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Local 'Couchsurfers' Find They Have Popular Pads

At a time when some Washington residents are trying to rent their homes and apartments for hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a few days during the inauguration, Michael Barge is giving his to strangers. For free.

Barge, who lives in Columbia Heights, plans to host five travelers, who hail from Tennessee and Canada, for nothing. The 45-year-old property manager is part of the CouchSurfing Project, a free internet service that connects travelers with hosts around the world who offer a free place to crash.

Requests for couches during inauguration week have flooded the D.C. CouchSurfing network, members say.

“I got 20 the day after the election and at least two requests a day after that,” Barge said. “I finally had to put on my profile that I was booked the whole week of inauguration, but still people are asking. Unless people are willing to camp in my backyard, maybe put a tent out there, I’m booked.”

Others have had to add similar disclaimers to their profiles. Divya Hemnani, 23, who lives in Tenleytown, booked her couch the night of the election and is no longer open for business. “I already confirmed my couch before I realized everyone and their mother was coming for the inauguration,” said Hemnani, who works for a non-profit.

The District expects as many as 4 million people to crowd into downtown on Inauguration Day. Hotels are booking up fast, and CouchSurfing is one alternative for visitors comfortable with the idea of living with strangers in surroundings perhaps less-than-luxurious.

A new post on the D.C. CouchSurfing group is meant to streamline the deluge of requests. Surfers with open space are encouraged to post there. That way, visitors can be informed about which couches are available.

So are Couchsurfers likely to change their minds and go corporate? Some, like Jasmine Jones, a 23-year-old from Brookland, insist they’ll stay true to the idea of free travel, eschewing the lure of big bucks. Jones, an administrative assistant, calls the Craiglist ads she's seen “obnoxious” and said taking money is not the CouchSurfing way. One of her three couches has already been claimed by a surfer from Massachusetts.

“There’s never been something like this,” she said. “I hear some people are going to sleep in their cars. I don’t want people sleeping on a park bench. You can stay with us.”

Local couches are still available. Here are some tips from area hosts about how to find a place to crash:

  • Make sure you create a full profile. Post pictures and information about yourself, and try to get references. Potential hosts are looking for reasons to trust you (or not).
  • Try the suburbs. Many couches a bit further out – but as close in as Alexandria – are still open.
  • Be prepared to write more than 10 requests -- but don’t send mass-produced messages. Surfers can tell when it’s a copy-and-paste job.
  • Read a host's profile before requesting. Some surfers have special codes that let them know if a traveler has read their profile -- if a traveler doesn’t mention "Captain Planet," for example, Hemnani doesn’t respond.
  • Check out these tips for how to request a couch.
  • Ask to stay for only a few days, not the whole week.

Finally, start searching now. Expect couches to be booked by December.

-- Brittany Levine, washingtonpost.com

By Washington Post Editors  |  November 19, 2008; 10:38 AM ET  | Category:  Around the Web , Housing
Previous: Faces in the Crowd | Next: D.C. Government Relaxes Some Tax Laws for Inauguration Rentals

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