Susan Mello, a 63-year old homeowner in Seattle, didn’t know who’d come knocking when she and her husband listed their 1,100-square foot, one-bedroom basement apartment on home-sharing service Airbnb last year.
But three months in, they were earning about $1500 a month from a wide variety of guests, including families with kids, young adults booking space around hiking trips and rock concerts, and business travelers.
Think Airbnb is just for millennial travelers and homeowners? Think again. The tech-driven home-sharing service that bunks travelers in the homes of real folks has seen a marked uptick among hosting by homeowners ages 60 and up.
A 2017 Airbnb report counted 78,000 hosts aged 60 or over in its network—with hosts having owned their homes an average of 16 years and more than two out of three planning to remain in them. The same report noted that the senior population of hosts was growing at a rate of 45% year after year.
Older hosts are also among the most popular, garnering 88% of the five-star reviews turned in by guests.
“For us it’s worked out really well,” Mello says. “We like Airbnb better than having a long-term renter.”
Better than a renter
I, too, host on Airbnb, less to hit a financial goal and more to monetize available space in my home. After my husband and I reorganized a basement den and bathroom into a large and private guest space, the reservations began flowing.
Our first guest? A retired couple from Oregon visiting their 30-year old daughter who had no guest space because she lived with a roommate—directly across the street from us, as it turns out.
For me, Airbnb offers a few thousand dollars of supplemental income, a bit of discretionary funding for a trip or home fix.
For Mello and her husband, choosing to move from a townhouse to a more expensive house in West Seattle motivated them to consider ways to monetize that basement apartment.
They initially considered a full-time renter, then realized that their location near a hip neighborhood with a new taproom, a trendy ice cream parlor with retro video games, and dozens of international eateries, might appeal to travelers.
Financially, Airbnb provides an informal and relatively low-effort source of income—while the income is not entirely passive, the nature of cleaning, stocking staples, and greeting guests requires minimal face time and can also be outsourced.
Socially speaking, hosting Airbnb guests can offer a fulfilling exercise in sharing one’s community, hobbies, or passions. Airbnb’s new “experiences” service—where travelers pay locals for off-the-beaten-path adventures such as unique hikes, specialty culinary tastings, or unique access to regional attractions—has also proven popular among those in early retirement.
However, like any guests, if they overstay their welcome or over-stretch your boundaries, violate your no-noise-after-10pm request, or accidentally break an appliance, your Airbnb guests can wear you down even if they’re paying. It’s good to think ahead about just how often you’re willing to host or how financially motivated you are with respect to the service so its upsides outweigh the occasional downside.
Advice from a veteran
Since moving to a different house in Portland, Ore., Lisa Traxler is no longer an Airbnb host. But before the move, when her family lived at a Portland property with a backyard cottage, she saw more than 100 guests.
She advises that new hosts check in with their home insurer for supplemental coverage beyond what Airbnb offers, and that those planning to host go out of their way to build goodwill with neighbors.
“Inform your neighbors that you are hosting before you start,” she says. “Perhaps offer two nights free accommodation to people on your block as a goodwill offering, since they’ll need to deal with more traffic, the guests’ parking on the street etc.”
She also recommends that hosts invest in dark wash cloths or hand towels, so that guests’ makeup removal won’t stain what are non-professionally-laundered linens.
Here are some other tips for new hosts:
1. Check with your city or building authority. Airbnb isn’t legal everywhere. Facing pressure from the hotel industry or housing advocates who claim that Airbnb keeps long-term rentals off the market, cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and even Charleston, S.C. restrict short-term rentals or the number of nights a property owner can offer them, or they require permits and licenses on the part of hosts.
Additionally, some multi-family buildings restrict short-term rentals. In some cities, municipal governments want hosts to pay lodging taxes. Airbnb may collect these from you, but it’s best to check with both the service and a local authority as rules change frequently.
2. Start inexpensive and keep flexible to earn ratings. Mello and her husband offered discounted rates (20% off on the first three bookings) and also allowed one-night bookings (rather than a 2-night or 3-night minimum) to build clientele and customer ratings.
Set your boundaries. You can say “no” or decline bookings. Some Airbnb bookers like to negotiate—early check-in, late checkout, can they bring a pet or kid (when your listing says otherwise), can they get a discount.
One host I know, who lives in her home during visitors’ stays in her lower-floor unit, was approached by a young adult looking for a place to throw a 21st birthday. I was approached by a person who wanted to stay in our home for a week while conducting a colon cleanse. We politely declined.
3. Focus on amenities. Test the space for “usability” and see if it passes your personal guest standards test. Do both sides of the bed have lamps or bedside tables, is there a workspace or lap desk for those with laptops? Will you provide food?
Airbnb lets hosts tailor their amenities for different audiences, such as business travelers (amenities like wi-fi, an iron and ironing board, or printer might appeal) or families (kid-proofed plugs, a Pack-n-Play or crib, or TV set-up with parental control options might appeal).
4. Develop a neighborhood or local guide. Both online (on Airbnb) or in your space, it’s nice to provide guests with brochures, menus, or a laminated sheet detailing your perspective on best places to shop, eat, and hang out—Airbnb is a “by regular people for regular people” service.
5. Understand your region’s demand patterns. If you live in a college town, sports town, or seasonally-popular location, consider adjusting your rates accordingly to maximize revenue and/or occupancy.
6. Check the competition. Labeling your listing just right (tip: put the name of the neighborhood in the listing for searchers seeking your neighborhood or part of town) and pricing it fairly goes a long way toward ensuring success.
7. Keep your calendar current. Remember you can block out dates when you want the space empty or for personal use.
8. Develop a turnover process. If you allow same-day check-outs and check-ins, you’ll need to clean quickly between guests. Stocking extra linens and food can help with turnover. And dedicating a part of your pantry to Airbnb snacks and supplies assures you’re always ready.
9. It’s taxable income. Airbnb will report your income to the government and send you a 1099 form you’ll need to include in your tax filings. However, you may be able to deduct hosting-related expenses for cleaning, food, a portion of utilities, and hosting related supplies. Talk to your accountant.
10. Use Airbnb’s tools. Airbnb will make automated recommendations about pricing, demand, and hosting practices. Follow the advice for maximum bookings—although full occupancy is not every host’s goal.