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Flat out in central London

The English upper classes have a proud tradition of renting out the family pile to earn a bit of cash.

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So when the global financial crisis left finance lawyer Guy Van der Westhuizen scraping around for cash, it seemed only natural to let his swanky London apartment on a short-term basis -- or monetise it, as finance people say.

He asked an agent to rent it out for a couple of weeks and also put an ad online. A New Zealand family wanted it for a week and the agent found someone to rent it for five weeks. Being an entrepreneurial sort, Van der Westhuizen took on the five-week tenant and found a flat for the Kiwi family as well. Thus was Ivy Lettings born.

"There was no company specialising in short-term rentals of private apartments. I realised there were lots of people who had flats in London they only used for one or two weeks a month and who would be happy to rent them out the rest of the time if they could," he says.

"At the same time, there were people who preferred the larger living space of an apartment, and the fact that they could cook for themselves, especially if they were going to stay longer than a night or two." Most of the renters are Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans, plus a few Canadians and Americans.

Ivy Lettings now has more than 70 properties on its books, all within 20 minutes of the centre of London on public transport. They range from Hampstead in the north to Notting Hill and Holland Park in the west, sprinkled through the fashionable suburbs of Kensington, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Belgravia, Covent Garden, Bloomsbury, the City of London and Tower Bridge.

You choose the property by visiting the website and searching according to the number of beds you need, your preferred location and budget. Properties start from pound stg. 500 ($752) a week, with the most expensive from a cool pound stg. 5000 a week.

At that top-end price you get access to the homes of the rich and famous. For example, a six-bedroom Chelsea townhouse at Petyt Place was once the home of Don Factor, the son of cosmetics king Max. It is now owned by a renowned American author and his artist wife, although the website, semi-discreetly, doesn't tell us who they are.

Judging by the furnishings, the author writes bodice-ripping romances. The house is on the banks of the Thames and has river views and gardens. Decked out with Georgian furniture and paintings, with blue-and-white porcelain on the mantelpieces and fine carpets, this place is all frills, flounces and chandeliers.

The great virtue of Ivy Lettings is that every property is unique, if not idiosyncratic. Our stay is in a basement apartment at Covent Garden. The location is fantastic; we are in the heart of the theatre district behind the Royal Ballet School. We could walk to theatres, the National Gallery, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street and Mayfair. The Monopoly board is at our feet.

But despite being in a part of the city that stays up late, the basement apartment is very quiet. There is loads of light and space, including a small outdoor terrace, which would have been more use had the maximum temperature not been a bracing 11C (yes, in midsummer).

This unexpected cold snap leads to a second problem. We can't work out how to turn up the heating. There is an explanation in the information folder but we can't find the heating control and as it is quite late, we feel bad about ringing for assistance.

We bring back food to heat up only to discover there is no microwave. We are also keen to wash accumulated laundry but the flat has one of those machines that claims to wash as well as dry your clothes, and does neither satisfactorily.

At our first attempt, the clothes are still wet so we have another go. But despite leaving on the drying cycle for a couple of hours, the clothes are still a bit damp. We have a third go and accidentally turn on the washing machine again, so we we're back to square one.

Our last attempt more or less cooks our clothes, which come out smaller, harder and not quite the same colour.

Some people find hotels impersonal and would much rather have a home away from home. For others, looking at a stranger's family photos and seeing signs asking you to lay off the wine or food is a bit like staying in an up-market group house. But, thanks to Ivy Lettings, the choice is yours.

Rebecca Weisser was a guest of Ivy Lettings.

Checklist
Price for the one-bedroom basement apartment is from £stg1050 a week. Cleaning, documentation fees and VAT are extra. During the London Olympics next year, the rent for this flat will range from £2750 to £3950 a week.

Most properties include internet access; otherwise Ivy Lettings can arrange it. Renters must pay for the phone if it's a large bill but there's no charge for a few local calls. Five-night minimum stay. More: ivylettings.com.

To see this article in its original context, please visit http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/flat-out-in-central-london/story-e6frg8rf-1226103402927