The Coming Airbnb Reckoning
Owning a second home sounds lovely. Making money from it actually takes work.
Sheetless in Seattle
A few weekends ago we all headed down for a friend’s beach town wedding. As has become the norm, instead of each person getting their own hotel room, a group of 14 of us rented one oceanfront house. It’s the Airbnb strategy that usually works: pay less per person for equal or better amenities and/or convenience.
We walked in and immediately got the sense that the owners themselves spent very little time there. Not a problem: they had bought a desirable property and decided to make money from renting it. Who could fault them for that? A quick walk around the house, however, uncovered that they also spent very little time thinking about us, the renters.
Looking for hand soap and paper towels? Nowhere to be found. Bath towels for each person in the house? Keep looking. Sheets for our beds? “It wasn’t promised in your rental agreement.” We argued in return that a roof wasn’t necessarily promised either, but to no avail. Sheetless nights lay ahead.
The Tweeters Want Better Service
Hidden cameras, missing basic amenities, a list of chores guests have to complete before leaving – renter complaints have started to rise in the social mediaverse. And while platforms like Airbnb and VRBO still haven’t figured out how to handle each complaint the right way, there is a more fundamental place to start, and that’s with the homeowners themselves.
Remember that halcyon period of 2021 when interest rates were low, stocks were up, salaries were popping and all your friends were buying second homes to generate income? “You can too!” online courses ran amuck and articles were everywhere about couples that had converted rustic cabins into perfect “work from anywhere” getaways. Theoretically this was a good thing for the rest of us, as opportunities multiplied to spend weekends in new places around the country.
Unfortunately, these new second homeowners forgot one key thing: they were entering the service industry.
Two Things Are Harder Than One Thing
First-home ownership by itself is hard. Things break. Things get dirty. But we live there so we suck it up and spend the time and money to keep it nice. Now imagine being a second homeowner who rents it out. Those same things will also happen; in fact, they will happen more because the people living there will treat it like it’s not theirs, because it’s not.
But the whole point of buying and renting a house was for a simple source of extra income. What happens when it becomes a time-suck? Someone might suggest using a management company that charges a percentage of revenue, but that would make your extra income smaller, so where’s the point in that?
Except who is going to find and evaluate a cleaning person who will come in-between guest stays, one who will be available on Saturday and Sunday checkouts? And who is going to find a new one when that cleaning person quits two months in? Your rural “work from anywhere” getaway also happens to be in the middle of nowhere where the cleaning options are few.
Or what happens when something breaks? Odds are you won’t even learn about it until the next guest comes in and calls you up in the middle of a workday. Are you going to drop everything and fix it or take the risk of getting a bad review? Suddenly your weekends are spent helping other people with their weekends.
The recent wave of complaints we’re seeing seem to have started with new second homeowners who got into the game with eyes half-open. Their emergence also coincides with the movement to put more responsibility on the guests themselves. Bring your own sheets so I don’t have to wash them! Sweep floors before you leave! Feed my neighbor’s cat!
You Are Now “The Man”
But the “bnb” in Airbnb is Bed and Breakfast for a reason. You’re getting paid to provide a great experience and put up with all the headaches that you yourself give hotels and rentals when you vacation. That’s the deal you made. Just because it happens to be your house doesn’t mean renters will feel some overwhelming gratitude for the privilege of staying there. We’re just not that kind of society. Your house is equally likely to get the same terrible treatment that hotels see each and every day.
People default to 5 star reviews out of habit. That’s going to change if newer owners think they can get away with “well I never explicitly said you’d get bath towels”. True, you never did. But we never explicitly said you were magically going to make money on your second Covid home either.
The service industry is the human industry, and your second home is a conveyor belt of humans. Your magic money machine, your second-home-as-a-business, depends on you making them happy.
I do wonder: is that the business these new owners thought they were getting into?
P.S. Of course I know renters can be terrible humans as well.