Swimply, the pool-renting company, is making waves in NJ, but is it legal here?
Business is booming at Swimply, an online site that's been dubbed the "Airbnb" for swimming pools. That's no thanks to towns like Toms River, where township officials say private pool rentals violate the law.
The township recently cracked down on homeowners renting their pools, citing 11 Toms River properties where pools were advertised for rent. Count Brick, Jackson and Lakewood among Shore towns that also have pushed back against short-term pool rentals.
Toms River's actions mark the latest front in a dispute over a company that's part of the new sharing economy, where transactions take place between private individuals, very often with the government standing on the sidelines.
Swimply, which bills itself as the largest private pool platform in the world, connects pool owners who want to rent out their backyard oasis with guests who pay an hourly fee to swim, dive or just lounge on the deck in a bathing suit.
"Only 4% of the people in America own homes with public pools," Sonny Mayugba, vice president of growth for Swimply, told the Asbury Park Press in an interview. "This is a way — big picture — it gives access to a really great activity."
Swimply spokeswoman Kristen Marion said pool owners only use their pool about 15% of the time. She said about 100 pool owners a day are seeking to join Swimply as hosts. Swimply lets them rent an underutilized home asset to others, Mayugba said.
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Toms River takes issue
That's a problem, as Toms River officials see it. Hourly pool rentals are not permitted in Toms River, which adopted an ordinance three years ago barring the practice.
Toms River also has banned renting out other individual home amenities. If you have a home gym or home theater, renting them out by the hour is prohibited as well.
State government is taking a hands-off approach, leaving it up to towns to decide what — if anything — to do about private pool rentals.
"This is a local zoning issue," said Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs.
Toms River Mayor Maurice B. "Mo" Hill Jr. said a homeowner renting a private pool by the hour is illegally operating a business from their house. It's also a public safety issue, Hill said.
Township Administrator Louis Amoruso said all 11 pool owners who were cited by code enforcement have received warnings, giving them 14 days to cease the rental activity or face a fine of up to $2,000.
"That’s a danger to the people renting the pool and the people owning the house," Hill said. "Our main concern is public safety. It’s also that you’re running a commercial venture out of your house, and you don't have a license."
Background: No pool? No problem
Nonetheless, a glance at the Swimply site finds several pools for rent at the Jersey Shore, including in Toms River, Brick, Lakewood, Howell, Millstone, Wall, Manchester, Manalapan, Eatontown and West Long Branch.
The cost to rent the listed pools ranges from $45 to $140 an hour.
'Your Perfect Escape'
"Your Perfect Escape," a Toms River listing declares. "Come and enjoy a private gathering of fun in the sun, hanging poolside, surrounded by all things beautiful and serene with your favorite company."
A kidney-shaped pool in Brick is "Fun in the sun pool!" and includes lounge chairs, outdoor seating and a bar area. A "calm and peaceful" pool in Freehold sits on 2 acres.
With the pandemic shutting down public pools and halting many other recreational activities, Swimply's platform saw huge growth, both in the number of pools available and the number of eager swimmers, according to company officials.
Swimply grew by about 4,000% from 2019 to 2020, Mayugba said. It added thousands of private pools to its hourly marketplace, especially after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared there was no evidence that COVID-19 could be spread during recreational swimming.
Some hosts are making thousands of dollars a month renting pools; a recent Wall Street Journal report on Swimply included an interview with an Oregon pool owner who said he expects to earn $111,000 in rental fees by summer's end. A retired teacher made almost $50,000 renting a private pool last year, according to the company.
A Swimply host gets 85% of the revenue, while the company receives 15%. The average hourly cost of a pool rental is $45, the company says.
There are about 15,000 private pools listed on Swimply; they are located in more than 120 towns in the U.S., as well as at locations in Canada and Australia. There are 10.4 million private pools in the U.S. and about 310,000 public pools.
Public pools are required to abide by a number of rules, including requiring lifeguards, water testing on a regular basis and providing proper storage for pool chemicals.
Hill said Wednesday that Toms River's code enforcement office sent a letter to Jackson officials informing the neighboring town that five Jackson pools were advertised for rent on the Swimply site, notwithstanding the township's prohibition on such rentals.
Toms River's stance on pool rentals is similar to its actions against short-term rentals through sites like Airbnb and VRBO. In 2017, the township banned short-term rentals of less than 30 days; the only exception was for the barrier island area of town, where short-term rentals of three days or more are allowed in the summer season.
Last week, Jackson police used their Facebook page to post photos of pools for rent in the township that were advertised online, seeking the public's help to identify the pool locations.
Renting pools is prohibited by township ordinance, and the police department said Jackson code enforcement had received several complaints from residents about neighbors renting out pools and was trying to find out the advertised locations.
All five of the listed pools were identified by residents and notified by code enforcement, according to police.
But the police department's Facebook post drew many negative comments from people who said homeowners should be able to do whatever they want with their property, including renting out their pools.
Dan Newman, a Brick construction code official, said a township ordinance bans homeowners from renting pools or any individual amenities on their property.
He said the impetus for the law was a woman who lived in the township's beachfront area and offered her property to host weddings — for up to 150 people — several years ago, even though she did not have adequate bathroom facilities for a crowd that large.
"You can't rent your garage out, you can't rent your pool out, you can't rent out your yard for a party," Newman said. "When you have somebody rent a pool out and a lot of kids come, it’s not safe. There is no lifeguard, there is no testing the pool for bacteria….it's really not safe to have those types of events."
He said that the township has not received any recent complaints about pool rentals. Unless neighbors complain about a pool rental, the township does not know where to look for potential ordinance violations, he said.
Liability issues for owners
Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles said he's not aware of any recent calls or emailed complaints about pools for rent. The township previously cited homeowners for an illegal change of use when they've been found renting their pools.
Coles has said that many homeowners don't realize the liability issues that occur when their backyard pool is used for a commercial venture. A typical homeowners insurance policy would not provide coverage for renting a private pool, insurance experts have told the Press.
Swimply requires hosts to sign a waiver indicating that they are abiding by all state and local laws. The company also provides hosts with up to $1 million in liability insurance in case of an accident, and a $10,000 policy that covers any property damage, Mayugba said.
He said the company has occasionally received complaints, but "it's sporadic."
"It's typically maybe one small HOA (homeowners association), one small town," he said. He added the conflicts are similar to those experienced by firms like Airbnb and Uber, pioneers in the new sharing economy, in which services and assets are exchanged between private individuals.
"To our knowledge there are no laws expressly prohibiting pool rentals in New Jersey – in fact the company started in New Jersey where our CEO Bunim Laskin was raised," said Swimply spokeswoman Marion in an email. "Similar to other sharing economy companies (Airbnb, Uber, etc.), there are times when certain (legacy) regulations need to be examined or reinterpreted to keep pace with these new business models, and I think that may be what is happening here.
"That said, as part of our onboarding process, we advise our hosts to do their due diligence on any local statutes or ordinances," she said.
A Lakewood start
Laskin, Swimply's chief executive officer, was living in Lakewood when he caused a stir with his first foray into the pool rental business. Pool For U, an online pool rental marketplace, debuted in 2017.
Laskin told the Asbury Park Press at the time that he was inspired to start Pool For You because of his own experiences as part of a large family of 12 children who loved swimming but did not live close to the beach.
Laskin worked out an agreement with a neighbor who had a pool that was rarely used, asking if he and his siblings could use her pool, and offering to cover some of her pool maintenance expenses.
The neighbor agreed, and Laskin realized that pool rentals could become a business.
In a 2018 interview with the Press, Laskin said there is a great demand for pool rentals because many people who would like to swim can't afford their own backyard pool, or don't have space to build one. Renting a pool helps a homeowner pay for the cost of maintaining it, he said.
Swimply's Mayugba said that Laskin, who now lives in California, met Long Island resident Asher Weinberger in 2018. Weinberger told Laskin that he owned a pool and joked that he had so many friends and family members who wanted to use it that he was ready to prepare a schedule to accommodate them all.
The two decided to combine forces on a new pool rental company, and Swimply, based on Long Island, was born, Mayugba said.
Laskin unsuccessfully sought funding from investors for the pool rental site on the business reality show "Shark Tank," in 2020, but business has soared during the coronavirus pandemic, with Laskin telling TechCrunch that Swimply's platform is being used to make 15,000 to 20,000 pool reservations a month.
A 'background check'
The company now has 50 employees, including a dedicated customer service staff. Weinberger rents his pool through the Swimply site. Some pool owners are making thousands of dollars a month renting their pools, the company says.
Hosts fill out an application to join Swimply, take their own photos of their pool, and come up with their own advertising copy to lure potential renters, Mayugba said. The company does a "background check" that involves investigating to see if the host actually has a pool, and talking to them to make sure they are prepared and ready to accommodate guests.
Hosts set their own rates and keep their own schedule for their pool, he said. Once a host is approved, Swimply serves as a marketplace, connecting hosts and potential swimmers, who can visit the rental pool before deciding if they want to return there to swim. Only a small percentage of guests ever meet pool owners.
Guests pay through the Swimply site and the company then transfers money to the pool owner. He said guests are encouraged to leave reviews of their experience after visiting pools.
In addition to Swimply, pools for rent can be found on What's App, Facebook Marketplace and other sites like Craigslist and Swimmy.com.
Freehold Township Mayor Thomas Cook hadn't heard of Swimply or the concept of renting out swimming pools until an Asbury Park Press reporter explained the system to him.
"As a person, my initial response is that this is a clever idea," Cook said, adding that it's the kind of idea he would normally get behind — if not for the fear of litigation.
"You could have a person trip walking in the yard, hurt themselves on the diving board," he said. "Pools, by their nature, lend themselves to injuries. And we're a very litigious society."
It's possible the township could receive complaints if a Swimply user rents out their pool to a large party, meaning extra vehicles on smaller suburban streets that aren't used to that type of traffic.
"You could overwhelm a person that lives on a cul de sac," he said.
Cook said he'd speak with the township administrator and attorney about potentially banning the practice in the 39-square-mile town, which has one listing on Swimply, but said it was too early to determine whether the township would take action.
In Toms River, Hill said the township will continue "aggressively" cracking down on pool rentals, noting that they have drawn repeated complaints from neighbors.
Last July, a homeowner in Toms River's North Dover section was cited after township code enforcement officers, responding to complaints, saw a bus service dropping off 85 children at the home.
They were there to use the property's swimming pool for a fee, township officials said.
Hill said homeowners cited by the township for illegally renting pools also will be referred "to the appropriate state agency for additional enforcement." He said some homeowners may not realize that it's not legal to rent their private pool.
Swimply also has come under scrutiny in other parts of the country: Huntington, on Long Island, banned private pool rentals this spring.
New York's state sanitary code bans private pool rentals, requiring pool owners to acquire a county health department permit if they are going to be used by anyone besides the owners' family members and friends.
And Swimply has threatened to sue the state of Wisconsin, which told the company earlier this year that private pools for rent will have to meet the same safety and health standards as public pools, and pool owners would need to get a permit for their rental.
Swimply's Mayugba said the company will fight restrictions it feels are unjust.
"You grow up in America, you work hard, try to get a job and buy your first house, if you are trying to make money on your house, it's not allowed?" he asked.
Hill said Toms River will try to educate residents about the township ordinance that prohibits private pool rentals. Some pool owners may not know such rentals are prohibited, he said.
"We have ordinances in place to protect not only the integrity and peacefulness of neighborhoods but the overall health and safety of residents," he said.
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She's also passionate about the Shore's storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff Writers Mike Davis and Rebecca Tauber contributed to this story.