Vacancy by Lauren Mitchell

5 things I learnt as an Airbnb Host

For the last six years, we’ve used Airbnb regularly for holiday accommodation. This summer, we decided to take the plunge and put our own property up on Airbnb for rent.

I like the idea of the sharing economy. And I like any organisation that supposedly puts community and social connections at the heart of its business model. So, was the Airbnb hosting experience all it’s cracked up to be? Here’s what I learnt:

1. It’s surprisingly easy

Airbnb has a lovely website. The images are beautiful, the navigation’s clean, and the interface is refreshingly simple and (third party) advertising-free. It costs nothing to “list your space” – and you can do it at the click of a button. Airbnb will even send round a free professional photographer to make your home look extra nice.

It all feels relatively safe and easy – if you’re anything like me, you might give it a try, just to see what happens…

A clever onboarding process means you answer just three questions (“home type”, “number of rooms” and “home city”) before your listing is created. Then you’re gently encouraged to “help others” by giving more information: add a line or two of text to describe your home, then check (or uncheck) a few boxes – do you have a washing machine? Are you pet-friendly? etc.

At the end you’re given a suggested price, based on location, amenities and number of beds offered. You’re asked to add a single photo and set availability dates. You hit “List space” and complete a security check (confirm your mobile number).

Bingo, your property is open for business. No personal details are given until a booking is confirmed – and you get to closely scrutinise anyone who applies.

2. It’s more time-consuming than you think

Once your listing is live, if you’ve priced it right, you’ll start to get queries. I put mine up in June, with one dodgy photo, and almost immediately had a booking request.

Airbnb has made the booking process as quick and seamless as possible. Not surprising as this is the primary revenue stream: Airbnb makes money by taking 3% out of payments to hosts, and by charging guests a “service fee” of 6-12% on top of their rental fee.

As soon as a guest requests to book, and the booking is accepted and confirmed, the full cost of that booking is withdrawn from the guest’s bank account (although as a host you won’t receive the money until 24 hours after the rental has actually started).

So now things begin to heat up because you’re dealing with real money, sometimes relatively large sums (at least in my book – certainly two or three times the cost of a typical family summer holiday).

As an Airbnb host, you have a profile stating your response rate and response time, so it’s in your interest to be prompt when dealing with queries. As enquiries can come in any time of day and night, I found this quite challenging. Although the system prevents multiple booking requests for the same period, you’re likely to find yourself, like I did, handling multiple queries at once.

You’ll need to learn to differentiate between pre-approvals (when someone makes an enquiry and you like the look of them) and making offers (when someone requests to book but for specific reasons – eg, extra cleaning – you need to charge more). You need to keep careful track to ensure you don’t decline people you wish to approve and vice versa. Sounds straightforward but if you’re trying to squeeze in Airbnb management between work meetings, it’s easy to make a mistake. These can be rectified – but it just takes up more of your time.

Most importantly, you’ll need to vet all guests carefully. Google everyone who applies. Where possible, go for people with existing good Airbnb reviews. At very least, don’t accept anyone who hasn’t got a solid verified ID. I found viewing profiles via the mobile app wasn’t good enough as you couldn’t always see all their details.

On top of the booking queries, there’s the physical preparation of your home for a family of strangers to come and stay. Never underestimate the work involved in packing your life into boxes (btw, I recommend these ones from IKEA). We had about an hour’s sleep the night before our holiday.

And then there’s the pressing matter of creating your house manual – a comprehensive guide that tries to answer any questions your guest might have. We didn’t manage that in time for the first guests, who survived with a set of basic “do’s” and “don’ts”. We finally completed our house manual just before the arrival of family number three.

3. But it’s not worth paying someone else to manage it for you

You’ll find you’re not the only person capable of using Google. As soon as your property is live, you may start to get emails from people offering to manage “and optimise” your listing for you.

For me, this is the bane of Airbnb. I love the real homes/ real people aspect of the site. That’s why I use it. Unfortunately hosts with multiple listings (ie, professional property managers) make up almost half of Airbnb’s business. Airbnb manages to keep itself above being a property bucket shop – just – but that’s just what it would be if the management agencies took over.

To be honest, I’d forget these agencies – along with more premium management offerings like onefinestay: you’ll still have to go through the minutiae of how the oven works (with them), and they still can’t guarantee you won’t come home to red wine stains on your carpet, so don’t give them a large cut of your takings (as much as 70 per cent in some cases).

4. The online review system is incredibly flawed

We had three families stay in our house over the summer. At the end of the first week, our cleaner kindly sent us some photos of what she described as irremovable “burns” in the sofa. It turned out the damage wasn’t serious, but I had a pretty stressed out time struggling to get the family who’d just left to ‘fess up while simultaneously trying to elicit a glowing review from them.

Yes – you write a review of the guests and they write a review of you. Each side has to write the review within 14 days of the rental period and you can only see the other person’s review once you’ve written your own. It’s hard not to correspond in situations like the above without variations of “…and I’ll write you a great review” coming up on both sides of the conversation. The review is pretty much front of mind whichever side of the rental coin you’re on.

When it’s your own house, and you don’t actually get to meet the guests, or know which set of guests it was who actually broke the milk jug/ burnt the sofa/ used up all the washing powder, your reviews are pretty much irrelevant anyway because they are based on a few emails plus hearsay from your neighbours.

Luckily (for hosts at least), the review system is skewed. Most Airbnb users are nice people who struggle to say a bad word about anyone. We found this ourselves when staying on a lovely farm which was perfect but for the owner’s 50 or so semi-feral cats – once we’d actually made friends with him, we couldn’t bring ourselves to write anything negative in the review.

5. However clean, tidy and comfortable you leave your place, there’s no guarantee your hosts will do the same

It’s all a bit like peeing in the swimming pool. If you’re careful about it, then you might imagine everyone else would be careful too. No. Some people are not careful.

As mentioned in point 2, we spent way more time than we intended prepping the house for the arrival of our very first Airbnb guests. We cleaned, tidied, removed any trace of dog, bought new linen, wrote arrival spreadsheets, collected local guides etc.

The downside of all this was that we ended up with super high expectations for all the other Airbnb properties that we stayed in on holiday. When you see other hosts get away with filthy floors and drawers full of rubbish (but still getting rave reviews), you can’t help feeling a little miffed.

But when all’s said and done, I’m sure we’ll rent our place on Airbnb again. The insurance company preferred it to the house being left empty. And the miracle of having extra cash come into your bank account while you’re burning through it on holiday takes some beating. Like journalist Liz Hodgkinson, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo: Lauren Mitchell

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