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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Inns and Outs of Airbnb – Part 1: The Kindness of Strangers

“She came bearing earplugs,” my daughter Paige is telling me about her latest Airbnb guest.

“She snored?” I guessed.

“And how! When I walked into the hall, I thought the coffee pot was gurgling.”

She was otherwise delightful, Paige assured me. In fact, my daughter and her long-time boyfriend, John, both grad students living on stipends, would invite back all the visitors they have hosted in their small house through Airbnb, the growing online service that matchmakes travelers and home-based lodging.

Ten years ago, the idea of getting in a stranger’s car for a ride, or spending the night in the home of someone you’d never met seemed not only absurd but downright dangerous. It still does. Yet here we are in the digital age of Uber and Airbnb (founded in 2009 and 2008 respectively) trading trust for savings and convenience.

Somehow, it’s working out. As my mother used to say almost daily, “What a world.”

“If you want to make some money, you have to take some risk,” Paige told me, not what a mother wants to hear. Besides my daughter and John, my brother, several friends and millions of others around the world have joined the inadvertent innkeepers club.

Paige and John get $45 for their guest room on a typical weeknight, and up to $200 a night on a football weekend, since they live near Texas A&M. Airbnb helps them know the going rates in real time.

To find out more, I called my friend and colleague Vicki Larson, who is single, lives in Mill Valley, Calif., and hosts two Airbnbs. Three years ago, when her youngest moved out, she began renting out his empty bedroom.

“It was shockingly easy,” said Vicki, who rents the room for $89 a night.

“Weren’t you afraid of, well, creeps?” I asked.

“You put yourself at some risk,” she said. However, she lightly screens prospective guests by asking them a few questions -- why are you coming, and who’s coming with you? -- before accepting their request. She also has a lock on her bedroom door.

“I’ve met the nicest nice people,” Vicki said. She has also witnessed some weirdness, like the female boundary buster who came alone, and, despite the clear no-guests policy, had a visitor. “I’m having my morning coffee, and out comes this guy. That’s not supposed to happen!”

But that didn’t stop Vicki from doubling down. A year ago she bought a tiny house and parked it in her backyard. She furnished the 13-by-8.5-foot, A-frame with a loft bed, sitting area, bathroom, and kitchenette. She landscaped it to look like a fairy’s cottage. “The place is booked nonstop,” said Vicki, who typically rents it for $104 a night, often to guests intrigued by the tiny house concept.

Guests have other interests, too. “Most vacationers expect their stay to be a romantic experience,” Paige has discovered. One couple brought down the shower curtain, which is all we’ll say about that.

“Guests tend to treat your house like a hotel,” John said, “when in fact it’s far more personal. You live there, too, as hotelier and roommate.”

Though not for everyone, more homeowners are turning their extra bedrooms into extra income. Here are some inns and outs from those brave enough to try.

  • Keep it legal. Before opening your home to short-term renters, be sure your city and your homeowner’s association allow it. Report income and pay taxes. Vicki collects a 12 percent tourism tax, like local hotels and bed and breakfasts do.

  • Be clean and friendly. “Don’t do this if you don’t like to keep a clean house or if you’re not a people person,” said Vicki, who’s earned “Superhost” status. Her accommodations have 5-star ratings, and 100% of recent guests have ranked them “sparkling clean.”

  • Vet your visitors. Instabook is an online option that let’s guests book instantly without hosts approving them. Although Airbnb encourages this, neither Vicki nor Paige uses it. Both want to first know who’s coming and why. “However, if you decline too often,” Vicki said, “you’ll get flagged, and that can work against you.”

  • Be responsive. In this age of real-time apps, you have to respond quickly to requests, Vicki said. “Folks are making plans and waiting to hear. Take too long and they move on.”

  • Set boundaries. Have a manual that spells out house rules. Include check in and check out times, what shelf in the refrigerator they can use, what is and isn’t available to them, (the kitchen, yes, the liquor cabinet, no). Vicki’s rules say no more than two guests per room, and no visitors, no parties. John and Paige ask guests not to smoke, and to not do anything illegal, which they thought went without saying until one international guest illegally downloaded content. They also limit stays to 13 days, so they don’t risk hosting a long-term renter, which can have legal ramifications.

  • Be code compliant. To meet safety standards, you’ll need working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Also make sure you have proper insurance coverages. Some insurance is provided through Airbnb.

  • In case of damage. Though she’s heard of worse, the only property damage Vicki has had to deal with was a stained carpet, which cost $50 to clean. That came out of the renter’s security deposit required at booking.

  • Consider access. For safety reasons, you don’t want to hand out your key. Many hosts have a keypad entry or lockbox with a guest code they change for each guest.

  • Capitalize on it. ““Most people don’t see their guest room as a profit center,” said John, “but if it’s sitting empty 350 days a year, why not? It’s easy to get online, get approved and make some money. We can almost cover our mortgage doing this.”

What a world, indeed.

Join me next week to find out what an Airbnb concierge does to make homes extra appealing, and meet a host who met her match.

CAPTION: Tiny house, big returns – The owner of this rental in Mill Valley. Calif., smartly capitalized on two trends: the tiny house craze and the growing popularity of Airbnb. Photo courtesy of Vicki Larson.

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