Rental sites like Airbnb.com let anyone put their spare couch, bed or house up for rent. The upsides for hosts: Greet people from all over the world, and pocket some cash for their efforts. The benefits for guests: Stay at unique places for a fraction of the price of a hotel room.
But staying at someone’s home isn’t quite the same as a hotel. There’s etiquette for both host and guest to follow so that both parties get the most out of the experience.
Charge less first, then raise your rates, but be realistic. Figuring out how to price your place can be tricky. Charge too much and you won’t get any bookings; charge too little and you won’t be making as much as you could. Keep in mind that Airbnb earns its cut by doing a 6 to 12 percent markup on the listing price, so if you list a room for $100, Airbnb lists it for $106 to $112 and takes that extra money. But because it can be tough to get bookings on a site like Airbnb without a solid base of reviews, you may want to undercharge at first.
Jane Hodges, a business journalist whose new book about renting versus buying a house will be published this spring, listed the basement of her West Seattle home in April. Initially, she charged $55 per night and immediately got a ton of interest. Now her rate is $61, with a two-night minimum. She probably could charge more but the basement is not completely finished, particularly in the walk between the bedroom and bathroom, and she’s upfront with guests about that.
Chris Williams, a retired teacher in the former gold mining town of Nevada City, California, decided to list the granny flat and a few spare rooms in her home on AirBnB to create extra income. She, too, started low on the pricing, but as her guests left rave reviews on the website, her rooms started showing up higher on the search listing, and she eventually had a full calendar of bookings. Still she keeps her rates lower than she could — $35 to $45 per room, with a two-night minimum – because the kitchen, living room and outdoor patio are all common areas, and she doesn’t serve meals. “I realize that the rooms aren’t as private as hotel rooms, so I don’t feel I can charge as much.”
Use the professional photographer. Airbnb offers to send one to new listings so that quality photos of your room appear on the site. Both Hodges and Williams had photographers who routinely shoot for realtors’ property listings come to their homes. Take advantage of that. Because the photographers know what they’re doing, they generally will do a better job emphasizing the assets of your home better than you can. Also, Airbnb-commissioned shots feature a “Airbnb.com Verified Photo” watermark on the site, which makes potential guests believe that your killer apartment actually exists.
Consider a two-night minimum. Of course, if you’re starting out as a new listing, it’s wise to go short to build up your list of reviews. Once you earn those, it’s better financially to go for longer-term guests. “I’ve turned down requests for people who need a place to stay for a night, will arrive at 11 p.m. and leave for the airport at 6 a.m. Ditto for people who want the place on the same day. It takes time for me to get the place ready — wash up, dust, vaccum, shop for breakfast” says Williams. It’s not worthwhile to do that day-in, day-out, especially if you’ve got a life, and daily maintenance will eat into those rental fees.
Ask guests to contact you first. At the top of your listing, ask that people send you a note inquiring about availability before trying to book. This serves as a test for whether they actually read your listing before attempting to book, or were simply dashing off requests to everybody in a five-mile radius. It also allows you to communicate with potential tenants, so you can decide whether or not you feel comfortable taking them as guests. But respond to every message, even if it’s only to say that your place isn’t available. Airbnb tracks and publishes what percentage of messages you reply to as your “Response Rate,” so having a high number makes you look like a more receptive host, and it puts you higher up in the search rankings.
Fill out a detailed profile. That means a real photo of you (smiling, of course), and a bit of information about who you are. A filled-out profile reminds potential guests that you’re a real person. Also, make sure you list your neighborhood. Airbnb listings allow you to tag your place by neighborhood. It allow users who are searching for particular neighborhoods (say, the neighborhood of Williamsburg in the vast borough of Brooklyn) to find you.
Screen potential guests. If somebody who contacted you via Airbnb has no reviews or an incomplete account, ask them to send a bit of info about themselves. You want to know as much about a potential tenant as possible because you are letting them into your home, after all.
Also, you want to make sure it’s a good host/guest fit. Some hosts like to hang out with their guests and show them around town, other prefer that guests be as self-sufficient as possible. Williams is the former. She asks guests what brings them to town, so she knows what advice to give them to make their trip more fun. “I’ve found that just about everybody is happy to share that info. If they refuse or ignore the request, I consider that a warning sign, and I move onto the next person.”
Offer the basics. Good linens and towels (including washcloths) are a must. Hodges recommends good bedside lighting and a table or stand to put a book and a glass of water down on at bedtime. She also includes a coffeemaker and a cold breakfast of granola bars and fruit (cheap and easy to purchase). Williams puts hairdryers in every room, and takes mini bottles of shampoo and conditioners from her hotel trips to put in her guest bathrooms. “I can’t tell you how many guests told me that I just saved them luggage space. Anything you can do to lighten their luggage load is a plus, and makes them feel like they are staying in more of a hotel-like environment.”
Do not try to book without communicating first. Airbnb is not Expedia or Travelocity. Just because a date appears to be available on the calendar does not mean you can stay there that night. Message the host, introduce yourself , tell them what brings you to town, then ask politely if your requested dates are available.
Read the entire listing before messaging. Don’t waste the host’s time by asking questions with readily available answers like “are you near the airport?” or “do you have a kitchen?” You look like a undesirable guest and you’re far more likely to have your request rejected. “I don’t want to be their mom,” says Hodges. “If they book decently in advance and do research on the area, I am happy to fill out the cracks.”
It’s not a hotel. That means you should have some basic courtesy when it comes to cleaning up after yourself and making noise. Remember that your hosts have lives, too. One of Hodges’ biggest annoyances is guests who don’t say what time they’ll arrive. “Some people are not specific when they’re coming, so I’m stuck in the house waiting for them. Now when they book, I ask them to give me a two-hour window so I know what time to be here when they arrive.”
Williams’ pet peeve is guests who bring “extra guests” home at night. “You’re a few steps up from being a stranger in my home. I don’t want total strangers as well.”
Fill out your profile. The same rules apply to guests as hosts. “If your profile makes you look friendly and decent, I’ll usually allow you to book,” says Williams. That means a real (non-threatening) photo of you, and some information about who you are and where you’re coming from. More than anything else you do, this will raise the percentage of your reservation requests being accepted.
Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance.