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A sweet swap for homeowners

Some open their homes to strangers in exchange for swim, yoga or gardening lessons. It takes compromise and patience, but the benefits outweigh any sacrifices, hosts and teachers say.

August 14, 2010|By Laura Randall, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Deborah Eden Tull above left, shows Andrea Johnson, from Stevenson Ranch how to separate lettuce before planting during a summer spring gardening class in a Glassell Park yard.
Deborah Eden Tull above left, shows Andrea Johnson, from Stevenson Ranch… (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles…)

On a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, nine aspiring gardeners gathered around a raised bed of dirt in a Glassell Park backyard as instructor Deborah Eden Tull demonstrated how to add compost and loosen the soil with a spading fork before planting rows of lettuce and beets.

"This was just a mound of hard dirt in the beginning," Tull said, "and now it's getting really beautiful."

As she worked, a friendly yellow Lab romped around the grass, and students helped themselves to pitchers of water and bowls of organic oranges.

The only thing missing from the home setting was the homeowner, Mary Lu Coughlin. She had worked out an agreement to let Tull, owner of Creative Green Sustainability Coaching, hold three-hour organic gardening workshops in Coughlin's large fenced yard once a month. In exchange, Coughlin watched her yard "go from zero to edible soil." She also gets to reap the bounty of vegetables that have followed.

Coughlin and other like-minded Los Angeles homeowners are beginning to squeeze more use — and in some cases, more money — out of their patios, pools and cabanas. In arrangements that often involve complimentary or discounted services rather than an exchange of cash, they open their homes and yards to strangers for swim lessons, yoga instruction, perhaps children's music classes. Professionals such as Tull avoid paying rental fees while homeowners enjoy perks such as free massages or edible gardening consultations.

The arrangement often requires patience and compromise. Homeowners have to deal with the unexpected arrival of pets, strangers who treat their yards like a public park and, in one instance, the surprise of a clothing-optional policy. On the other side, professionals counting on an idyllic work setting sometimes arrive to locked gates or children home sick from school.

Yet both sides praise the homegrown, community-based aspect of the arrangement and say the benefits make up for any sacrifices.

"It was selfishly convenient for me," said Dana Kibler, who has opened her Hancock Park home to children's music classes taught by local singer Melissa Green. Kibler, the chief financial officer of a venture capital firm and mother of two young boys, picked the time and day of the hour-long group class and didn't have to spend extra time driving to and from another location. Because she was new to the area, hosting classes "gave me the opportunity to reach out to the people in the neighborhood and make some friends," Kibler said.

It makes sense that more people are finding creative ways to use their properties, especially in Southern California, where swimming pools, tennis courts and other amenities are common, said Jack Kyser, the recently retired founding economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"Because of the economic downturn, I think people are looking at unusual ways to generate some income for themselves," Kyser said. "So if somebody is working out of a home office — and there's a lot of people in Los Angeles County who do that — they're home, and they can sort of watch over things, maybe take advantage of it."

Most professionals rely on word-of-mouth networks, a method that life coach Margalit Ward calls "the girlfriend effect." Ward, who with partner Shannon Bindler teaches motivational workshops for women in private homes, has declined offers if the residence is too small or street parking is restricted. But if the setting is right, she and Bindler waive the homeowner's workshop fee and do all setup and cleanup themselves.

Others have to entice homeowners who live in central locations or have unusually ideal conditions. Meredith McWatters, founder of the Head Above Water swim school, offers free lessons and a percentage of revenue to homeowners who let her use their pools for private instruction. She also covers the cost of heating the pools for more frequent use.

McWatters, who works out of an office in Beverly Hills, initially tried to persuade hotels throughout L.A. to let her use their pools during off hours. "They were not so game to do it," she said, "so we started thinking outside the box and looking at private residences."

One of the homeowners who agreed to let McWatters use her pool was Jennifer Farley, a Pasadena resident whose daughter had been taking private swim lessons through Head Above Water.

"It was a no brainer," Farley said. "The only reservation we had was people we didn't know coming into our backyard, but it ended up never being an issue."

When a group lesson gets too loud, Farley's husband goes outside and jokes around before politely asking them to keep it down. "He'll walk out and say, 'Hey, can we join the party?' " she said.

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