As I said in the first post in this series, we’ve been letting our house out whenever we’re not in it for four years now, with home-sharing website AirBnB.com.
It’s made an enormous difference to our finances, and I find myself regularly encouraging friends to consider it – even just for a couple of weeks or weekends a year. Finally I’m writing up all my advice here.
If you’re curious but worried about the idea, you might want to start with the first post, where I deal with all the ‘But what about?’ questions, like security, cleaning, living somewhere that isn’t a tourist destination, and so on.
In this post, I’ll try to make it as easy as possible for you to get started. I’m all about saving people time and headspace!
Oh, I just realised I should say why anyone should listen to me about this!
AirBnB has awarded me ‘superhost’ status, because my guests have rated me highly and so on. We’ve hosted hundreds of people, who have all felt good about their experience. I’m not an expert in any other sense, and I’m definitely not a business expert – this is just about making the most of your own home, for me, not building an empire!
A quick reminder that while this is not a sponsored post or anything – it’s just because I want to help! – if you do want to sign up with AirBnB to be a host, you can optionally do that by clicking my referral link here. That means AirBnB will pay me for referring you, once you actually host a guest. It doesn’t cost you anything or change anything for you. Ta!
A few logistics and decisions you need to make before you sign up to host with AirBnB (or whoever)
Before you start writing up your listing, you will need to have decided a few things.
How many bedrooms and beds will be available?
Will guests be able to use the entire house, or will you lock off a room to keep your valuables or clutter in, or for other reasons? You need to decide how many bedrooms will be available.
Remember to count any extra mattresses or fold-out couches, too, as sometimes people will be keen to use them if it means they can fit in your house. As long as you are clear what kind of beds are available, it’s great to include all the options.
Who will do the cleaning in between bookings?
If you’re going to list your property for more than just a couple of days at a time, and take back-to-back bookings when you’re out of town, who will do the cleaning and change the sheets in between? See my previous AirBnB post for four options you might want to consider to solve this problem.
How will guests get access to the house?
You have a few options for this.
If you won’t be around to let guests in you can:
- Pay someone to greet your guests and give them the key
- Attach a lock box to put the keys in, and give guests the combination – you can attach it to a fence, washing line or the house, for instance, as real estate agents often do.
- We have put a combination lock on our back door so we just need to give guests the code directly, and that gets them in the house. I strongly recommend this! It means guests can’t accidentally lock themselves out, and if they accidentally take our keys away with them (we have keys to the other door available once people arrive), it’s not a disaster for the next guests.
What you’ll need, to sign up on AirBnB.com
Before you even get started, you can do some prep (you can do this stuff after signing up too, of course).
You’re going to need:
- Some nice (but honest!) photos of your house, inside and out. More about this below.
- The dates your house will next be available for guests (you can change this, of course, but you’ll need some idea to get started)
- A short and informative title for your listing – what is most important for guests to know? Think about location, convenience, special features and so on. Ours is ‘Stunning view, close to city.’
- A description of your place. See mine here as an example, and feel free to copy the wording as appropriate! Just keep clicking ‘see more’ to get more detail. I encourage you to write more rather than less – people want to have a good idea of what they’re booking. Make sure you’re open and honest about everything – they’re going to find out, anyway, and accuracy is something they’ll review you on. In particular, be clear what kind of neighbourhood you’re in, in terms of noise, neighbours and terrain. People need to know if you’re up seventy steps, living in a party neighbourhood!
- A separate, detailed ‘guide to the house’ that gives people all the information they’ll need to enjoy their stay. Much more about this below!
Taking photos for your AirBnB listing
Any snaps are okay, but of course the better the quality of your photographs the better.
Actually that’s not quite true – you don’t want your photos to look AMAAAAAZING if your house, erm, isn’t! Accuracy of the listing and photos is something your guests will be asked to rate you on when they leave, so don’t raise expectations you can’t meet. You can see the (very ordinary) quality of my photos at our listing here – just click ‘view photos’.
So go for high-res photos (from a good phone camera or from a proper camera) that will show up clearly on the website, and make sure each room you photograph is tidy and nice, like it will be for guests, before you take photos of it.
While you’re getting your camera out – or a mate with a nice DSLR, perhaps – as well as pictures of each room and at least a couple of the outside, you might also want to take photos of this stuff:
- a photo of yourself or you and your family/partner/pets for your profile page – to help people trust a stranger on the internet
- the house as it looks from the road, to make it easy for guests to know they’re at the right place
- the door they’re supposed to enter through
- the views from each room (if they’re nice!), labelled
- any steps or slopes, so people only book if they are going to be able to manage them (and make sure you mention these in the main listing) – remember that even ONE step can make a place inaccessible for some people
- where people can park their car
- where they will find the key, if applicable
- all your complicated appliances, like dishwasher, heating, modem, and so on, so you can give super-easy directions for people in your ‘guide to the house’ (more about that later)
- anything else in the house that you’re going to have to explain: are your guests likely to need to know where the fuse box is, how to set a thermostat, how the TV or other tech works, and which remote controls do what? Don’t take anything for granted – remember that (especially if you’re using an international site like AirBnB.com) your guests might come from completely different countries, where heating, wiring or other tech works really differently.
- things in your neighbourhood if they’re a drawcard. I’ve included lots of photos of the waterfront in ours!
For more tips on taking photos for AirBnB specifically, this is a useful post.
Signing up with AirBnB and getting started for real
[A quick reminder that if you’re ready to get going, you could choose to click through via my referral link. AirBnB would then pay me some money! It doesn’t cost you anything or change anything from your perspective.]
My best tip for getting started with the actual website: set aside some time, and go slowly!
It’s not that intuitive a website, has often changed its structure, and I still find it hard to find things sometimes.
But everything is there somewhere, and the mechanics work very reliably – no glitches or stuff-ups with bookings or anything. Just take a deep breath before beginning, and be ready to search Google for ‘AirBnB where is the payment option screen?’ or whatever.
So, open up AirBnB (referral link), and get started. The site will prompt you to fill in everything you need, so just step-by-step and you’ll be fine!
What do I charge?
There are a few ways to approach pricing.
With AirBnB you can change your pricing as often as you want (not for existing bookings, obviously), so don’t worry that you have to get it right straight away.
Consider these factors when you get started:
- It’s good to start with a price that’s on the low side, so you get your first bookings quickly. The most important thing for ongoing bookings is having good reviews, so you want to encourage early bookings (when you have no reviews) with a bit of a discount price.
- Consider what it would cost a group of people – a large family or three couples, or whatever grouping can fit in your house – to stay in a conventional motel in your town. Your price, even the highest you can imagine charging, will probably be a lot lower than that! Remember that your guests get the convenience of a fully-equipped kitchen (not just four forks, four glasses and one tiny frypan!), a comfortable home, and space where they can all hang out together, rather than just three hotel rooms, for instance.
- Consider what price makes this whole palaver worth it to you. There’s a fair amount of work and hassle you are putting in, and you need to recoup that, and feel good about doing it, or there’s not much point in proceeding.
- What are other hosts in your area charging? Imagine you are trying to book a house, just like yours, in your location. Do a search on AirBnB – choose dates that are several months away so that you see a range of availability – and see what the range is.
AirBnB offers an auto-pricing feature where they calculate the rate (day by day) according to an algorithm. I don’t recommend it. The auto feature tends to recommend significantly lower prices than I would charge, and I have nearly full occupancy when we’re away, so I prefer to manage the price myself.
Should I charge a separate cleaning fee?
Yep. It’s psychological – I mean, you could build the cleaning costs into your normal pricing just as easily, but I find it very helpful to separate it out.
I charge what might seem a pretty high cleaning fee (NZD$120 per booking) for these reasons:
- It’s a 3-bedroom house, so that means it does actually take a fair while to do everything, including change sheets and so on.
- My cleaner takes the linen home to wash and dry – because if all three beds are used, plust ten towels, it takes too long to process the laundry while she’s there – so that’s extra time and cost.
- My cleaner is absolutely crucial to the success of the enterprise. I want to hire someone excellent and super-reliable, and pay accordingly.
- My cleaner has to be available at short notice, on completely different days each week, during the middle of the day. It’s casual contract work that doesn’t suit many people. I want to pay her well to acknowledge that, and keep her!
- The cleaning fee covers cleaning supplies as well as the labour.
- When we’re away for a long period, our cleaner also picks up supplies like extra toilet paper or cleaning products.
What about check-in and check-out times?
It’s nice to allow as much flexibility as you can conveniently manage. The main constraint, for me, is that our cleaner needs to have 3-4 hours in between one set of guests leaving and the next ones arriving, to turn the house over. When someone books and asks if they can have a late check-out, I don’t know at that time whether or not there’ll be someone arriving straight away. And my cleaner might not want to come at a different time each booking.
So my practice is to say that check-out is at 10am, and check-in is 2pm, because of the need to allow time to clean in between guests.
If someone wants to check out late, at, say, 4pm, for a late flight, I tell them they’re more than welcome to book for an extra night so they can be sure of staying in the house, but that’s really the only option.
Quite often people want to arrive a bit early for a set nap-time for a child. I tend to say that they’re welcome to come early but they might arrive at the time the cleaner is still there, so are they okay with trying their luck? This kind of flexibility has implications for the work safety and happiness of your cleaning staff, though, so do check with them before you decide to make this kind of offer.
Quite often if people have made this kind of request, I get in touch when they’re due to arrive and update them on the booking situation. If it turns out that there hasn’t been a guest the night before, and the house was cleaned straight away, then it will be totally fine for them to arrive early and I let them know as soon as that’s clear.
Because we have a combination lock on the door for guests to use, they can arrive at any hour of the day or night, once the house is ready, which is really helpful for guests.
How it works, day to day, in practice
So once you’ve listed your house, maybe for six months away, when you’re planning on going on holiday yourself, here’s what will happen next.
A note: I recommend that you don’t use ‘instant booking’ or whatever it might be called when you’re reading this, at least not when you start out. Instant booking means AirBnB just assumes that if your calendar is free, that they can accept a booking on your behalf. It’s handy for guests, and once you’re well experienced, you might want to go for it, but I’d say keep it simple to start with.
- You’ll get alerts on your phone and email that someone wants to make a booking, or has a question for you.Try to respond as quickly as possible to these – that’s really important for getting bookings and making life easy for your guests.
- Be really friendly! Guests want to know that you’re a nice person who is going to look after them and care about their stay going well. I mean, be friendly anyway, of course, but do make an extra effort in all your communications.If you read through some of my reviews, you’ll see that guests mention me by name a lot and say I was good to deal with – this is even though I have never met most of our guests in person. Friendly messaging goes a long way!
- When a request comes through, you can check the guest out by seeing what other hosts have said about them, if they’ve ever booked with AirBnB before. If someone is brand new, you might like to ask them a bit about their travel plans and get an idea of what they’re like – whether you feel comfortable.An important note here (which I sort of hope doesn’t need to be said, but, well, it does): if you are letting out your home while you’re not there, you are subject to human rights legislation, and cannot discriminate on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, and so on. That’s the New Zealand law, and I imagine a version applies in many other countries too.Check your biases here! It’s okay to decide that the person doesn’t have enough reviews or references to trust, but not that ‘they look shifty or unreliable’ if that is actually code for racism or other bias.
- You get to chat back and forth with the potential guest, within the AirBnB messaging system. You are not given any other contact details (because AirBnB wants to make sure it gets its cut and you don’t just abandon ship and make a private transaction), and if anyone tries to say ‘here’s my phone number’ it will be blanked out by their software.
- Remember that happy hosting and guesting is largely about clear expectations, so this is a good time to be clear about anything that might mean your potential guest will be unhappy with your house.You might want to clarify the bedding arrangements if it looks like they won’t fit comfortably (will everyone need to share a bed to fit? Do they realise that?). You might want to remind them that there are lots of steps to navigate, or pets to feed. There’s no point luring them in, only to have them have a disappointing time and say so in their review of you.They may have questions for you, about how close to various amenities you are, or whether the neighbourhood is noisy. Again, be really honest, so they can make a decision they’re happy with. Good reviews will get you more business than sneakiness!
- Once a guest has officially made a booking, you’ll get their contact details, and at this point you can send them the guide to the house, or any other information they need, by email, so they’ll have it handy when they arrive.At this point, the guest pays AirBnB, and AirBnB holds the money (and has the use of it – this is part of how they make a profit) and pays it to you only after the guest has arrived. So cancellations won’t catch you off guard financially later.
- At this point, make sure you’ve got all the details in your calendar, and you’ve made whatever arrangements you need to make with cleaners and so on.Be organised. AirBnB will send you automated reminders – it’s in their interest that you don’t forget the booking! But they can’t change the sheets for you or put the key in the lock-box, so set your own reminders, too.
How to write a guide to the house for your AirBnB guests (start by copying mine!)
When you arrive at a strange house, possibly in the dark, when it’s raining, and you’re carrying a suitcase, there’s a lot that can go slightly wrong that will cause you a lot of stress.
Our job as hosts is to make sure our guests have a lovely time, and do our best to eliminate all possible predictable stressors.
So much of this comes down to information and directions. I bet you’ve been in someone else’s house before and got frustrated that you couldn’t get the DVD player or wifi to work, or you couldn’t find the light-switch for the garage, or figure out how to work the heating.
Take your time, over a few weeks, to compile all of this information into one big master document that your guests can refer to. Send it to them by email when you accept their booking, or when they’re nearly at your house.
I spent a long time writing ours and I’d like to save you some time, so here it is! You can download it, copy and paste or adapt whatever’s applicable to your house, get ideas from our headings and so on.
Getting ready for your first guests to arrive!
So let’s say you now have a booking, and your first guests will be arriving in a week or so.
If you are anything like us, think of this as a great opportunity to do long-overdue tidying, decluttering, organising and filing of a year’s worth of papers piled on the kitchen bench… Allow a bit of time to deal with this kind of thing.
When you run out of time for all this ideal organising, just shove it all in a box in a cupboard somewhere! It’s okay to have a Cupboard of Chaos I mean, it’s okay to have a whole house of chaos if that’s what you’re charging for and advertising – again, it’s all about expectations.
We say clearly on our listing that this is our family home, that we just let out while we’re away. So no one should be surprised to find that our towels aren’t all the same colour, and there’s a crack in the bathroom window.
Tidying and Organising Checklist
Your mileage may vary, but in an average home I’d aim for a tidying-and-organising checklist something like this:
- Clear the floors: put all loose toys, clothes, shoes etc away – even if you can’t quite manage putting them into the ‘right’ place (try to pop all loose stuff into a basket, even if it’s still going to be out and in sight).
- Clear surfaces like the kitchen bench, dining table, the tops of dressing tables, bedside tables and coffee tables, and the bathroom surfaces. It’s reasonable to leave a tidy pile of stuff on a desk, I reckon (as long as you don’t mind it being knocked off accidentally!).
- Clear space in the fridge (and clean it!) – put all your food to one side or on specific shelves, so guests can easily keep their food separate from yours.
- Make sure it’s easy to access the washing machine and whatever guests will need to use with it.
- Make sure the entrance that guests will use is clear, with a bit of space for coats and bags.
- Check there are ways to heat all the rooms, including bedrooms, and they’re easy to find and operate.
- Unless you are letting your house for more than two weeks at a time, I think it’s fine not to empty drawers and wardrobe space – we never clear those out. People will have suitcases and most will be content to keep their clothes in them. It’s good to leave a few spare coathangers either in wardrobes or on hooks or coatstands so people can hang up business clothes, or special occasion clothes (you may have guests going to a wedding or so on)
You could make some labels
This is very much optional, and please, please, please don’t take this as encouragement for passive-aggressive notes about rules for your guests!
But a few written labels stuck around the house can be super helpful. This is the kind of thing I mean:
- ‘Please don’t turn this heater off at the wall’ – a small label, just by the wall plug/socket, so guests won’t have to restart the pilot light on the gas heater (this is a real one from our house).
- ‘Please close this door very firmly’ – another real one from our back door, which otherwise might not shut.
- We also have quite big, waterproof labels on all the rubbish and recycling receptacles, inside and outside, to make it easy for guests – who, by definition, aren’t from our city usually, so aren’t used to the systems from our local council. I made these mess-proof labels in a very high-tech way: I printed them out on normal paper and covered them completely with wide cellotape
- Labels stuck onto appliances can be helpful, reminding guests which button to press on the dishwasher, or which cycle to use on the washing machine.
Make sure any labels you print are kind, polite and simple. Always sound like a friend, not a nag.
Consumable things to make available for your guests to use
If you’re going to be out of town, it’s fine not to provide food for your guests. Some things to consider (and be clear about in your ‘guide to the house’):
- Tea, coffee, sugar, hot chocolate and so on – this is pretty standard in New Zealand, and you will find some guests are surprised if they’re not provided. No worries if you don’t want to provide these, but you might want to say so – something like ‘We don’t drink tea or coffee, but you’re welcome to bring your own.’
- Perhaps some small containers of long-life milk to go with the tea and coffee. If you want to provide fresh, that’s an extra errand for your cleaner or someone else to sort out, so we never do this.
- Boxes of tissues or similar
- Soap or body wash, at least for the hand-basins, but probably for the shower also, though most people will bring their own
- Plenty of toilet paper THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL Make sure extra is stored somewhere obvious (and perhaps say where it is in your house guide).
- Whatever detergent is needed for washing clothes and dishes
- Basic cleaning supplies
- In our guide to the house we encourage people to feel free to use spices and condiments – like cooking oil and vinegar and so on. We don’t want guests to have to buy their own big bottles of things they’ll only use a teaspoon of. This is clearly an issue: every time we get home we find four mostly-full bottles of oyster sauce or whatever we don’t have in stock, left behind by guests who can’t take them where they’re travelling next.
- We also say they’re welcome to use anything in the pantry and then replace it. We just want to make life easy, so if they haven’t been to the supermarket yet, and need to feed the kids, why not use our pasta or rice and replace it later?
What to hide away
The only damage we have had, in four years of letting our house out, is broken glasses, chipped plates, and missing puzzle pieces.
If you have any crockery or glassware you couldn’t bear to have chipped or broken, put it away. You could even buy an inexpensive set of kitchen things for guests if that suits you.
I think 100% of our toys have turned up somewhere, eventually, but puzzles and sets of things have certainly got pretty scrambled over the course of hosting. Guests don’t know where things are supposed to go, of course, so that’s inevitable. For any precious things, feel free to put them on a high shelf somewhere inaccessible. Otherwise, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to provide novel toys and books for visiting children.
Of course you should lock away things that are especially valuable – jewellery, heirloom knick-knacks and so on. If you don’t have a safe or an attic, it’s reasonable to just put a lock on a cupboard or even a small room in your house, as long as guests won’t assume they can use them (so make sure you are advertising the right number of bedrooms for guests to sleep in).
If you have serious food allergies (as we do in our family), you will need to put away any open jars (of spreads for instance) where they can’t be cross-contaminated, or cut your losses. It’s best to assume that your guests will bring in the foods you are allergic to – even with good intentions, people you don’t even meet can’t be expected to be competent at guarding against allergens when they’re not used to it.
Make sure your cleaner knows about your allergies, and will do an extra thorough clean of the kitchen and dishes. We’ve never had a problem, and we just make sure that the allergic person in our house never uses anything that was open when guests were in the house – he opens fresh jars of spreads and so on.
How to be the nicest host your guests have encountered
People are giving you a whack of money for a house you already live in. Make sure your pricing gives you enough wiggle-room, financially, to be very helpful and accommodating to your guests.
- It’s reasonably common to leave a little welcome gift, like some chocolates or wine. I don’t do this but it definitely makes a lovely impression.
- Offer to post anything that people leave behind, and don’t charge extra or expect reimbursement. It’s a small price and a kind thing to do. It happens reasonably often, of course, so just build that into your budget. (This is something my lovely cleaner takes care of as part of her tasks when we’re away.)
- Text or email after guests arrive to say welcome, and ‘is there anything you need?’ Usually they say no, and sometimes you discover they can’t get the heater to work or they can’t find the towel cupboard, and you can solve an easy problem for them.
- Let guests know if it turns out they can have an earlier check-in or later check-out.
- If there’s ever a significant problem that’s your fault or responsibility, do your best to put it right as soon as possible, and immediately offer a substantial discount. Not only is that the kind and right thing to do, it’s worth the money to you. A bad review – especially about something that you could have controlled or done better – is really bad news for your future hosting.The one time I stuffed up a booking and people arrived to a house that wasn’t ready for them (the beds hadn’t been made, etc), I responded immediately, was extremely apologetic, assured them I would not be charging for that night, and then ordered a fancy gift basket to be delivered to the house – as well as arranging the cleaning, of course.In the grand scheme of things, it was a small price to pay to make it up to my guests (and stop me feeling so bad about it!). They appreciated the heartfelt reparations, and I don’t think they even mentioned this HUGE problem in their review.
I feel like that’s a lot of information… But what have I missed?
Do have a look at the first post if you want reassurance that this is a great thing to do, and not as risky as you might think.
Now go and sign up, eh?
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