Live Large In Someone Else's Living Room
A new collection of high-end rental properties might just alter the definition of "luxury." (Ever sleep on 900-thread-count sheets?)
By Erika Rasmusson Janes

(FORTUNE Small Business) – If you can't live in the lap of luxury, it's nice to visit it once in a while. That's my sole conscious thought as I lie face-down on a massage table while expert hands rub every kink and knot out of my body. Next to me, getting his own massage, is my husband. New Age music plays softly in the background, and the only light comes from a half-dozen scented candles scattered around the room.

It's the kind of service you'd expect to get only at a high-end spa, but instead we're in an apartment in Washington, D.C., managed by Time & Place Homes, a three-year-old luxury-accommodations company that blurs the line between time-share rental homes and top-notch hotels. For the well-heeled—and those who aspire to join them—Time & Place offers a new way to vacation. Guests can rent any of nearly 100 properties in North America and Europe that offer the amenities of a five-star hotel, and homeowners can rent out their upscale abodes without worry.

The concept originated with Mitch Willey, 54, an entrepreneur and former corporate lawyer with a passion for real estate. The owner of vacation properties in Naples, Fla., Nantucket, Palm Springs, and Paris, Willey had limited time to enjoy his homes and even less time to take care of them—which he realized after discovering that a $3,000 oriental rug was missing from the Naples house. The rental agency he had hired didn't check the property between guest stays, and the rug was never recovered. "I was spending half of my vacation dealing with problems—the landscaping, the pool guy—and I hated that," Willey says. He figured that people renting his homes weren't having a good experience either, simply being given a house key and a map. "I realized there was an opportunity here."

That opportunity turned into a full-time business for Willey, who quit practicing law to launch Time & Place Homes in 2001. The company has grown from Willey's four properties to nearly 100, most of them in vacation destinations. Much of the growth has been recent—last year Time & Place had just 17 properties. But as word spreads (and it's all word—Time & Place doesn't advertise), vacationers are signing up. More than 1,000 visitors have rented from Time & Place, and 30% are repeat customers.

Each property requires a three-night minimum stay. Prices range from about $400 a night for a small apartment in Paris to $5,500 a night for the 12,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom Sky Ranch in Sonoma, Calif., with a 26-acre vineyard and 270-degree views of the North Bay. Our one-bedroom apartment in Washington, two blocks from the White House, is a relative bargain at $486 a night.

All properties have one thing in common—"a apos;wow' factor," says Willey, who signs off on every addition. He gets about 100 inquiries a month from owners who want him to manage their vacation homes. Only 1% are deemed luxurious enough to make the cut. "The view, the décor, the architecture—it all has to take your breath away," he says. The property also has to be geographically appropriate (meaning you won't see any faux French villas in Dallas).

Our apartment in Washington is stunning, with Chinese, English, and French antiques. A 42-inch flat-screen plasma TV hangs above the fireplace, and a smaller flat-screen sits in our bedroom. The linens are fit for royalty: 900-thread-count Mascioni Italian sheets that feel like silk, and Waterworks towels so plush they look like folded marshmallows. A rooftop terrace boasts a hot tub and a partial view of the Washington Monument.

Another wow factor of Time & Place Homes is what Willey refers to as "concierge service on steroids." All guests are assigned a local Time & Place concierge, who is on duty 24/7. Send your handler a shopping list, and she'll stock the fridge in advance of your arrival. (We requested fruit, cheese, crackers, and Diet Coke.) Prescreened caterers, yoga instructors, masseurs, and babysitters can be hired at a moment's notice. Willey tells of a client staying in Palm Springs who called late one night to request an 8 a.m. tee time at the exclusive Golf Resort at Indian Wells the next morning. The concierge not only arranged the tee time but also got the guest a VIP locker next to Bob Hope's.

We weren't interested in golf, but we did want to put Willey's concept to the test. Our concierge, Christine Horgan Payne, 52, contacted me well before our arrival, e-mailing to ask what time we would get there and what we wanted to do or eat during our stay. I put her off until two days before we were to arrive, then requested a car to pick us up at Union Station and a prime-time reservation at L'Auberge Chez François, one of the best restaurants in the Washington area (and which I chose specifically because of how tough it is to get into). Payne's response: "Wonderful selection!"

Apparently that was too easy. So on the morning of our arrival, I called Payne and said I had changed my mind. I asked her to cancel the reservation and car and instead book us a table at another D.C. hot spot, a new Latin American restaurant called Ceiba. Again, no problem. When we arrived, Payne, who has been with Time & Place since April, told us she had confirmed an 8 P.M. reservation. She had also printed out a copy of Ceiba's menu for us to peruse.

Alas, not everything was perfect. The rooftop hot tub, which we had planned to use after dinner, wasn't filled (something we discovered only after donning our swimsuits and robes and going outside), and the cable in our living room wasn't hooked up. But the glitches were more a reflection of the property's newness—it became available to rent the day before we arrived—than on Payne's service. Plus, she bent over backward to rectify the problems. When we called her about the TV cable, she arrived at our door five minutes later with Plan B: an armload of newly released DVDs for us to watch.

"Part of what this is about is bragging rights," Willey admits. "It's cool to say, apos;Come to the Papa John Phillips Estate, and we'll have a cocktail by the pool.'"

That's the late Papa John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, by the way. Many Time & Place properties are either owned by celebs or frequented by them. Extra TV correspondent Michael Corbett owns one home, and Robert Redford is a regular guest at the Southridge property in Palm Springs, a William Cody--designed estate with panoramic views.

Doug Cavanaugh, founder of the Ruby Restaurant Group, a regional chain of 43 restaurants based in Newport Beach, Calif., first stayed at the Phillips Estate, which boasts a living room with a 40-foot glass wall overlooking the San Jacinto Mountains, in 2001 with four other couples. He says he and his wife plan to return. "Quite often, when you make the decision to vacation at a rental home, they're just that," he says. "They look like rental homes, and they're treated like rental homes. This is like walking into a friend's house." And a wealthy friend at that.