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Handing keys to strangers Welcome: In Annapolis, tourists live comfortably -- for a price -- as owners temporarily give up their homes.


Call it Southern hospitality. Call it just plain nuts.

A century ago, residents found that the way to escape the thousands of out-of-towners who flock to their city looking for fun, was to leave. So every year since, they disappear for weeks at a time -- after first handing over their house keys and belongings to strangers who sleep in their bed, rifle through their fridge and shower in their tubs.

Few hotels and scant parking during mega-events like the annual boat shows and this week's Whitbread Round the World Race have turned brief home rentals into a profitable sideline for many Annapolitans who fill up the time away with vacations, cruises or visits to relatives.

"I guess some people would think we may be nutty, handing our house over to strangers," says Atlanta native Suzy Weissinger. "But when Annapolis is bursting at the seams and you're in Florence for 10 days, it's worth it."

Weissinger and her husband, Tom, have rented out their three-story wooden sanctuary by Spa Creek for 17 years. Rent money has financed adventures through most of South America and Europe.

Hundreds of residents have come to love temporary homelessness. At almost any time of the year, a matching ritual can begin with classified advertisements in local newspapers and on bulletin boards that boast of available domiciles.

One ad for Whitbread reads, "Spacious 5 Br, 4.5 Ba, pking for 4 cars, 2.5 blks from headquarters."

"Magnificent waterfront home available. Sleeps 10 with 3 full baths, large deck and pier. 14 ft. hot tub," says another, enticing families for this month's Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy.

So much for cold and impersonal hotel rooms far from the appealing sights and sounds of downtown life.

Little MacKenzie Dalton, all of 3, crawls over a plush, white armchair and mischievously climbs a spiral staircase. His nanny, Amanda Thompson, watches him run through a four-story house built in 1784.

They have followed the Whitbread racers around the world for months; Thompson's charges, MacKenzie and sister Eloise, are the children of New Zealand's Merit Cup skipper, Grant Dalton.

"With children, it's about 300 percent better to live in a house instead of a hotel room," Thompson says. In a hotel room, "You can't make their meals. They have no room to play and when they're babies, it's the biggest nightmare trying to find a warm bottle of milk at 6 a.m.

"In Fort Lauderdale, we were in a hotel for three weeks," Thompson says. "That was not ideal. This just makes our lives a whole lot more normal."

Home rentals are an expansion of the old practice of families making room in their home for a young midshipman's drag -- girlfriend, in layman terms -- when she came to visit.

Over the years, that strong connection between residents and the academy led many more to open their homes to families who traveled far and spent much to visit their mids in Annapolis.

Being nice is one thing; extra money is another.

Ben and Colleen Purcell, who own the 1784 home on Fleet Street where the young Daltons and their nanny are staying, have paid quite a few mortgage bills with the money from playing host to strangers.

Another young woman, a newlywed, buys a new piece of furniture every time someone rents her home. Yet another couple take their boat for a 10-day cruise while their not-so-mobile residence is otherwise occupied.

Jamie Fallon, who can trace four generations of her family in Annapolis, is paying for a trip to Florida this Commissioning Week. This week, the 48-year-old sailor is farming herself out to five different friends' homes while Whitbread types make themselves welcome in her four-story house near the heart of downtown.

Business is good enough that 12 1/2 years ago, Annapolis Accommodations-RoomFinders Realty Inc. popped up to handle the demand. Call owner Lou Ramsey Cotta, the rental matchmaker.

"Some people say, 'Lou, you can put us in a tent as long as we're in Annapolis,' " Cotta says with a laugh. "But most want a champagne diet on a beer budget.

"You know, 'Lou, I have a party of 12. We want to be downtown, by the water and have street-side parking. That can be done for $1,000, right?,'" Cotta says. "Oh, it's just incredible."

Cost depends on the size of the house. Owners determine prices, but it can vary from $1,000 to $3,000 a week.

For a big family, that price can be a bargain, especially when you're talking about putting mom, dad, both sets of grandparents, a couple siblings and an aunt and uncle or two in hotel rooms.

That doesn't even include the cost of food and fun.

It might explain why the Purcells and Weissingers have bookings for 2000 already -- positive thinking for junior's academy graduation.

But, Cotta warns, renting somebody's house is not for everybody.

It means sleeping in a house surrounded by pictures of someone else's family. Sitting at someone's precious antique dining room table, eating off their prized china and hanging your clothes next to someone else's complete wardrobe, pushed back inside the closet.

"That's just too weird for a lot of people," Cotta says. "Most people want to call downstairs for room service and they want a paper delivered in the morning."

For people who don't mind, Annapolitans are getting ready.

The Weissingers have spent all week putting up screen windows and curtains. They're scrubbing all 4 1/2 bathrooms. They're dusting and vacuuming, washing the linen and touching up the paint on patio furniture.

After all, you don't want people opening closet doors and spilling all of your little secrets on the messy floor.

Their neighbor, Emily Kutler, shudders at the thought. "It's so personal," Kutler says. "It seems like you're exposing yourself to the world. We did do it early on because when we had young children, the money helped. But our home is too important to us now to lease it.

"Besides, it takes an enormous effort hiding all my little secrets and mysteries away before the guests arrived," Kutler says.

Some don't bother. After all, Fallon reasons, when you're leaving your home to a colonel, a nun and their academy family, the last thing you have to worry about is someone stealing your personal effects.

"This is a neat, neat phenomenon that has existed in the city of Annapolis for more than a hundred years now," Cotta says. "I am continually surprised by how pleasant residents are to their renters. I know we're the northernmost of the Southern states, but I do think it's just the spirit of Southern hospitality."

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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