted Instagram videos from the pool, followers chimed in with the same two questions:

  1. Uh, are the owners there?
  2. Uh, what’s the bathroom situation?

Swimply leaves both up to hosts. Most do offer a bathroom, but before booking, you can review amenities from Wi-Fi to hot tubs to sound systems. We had access to a home office bathroom with an entrance on the side of the house. That was a relief; I was dreading dripping through someone’s kitchen wrapped in a towel like a five-year-old having a bathroom emergency at Uncle Lou’s 60th birthday barbecue.

Times columnist Stephanie Hayes relaxes in the pool that she rented in a Seminole Heights backyard on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa.
Times columnist Stephanie Hayes relaxes in the pool that she rented in a Seminole Heights backyard on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Hosts control the size of groups, and the Summers set their limit to 20. Many pools on Swimply allow parties, a hot selling point as Airbnb has outright banned big gatherings.

In the category of worst-case scenarios, Swimply provides $1 million liability insurance policies and up to $10,000 in property damage coverage. So far, the Summers are only out a couple inflatable floaties (thanks, kids). They’re always there to make sure nothing goes awry, but they leave swimmers alone.

Like so many, the Summers went remote in the pandemic. She works in campus recruiting and he’s in robotic process automation. They’ve hosted children’s birthday parties, mother-daughter swims, a bridal shower, a photoshoot for a liquor company. Laura’s favorite guests brought chihuahuas that floated around on tiny rafts, which, frankly, sounds like winning the pool party lottery.

After a brief tour, Laura disappeared. There was nothing to do but chill. I floated on foam noodles, drank La Croix, took a few sloppy swings on the putting green. I enjoyed the relief of temperate water on another day of apocalyptic weather, the break from the barrage of worldly distractions. It’s eerie, almost, to lie so flat, so quiet, so relatively alone. I pondered if I’d do this again.

Swimming can be a vulnerable experience, disrobing, splashing around, hoisting oneself out of the water like a slain Great White. Doing it at someone else’s house is strange, yes, but no stranger than flopping at a hotel or community pool full of other slain sharks. Split 10 ways with friends? A decent way to spend an afternoon.

When our time was up, we took care to put the pool noodles back. I commenced the drive home with a mountain of damp garments oozing in the passenger seat. A good day. A lovely day. Next time, I’m bringing my dog and a tiny raft.

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