Why These New Yorkers Don’t Pay Rent (And How You Can Do It Too)

published May 28, 2017
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(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Much like finding out your new boyfriend is actually the heir to the throne of a small European country, living a life without rent is something that most of us will only dream about. But there are actual, real, human people living that life—who eat, sleep and work in the five boroughs without spending their hard-earned cash on their apartment.

How do they do it? They’ve managed to co-opt the conventional “hard-earned cash” equation and cut out the middle man. Where most of us trade work for money then exchange that money to a landlord for rent, these bohemians trade the work directly for rent. In a word, they barter.

Earlier this year, the New York Times profiled John McGill “a 57-year-old woodworker, artist and general fixer-upper” who has lived rent-free in New York City (mostly in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn) for more than 10 years. Not always in the same place—the rent-free life requires a lot of flexibility—but always with the same price. He barters woodworking, repairs, handyman services and sometimes his original artwork in exchange for a place to stay:

He is, in a sense, an itinerant super, taking up temporary residence in whichever building demands it. And that can mean shifting among any number of camps over the course of a month, he said. His current “Camp Base No. 1” is in the basement of a small apartment building in the Columbia Waterfront District. The building, he said, is “110 years old, so it always needs work.”

Although McGill’s arrangement is uncommon, it’s not a singular experience. The Wall Street Journal managed to track down a pair of New Yorkers doing the same thing, trading work for rent. There’s the 25-year-old musician who spends part of his time traveling on tour and part of the time housesitting, petsitting and staying with friends. And also a 29-year-old who rents a room in Brooklyn and earns $20 off her rent for every hour she spends on jobs like “helping her landlord sell furniture, building a website and teaching him to use his camera.” It’s not a full ride, but it certainly helps pay the bills.

How to Barter and Live Rent-Free

The rent-free life is not for everyone. But it might be for you.

Ask Your Landlord

You might already be closer to the dream than you think. The 29-year-old profiled in the Wall Street Journal story kickstarted her work-for-rent arrangement with a simple appeal: “[She] got the idea to negotiate with her landlord after unsuccessfully attempting to barter her services for a reduction in her more than $100,000 in student-loan debt. Though the lending company declined, she thought, ‘Why don’t I ask my landlord?'”

Explore Your Options

If you’re willing to move and possibly delve into an unconventional living arrangement, you have a ton of options to consider. Kiplinger rounded up resources for finding places you can live rent-free, ranging from becoming an au pair to living the farm life, and even finding non-profits that can match you up with empty-nest seniors looking for household help and company.

Know the Pitfalls

Every rose has its thorn, of course. Unconventional living arrangements don’t offer the same legal protections as a conventional landlord-tenant relationship. And if your living arrangement leaves few traces—like if you don’t have a formal lease or your name on the utilities—it will be tough (or potentially impossible) for you to prove your address or residency when you need it. Don’t forget that Uncle Sam gets a cut, too: Bartering is technically a form of income to the IRS, so if you’re playing by the books, you’ll need to report your rent discount as income.

Could you live the rent-free life? Have you ever bartered your time for rent?