These unique outer borough Airbnbs feel like getaways without leaving NYC

March 8, 2023

Kathleen Ruoti is a 73-year-old widow living on Staten Island. She started her Sweet Pea Cottage Airbnb six years ago to serve as supplemental income. “It’s a 100-year-old-old ‘Hansel and Gretel’ type thing — cute with a garden. I used to use it as an art studio,” she said. The cottage is just one of a few short-term rental properties in New York City’s outer boroughs that not only make guests feel miles and miles away from the city but have charming stories and histories of their own. Ahead, take a look inside three unique short-term spots and hear from the owners.

Photo credit: Airbnb

The Sweet Pea Cottage, Staten Island
Seven years ago, when Ruoti’s husband passed away, one of her family members encouraged her to list the small cottage on her property on Airbnb. Her husband was a doctor, so she initially thought she would use it as a space for traveling nurses or hospital residents to stay short-term. But she started by hosting some friends from New Hampshire. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Ruoti said. But the rental took off and she even earned “super host” status.

“People who stay with me like the fact that they have their own little house. Before COVID, I was getting so many Europeans; everyone seemed to be from across the pond. From New York, I call them ‘my little love couples,’” she said of local couples looking for a romantic weekend getaway.

Photo credit: Airbnb

Photo credit: Airbnb

She’s also had three newlywed couples stay with her before their honeymoon as the cottage is only a short drive to the area airports. The modest charmer in a sea of “monster mansions” of Staten Island, as she calls them, offers a getaway feeling with easy access to public transit into Manhattan.

“I get people who want to go to a concert, a game or a wedding [in the city], and I say, ‘Why don’t you stay closer?’ And they say, ‘Oh no, there’s no parking and they don’t mind the commute.”

While Ruoti cites privacy as the cottage’s biggest draw — it’s a freestanding house on a property that also houses Ruoti’s main home — Sweet Pea Cottage’s charming facade and fascinating history do not hurt the cause.

When Ruoti and her husband bought the Staten Island home in 1993, it came with a scrapbook of photos and news clippings that every owner updated dating back to the original builders of the property. The cottage was built in 1925 when Arden Avenue was a dirt road, the scrapbook details, and it was erected prior to the construction of the main house. The first owners were a doctor and his wife who immigrated from Poland — Ruoti has corresponded with their granddaughter. After the couple, Ruoti details, there was a carpenter who built dollhouses and an electrician; Ruoti’s family is the fourth to own the home.

Photo credit: Airbnb

Photo credit: Airbnb

To pay homage to the cottage’s style, Ruoti has decorated it with a country, homey vibe, keeping the knotty pine kitchen cabinets and adding homemade quilts throughout. She did upgrade the kitchen appliances and the bathroom when she turned it into an Airbnb, though. An artist, she took advantage of her own talents when it came to decorating.

“The pictures you see on the wall are my etches from grad school. It’s a 100-year-old cottage so I kept it quaint or old-fashioned — Colonial looking. I made the curtains and the quilt; I sew, I knit I crochet,” she said. And she also added some family heirlooms. “That’s my grandma’s table; a lot of my grandma’s stuff is in there. The dishes are all from my mother from the 40s and 50s. They have roses on them and painted birds — most of the ladies that come kind of like that.”

Photo credit: Airbnb

And the real showstopper of the cottage is the garden, which Ruoti tends on her own. “It’s my hobby,” she said. “I don’t sit and watch soap operas all day. I’m out there with a headband on and my boots.”

When the garden is in full bloom, there is a pink dogwood tree and a vegetable garden of lettuce, zucchini, and tomatoes. “I tell my guests to make themselves a salad.” In September a fig tree yields fruit for guests to pick. There’s also a chicken coop that guests like to use for a “photo opp,” she said.

At the end of the day, Ruoti takes a humble approach to her success as a host. “As long as everything works and the water is hot,” people are happy.

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Ziggy Stardust houseboat, Rockaway Beach
A crazy coincidence led owner Ben Sargent to this funky houseboat at Rockaway Beach. He visited the area in the middle of winter and decided to stay at the Ziggy Stardust, which, unbeknownst to him, actually belonged to an old friend. And, as if that wasn’t serendipitous enough, Sargent’s old friend told him he was the inspiration for the houseboat.

“I had a surf shop in Brooklyn and he said he modeled it after that. I was like, ‘What?!’ and I asked him if he’d consider selling it,” said Sargent. “He quickly said yes and I learned whenever someone wants to sell a boat that quickly, there’s a reason. But I jumped on it.”

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Sargent was alluding to the hardship of owning a floating home, but it’s not an entirely new concept for him as he grew up in a boating family. Until owning — not one, but two, boats — he never understood the “insanity,” though. Ziggy Stardust has a brother houseboat next door named James Franco, and Sargent kept both names out of superstition. “The guy I bought it from named them and he said, ‘You never rename a boat.'”

The houseboat is a short-term rental drawing artist-types and a “quirky fun crowd.” Guests should be “DIY” rugged types, he said as “these are 60-year-old boats and they are finicky.” But when it’s not rented out, it’s a home for Sargent and his family who split their time between Rockaway Beach and Vermont.

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“What makes our [rental] dynamic is this is our home and that makes it so much better. Our personal possessions are there, but it’s awesome because it means every little thing has been thought of,” he said. Even a lime squeezer, he adds.

The interior of the boat was inspired by Sargent’s surf background and his upbringing in Massachusetts. “I built up my whole aesthetic around my grandfather’s tackle shop and our garage growing up,” he said. “I grew up with a family that was loosely in the Pop art world. My mom was friends with a sculptor’s daughter, and I grew up with the aesthetics of the Pop-era furniture.” Sargent outfitted the space with hand-me-downs and “random stuff..I find on the side of the road that my wife gives me a hard time about,” he joked.

“With my whole design approach, the only thing I care about is that it feels like it’s been there forever. I don’t want anything to feel so stylized or precious. I want it to feel inviting,” he added. His favorite part, though, is something nature provided: the water view.

Sargent was drawn to the Rockaways because it’s a mix of an urban and Cape Cod vibe, he describes, with a tough edge that he loves. “It’s cool,” he said of the neighborhood. “It weeds out people. Some people, the first time they come, you can tell they’ll never leave; their eyes light up. Other people, it’s not a good fit. The town is relentless. I like it but it is a lifetime of paying your dues.”

Photo credit: Majo Interior

Cottage by the Water, Howard Beach
This next owner’s Airbnb journey also started with a houseboat. “We were originally looking at a houseboat near the dock area, somewhere to get out of our busy designer life, but still remain close to where we live,” said interior designer Maggie Lo of Majo Interior.

“Funny enough, we accidentally found this property on Zillow on our way to the houseboat…As we saw the back porch standing on water, and there were swans right on the water, it just felt surreal. We fell in love with the house.”

Photo credit: Majo Interior

Photo credit: Majo Interior

From the front, this hidden gem looks like any other typical brick-facade Queens home. But the interior is unexpectedly modern – unexpectedly, that is, if you didn’t know the owners were interior designers. The finished product is so design-forward it was featured in House Beautiful. It wasn’t easy to turn a circa-1929 house with no electricity or running water into the luxury space it is today, but “my husband I loved the vibe so much that we’ve decided on taking this challenge,” said Lo. “It had been empty since 1989. My husband and I were both born in 1989. it’s like the house is waiting for us all this time.”

They did extensive renovations, turning the second floor into a loft to create an airy feeling and adding a ton of skylights.

“The day we got the house, we went there in the middle of the night around 1 a.m. — we were way too excited about the purchase. The moon and the stars were bright and clear that night. My husband said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just lay on the bed and watch those stars?’ That’s why we ended up putting two huge skylights directly above the bed. In the dining room, he goes ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just sit here and look at the stars?’ We ended up with 5 more even bigger ones,” said Lo.

Photo credit: Majo Interior

Photo credit: Majo Interior

The main goal, though, was to make sure there were as many views out to the water as possible, so they flipped the whole layout around so that the dining room would be in the back of the house facing the water. The reading nook’s inspiration came to Lo while she was taking a bath — she decided to turn the space where the tub was into the reading nook instead. They also added wood beams throughout and a bunch of flea market finds, including lamps, mirrors, artwork, and a huge cabinet they didn’t even measure; they just crossed their fingers.

“My husband and I have a hobby of collecting things from flea markets around the world, thinking that one day we’ll be able to use it in one of our client’s houses, but it just never fits,” she said. “When this house was completed, the first thing we brought in was all the things we’d collected, and it just fit perfectly.”

Maggie, her husband, and their child use this home as a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city, and as a convenient pitstop sometimes too. “We are so close to JFK, and my husband and I go on business trips all the time,” she said. “Whenever we land, we just grab an Uber and within 10 minutes we are here at our vacation house. We take a long long bath and just really recharge, and get back to our main house the next day.”

It’s something they’ve enjoyed sharing with their Airbnb guests as well. Lo says the neighborhood is appealing because it’s close to Rockaway Beach, has easy access to public transit, and there are tons of restaurants nearby. But the best part is its peacefulness.

“I think it’s great that the house can inspire our guests to enjoy the small things in life and slow down,” she said. During the pandemic, she said she had many local guests looking for staycations and people who could work from home spending some time out there. They have also had some brides get ready at the house and even get a few proposals each year.

“I remember one couple had their first getaway date at our house, and a year later he proposed at our place. They are planning to bring their first baby here in the summer,” she said. “We’ve never actually met them in person, but stories like these really just make us happy to be hosts and share our house with them.”

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