The benefits far outweigh any reservations…
By Tony Vanderwarker
I never imagined myself running an Airbnb operation; too much like running an old-time boarding house. I’d heard boarding houses were common throughout the 19th century and up into the 1930s. In Boston in the 1830s, it is estimated that one-third to one-half of the city’s population lived in boarding houses. Though they declined rapidly due to the availability of low-cost housing, the internet revived the practice with Airbnb, allowing homeowners to add extra income by renting out rooms to paying guests, the same benefit boarding houses provided way back when.
My wife and I began renting a studio apartment over our garage four years ago when Terry McAuliffe was running for governor of Virginia. One of his campaign workers, who was a good friend, asked us if we could put up another staffer. While we were concerned initially that our privacy would be threatened, we soon discovered that we hardly ever saw the guy. When the campaign was over and our guest left, I said to my wife, “Maybe we ought to put the studio on Airbnb?” Her response was, “But you swore you’d never do that.”
“Things change. Having that campaign staffer stay for six months turned me around,” I said. So we bought some more furniture and put the studio on Airbnb. If it sounds that easy, it actually was. We took some pictures, wrote some descriptive copy and uploaded it onto the Airbnb website. That was on a Thursday. The next day it was booked for the weekend by Japanese tourists from Tokyo and has been occupied practically every weekend since.
The Airbnb story began in San Francisco when Brian Chesky and his roommates, who’d become friends at the Rhode Island School of Design, had the idea of renting out an extra room in their apartment to people coming into town for a trade show. Back then, the existing bed-and-breakfast was their model, so they offered breakfast to their guests. They were delighted that their idea worked and the three started following the same trade show around the country, renting apartments and leasing rooms out to guests. They soon discovered that they didn’t need to chase trade shows and that the idea of “living like locals,” as Airbnb puts it, had a wide appeal. What Chesky and his buddies literally tripped over was that many people wanted authenticity instead of the uniformity of the hotel experience, preferring the local color and character of lodging over the bland, expected experience of a hotel stay. There was also the economic angle: why pay $150 or more for a hotel room when you could rent a room in someone’s home for $75?
They also found out that they didn’t need to serve breakfast, so they changed their name from the original “Air Mattress B&B” to Airbnb. Now the service is in 81,000 cities and 191 countries and is estimated to be worth $38 billion.
When the tenants in a cottage on our farm moved out, we added the cottage, so now we have two Airbnb properties, one sleeping three and the other ten. People often ask us, “Isn’t it creepy having a bunch of strangers around?” or, the next frequently asked question, “Don’t you have to do a lot of laundry?”
The answers are: “No,” and “Yes.” What we’ve learned is that people who use Airbnb don’t want to be locked up in a characterless motel or hotel, but instead like to have a pied-à-terre from which they can explore the surrounding area. They are seldom around, heading out after their morning coffee and not returning until the end of the day. And as for laundry, it’s an extra load, no big deal. For the studio, it’s twenty minutes worth of cleaning up. As for the cottage, we pay our housekeeper to take care of it and add a surcharge. The studio attracts tourists and UVa parents, the cottage pulls in people going to local weddings, bachelorette groups, and people who want to winery hop.
The extra effort on our part pays off. We’re making twice what we would with a full time tenant and income from the studio is found money. As both my wife and I are retired, we’ve found we enjoy hosting our guests, as Airbnbers are a special bunch.
First, they choose the Airbnb experience. They pick out a property from hundreds on the Airbnb site and eagerly look forward to staying there. They are so appreciative of our hospitality and lodging that they always thank us effusively, something you would never see someone doing in a hotel. And they are often engaging, interesting people.
We’ve had lots of foreign guests: a banker from Stuttgart, two artists from the Cotswolds, a couple from Mumbai showing their son UVa, parents from Beijing bringing their son to the Miller School here, and, of course, our first guests from Japan. Airbnb has an effective rating system with the guests judging their hosts and vice versa so everyone is on their best behavior. The guests don’t want to be blackballed and the hosts want to avoid a negative write-up, so everyone works hard to act properly.
While we’re now big Airbnb fans, not all people are. In cities and suburban neighborhoods, people resent strangers suddenly showing up, eating up parking spaces, sometimes throwing rowdy parties, and taking rental units off the market. Imagine living in a subdivision and all of a sudden you realize your next-door neighbor is running a hotel.
Rural counties like Albemarle are concerned that people will build more houses just for Airbnb use and that party noise will disturb neighbors. In Albemarle, the supervisors have even come up with a special term, “transient lodging,” as if regular tenants don’t come and go. And the planning commission is deliberating a bunch of restrictions to deal with what they see are potential problems, as are a number of other counties.
Fredericksburg requires a special use permit, putting Airbnb properties in the same category as bed-and-breakfasts. Arlington sets limits on the number of visitors who can stay in a short-term rental: six people per unit or two per bedroom. Miami Beach has really cracked down. A first time offense for violating regulations gets you a $20,000 fine, increasing to $100,000 for a fifth offense. In popular destinations, a number of people have expressed their concerns about their apartment buildings being transformed into unofficial hotels by neighbors using Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms to rent out their units.
Lobbying for the hotel industry often results in these restrictions, as they see short term rentals as having unfair advantages.
That pressure isn’t surprising given the amount of money involved. In 2018, Virginia Business reports that Airbnb announced that Virginia hosts made $104 million, welcoming 750,000 guests that year, and the number of hosts grew to 10,200.
What those numbers don’t reflect is the amount of money these visitors to Virginia spend on food, gas, groceries, and other incidentals. We have folks escaping their hectic lives in D.C. who are delighted at the peace and quiet in the country and head into town and dine, shop, and visit the local wineries.
I’ve never asked how much money they spend, but the Virginia Tourism Corporation says the average visitor spends $473 over three days. If you multiply that number by 750,000, you get $350 million a year. Now that’s some real money—all because of Airbnb. Not to mention the lodging tax that some cities and counties charge.
The net is that when considering the potential negatives of transient lodging, local government officials ought to be mindful of the huge amounts of revenue that Airbnb guests bring in.
Another angle to consider is Virginia’s reputation. Given the Aug. 22, 1918, tragedy in Charlottesville and the hubbub recently created in Richmond, we Virginians need all the help we can get. The New York Post recently ran the headline “Virginia is for Losers,” referring to the scandalous behavior of some government officials, and I had one guest a while ago who asked us, “Is it safe to go into Charlottesville?”
Hopefully, Virginia will attract millions more visitors over the next few years who will realize that, despite the crazy things that have happened here, Virginia is a beautiful state with lots of welcoming, terrific people, not to mention a group of supremely-talented basketball players.
Okay, not all our Airbnb experiences have been positive. We have had a few glitches and some out-of-the-ordinary experiences. Recently, a guest booked the studio through the Airbnb website, then a few days before she was to arrive, canceled the reservation. Another person saw the studio was available and booked it but then the first person rebooked the studio for the same dates and Airbnb somehow accepted her reservation. So we had two guests for the same space on the same date. What to do? We offered the first person the guest room in our house. She was delighted and everything worked out.
The weirdest thing that happened to us was when we had two ladies from the U.K. staying in the studio. They asked us about security and we told them, as we tell all our guests, that we’ve lived here for over twenty years and have never locked a door. That night, the English ladies were sleeping when they heard a car pull up. Looking out the window, they saw four guys with their phones out shining them around trying to find the path into the studio. It was two in the morning and our guests were frightened that the guys were going to come up the stairs and do them harm.
“I’m going to go and put my body against the door to keep them from coming in,” one Brit said, getting out of bed.
Her partner answered, “Maybe you should put some clothes on first.”
Hearing footsteps coming up the stairs, she quickly threw on a robe and rushed to the door. When she heard the guys turning the doorknob, she pleaded, “Please don’t come in, leave us alone.
Silence from the other side of the door, then she heard the footsteps retreating down the stairs. Relived, she watched as the four guys got back in their car and left.
Turned out, the guys had booked the studio for Saturday, not Friday, and so they were showing up a day early. When they discovered someone was in the studio, they checked their reservation, realized their mistake and decamped to a hotel.
We slept through the whole thing and only learned about it the next morning when we saw the post from the guys apologizing for their mistake. Fortunately our guests laughed the intrusion off. We invited them to stay in our guest room for an extra night without charge, they accepted and assured us they wouldn’t mention the incident in their review of us. Whew! But after three years of hosting, it’s not surprising to have a couple unusual experiences.
Excuse me, I think I hear the doorbell ringing. Let me go and greet our next guests.