On the surface, Airbnb may sound like the answer to every empty nester’s prayers—and it might be. But just like most things in life, all that glitters might not necessarily be gold.
Sure, you’ve sat on your kid’s bed and cried. You’ve caressed the purple unicorn in the closet that she said she’d always love. Or you’ve fingered the dusty baseball trophy everyone got the year he vowed to make it to the majors. The grieving has been done, and mostly when you walk by your kid’s room, you don’t feel sadness—just lost opportunity. Now, you think, would be a good time to put all the mementos and art work in the basement and start making some cash off that empty real estate. Enter Airbnb as the ultimate solution!
“I wanted extra income,” reported a friend who started renting out a spare room after her kids left. “And I thought I’d go crazy if it was just me and Frank. I wanted other people in the house who could talk to Frank, to give me a break.” So far, she’s a big hit as an Airbnb host and her marriage is holding up fine. I’m happy for her, though I had a whole different experience when we rented out our garage apartment on Airbnb for about five months.
Airbnb has pages of advice on how to be a better host, but here’s what the site doesn’t tell you. This is what you need to know before you rid the now-extra bedroom of the three-legged clay horse your kid sculpted so earnestly in 3rd grade.
At least at first, you will grow a thin skin.
Honest reviews of both hosts and guests are what keep the whole Airbnb system in check. Without them, people could go on rock-star-style room-smashing benders with no consequences. Or hosts could get away with horrors like leaving hair doilies in the shower drain.
But even if you’re used to people throwing darts at you in your professional life, it’s something else to have strangers judging your home and your way of living. And doing it publicly. I told my first guests to please let me know how I could improve since it was new at the game. And what did the young women do—they were all smiles to me and then wrote a review that griped about, among other things, an undersupplied kitchen. They also claimed “there was no drinking water,” as if I were a stingy desert-dweller, guarding my oasis spring, when I regularly have our well water tested for safety and it is just fine. (The true outrage, I wanted to tell them, is when $700-a-night hotels charge $10 for a bottle of water.) The women also bemoaned that the jets didn’t work on my whirlpool tub (even though I had told them that’s why I hadn’t advertised the feature on my listing).
Even if you’re used to people throwing darts at you in your professional life, it’s something else to have strangers judging your home and your way of living. And doing it publicly.
They gave me three out of five stars—a rating handed out in fewer than six percent of stays, according to a subsequent tsk-tsk note from Airbnb. Thanks to my face-plant out of the gate, I was told I’d be listed lower in searches in my area. For months to come, my cumulative star rating remained less than those of nearby hosts. I was devastated, especially since I had sung their praises in my own review of them. (Reviews are published simultaneously so I didn’t see theirs in advance.) Calling me out online was like my asking them to tell me if I had food in my teeth and having them announce over a loud speaker that yes, in fact, I did.
The personal sting of such a finger-wagging is compounded by the potential financial one, since negative comments impact future bookings. I had been told by experienced Airbnb hosts to price my property low initially to get reservations, which would lead to reviews that would attract other guests. Then I could raise my rates. But they didn’t say what would happen if you get a big raspberry. Luckily, I already had more bookings lined up.
As an Airbnb host, everything will be your problem.
Even the things you can’t control. My worst sin in that first review turned out to be location, location, location. They claimed I was at least an hour from downtown (not 30 minutes as I said truthfully in my listing). Their low rating on my accuracy was, in the Airbnb webosphere, the equivalent of yelling, “Liar, liar.”
My listing included a map that showed exactly where I am in relation to Austin. When they arrived, the Oregon women told me that their GPS took them the wrong way and that they made the trip during rush hour, hence the 60-minute drive time. No matter. Their travel issues became my issue. I wanted to respond to their review with an apology for not clearing the highways from Austin for them, but I had the sense to know snark would not win me future bookings. Instead I immediately put a disclaimer on my listing that “your driving time may vary because of traffic.” “Duh” implied.
A special kind of paranoia will set in.
Once you’ve gotten a less-than-rave review, you start looking at every possible defect as a potential on-line skewer. One day, when the wind blew one of the sheets off the clothesline and onto the ground (I had some romantic notion that people would appreciate the smell of country-air-dried bedding), I imagined the review I’d get if our next guests suffered a spider bite in bed. Another time I noticed the bathroom sink was leaking; in my head I saw, “Could not sleep because of the drip, drip, drip.” The emergency plumber bill was about half as much as my imminently arriving guests were paying for the whole stay. At that moment, the $650 a month from non-review-writing tenants seemed like a bargain.
You will not be above bribery.
When I bemoaned my bad review to a friend, she mentioned that she always gives wine to her guests. “Aha,” I thought, “That’s what I was missing.” So in addition to a basket of muffins, I began leaving a nice bottle of sauvignon blanc. “How much are you spending on each guest?” my husband asked when he saw me carting the check-in swag to the apartment. To be honest, I didn’t really care. My pride was at stake, and anyway, it seems to have worked. All my reviews were glowing after the addition of alcohol.
You’ll sometimes run from your Airbnb guests.
You may start your Airbnb career imagining you’ll be a magnanimous, mi-casa-es-su-casa kind of host. But at some point, you’ll have guests who’ll make you want to hide under your bed till they’ve gone out for the day. We had a perfectly nice couple who could not master the thermostat and would call or text every time the temperature was not to their liking. They’d also frequently update us on their struggles with the icemaker, the washer’s spin cycle, and the ceiling fan switch.
Calling me out online was like my asking them to tell me if I had food in my teeth and having them announce over a loud speaker that yes, in fact, I did.
On one occasion, when I ran into the couple in the driveway, they informed me that they’d found an insect they suspected was a “kissing bug” (which they claimed was poisonous though I’d never heard of it in my 20 years in the Texas Hill Country). They were thinking of sending it off for testing, and, oh by the way, the wife had some weird bite on her arm. I think my eyes spontaneously crossed.
Later, after they’d checked out and given me five stars (wine for me after that one), I got a text from them saying that the agricultural extension agency confirmed the insect was indeed a kissing bug. It was with great joy that I deleted it and thanked the patron saint of innkeepers, St. Martin of Tours—who not coincidentally also serves that role for alcoholics—that they hadn’t included that little tidbit in their review.
I’m no longer hosting for Airbnb—not because I got my 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets in a wad, but because we sold our house six months into my gig. We made a bit of money—maybe not as much as my husband hoped with the wine and all. But I’ll think twice about re-upping with Airbnb in our new home even though we have the space. The hospitality business is one long, grinning love-me-please tap dance, easier disparaged than done.