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VOL. 37 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 6, 2013

Strangers in your House

Willing to rent part of your home like a hotel room? What if it paid your monthly mortgage?

By Linda Bryant

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The Great Recession didn’t put Jeff Thorneycroft out of business, but it significantly reduced the month-to-month revenue at Retroluxe, his 17-year-old design and branding firm.

With bills mounting, Thorneycroft found himself looking for an alternate income source and found it in his own yard overlooking the Cumberland River.

Thorneycroft, 50, had talked to a friend who was making a healthy side-income by renting a portion of her home through Airbnb.com, a San Francisco-based rental website that helps property owners book rooms, apartments and homes to travelers from around the world.

“The rest is history,” Thorneycroft says. “I started booking through Airbnb in February, and much to my surprise the bookings came right away. I’ve had steady business since and, in May and June, I was booked every single day.”

Thorneycroft is not alone. Dozens of Middle Tennessee residents are advertising via Airbnb.

“The money I make from Airbnb has paid my mortgage since I started,” Thorneycroft says. “It is now a major part of my income.”

Airbnb says it’s booked more than 10 million nights to date and insists the overwhelming majority of guest/host experiences are positive.

Some negative experiences can be found if you search online for “bad experiences with Airbnb” or “Airbnb Hell.” Alternatives include VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), Roomorama, Wimdu, HomeAway and others.

A series of Airbnb horror stories related to the ransacking of apartments in London hit the press in 2011, which led the company to provide $1 million in insurance and a 24-hour support line for hosts.

Airbnb says posting a fake property and running off with the money is impossible because the company holds payment to the owner until 24 hours after check-in.

‘Hot new thing’

Jeff Thorneycroft’s home overlooking the Cumberland was booked every night in May and June after just a couple of months of listing on Airbnb.

-- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger

Thorneycroft charges $80 a night for the entire south wing of his house in Inglewood. The circa-1929 home sits on a lush one-acre parcel overlooking the Cumberland River on Brush Hill Road. Guests have a private bath but share a kitchen and living room equipped with a baby grand piano and numerous musical instruments.

Guests book rooms through Airbnb’s extensive website, which lists more than 300,000 rental properties worldwide in over 33,000 cities in 192 countries.

Listing a property is free, but the company charges the host a 3 percent host service fee each time a booking is completed.

The fee covers the cost of processing guest payments and charges users a 6-12 percent service fee every time a reservation is booked.

Massage therapist Linda Jane Sack, an East Nashville resident who has been an Airbnb host since 2011, says Airbnb’s booking system is streamlined and easy to navigate for users.

“I don’t have to touch a dollar, and I really like it that way,” Sack says. “I can turn my attention to creating an environment where people feel comfortable, special and welcome.

“Airbnb keeps track of how much I make.”

Sack was reticent about becoming an Airbnb host at first.

“I knew it was the hot new thing and it was exciting,” Sack says. “But it felt awkward. I live in a very small house, only 780 square feet. I wasn’t sure it would work out.”

Positive reviews count

Like Thorneycroft, Sack got immediate response to her Airbnb ad.

“I got responses right away and found out early on that the people (guests) are great,” Sack says. “I ended up really loving the experience. It’s been so much fun. It’s like a way to travel without going anywhere.”

Income from Airbnb has allowed Sack to scale back her with her massage business and spend more time with individual clients rather than worrying so much about having a full work calendar.

The kitchen table at Thorneycroft’s Inglewood home has been turned into a guestbook filled with signatures of those that have visited.

-- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger

“I didn’t expect to get so busy so fast,” Sack says. “I feel like Airbnb came along at just the right time. Many of us were still feeling the impact of the down economy, and it gave us a solid way to bring in more income.”

Airbnb hosts gain clout and high rankings in their respective cities for getting positive reviews from guests. Thorneycroft and Sack have many.

Chicago resident Kris Spilker recently stayed in Thorneycroft’s home with her sister Kym.

“It was our first stay with Airbnb,” Spilker says. “Everything about our stay went beyond our expectations.

“Jeff was an incredible host, giving us space but being available to us when we needed him. We all connected at a deep level and spent so much more time together than any of us expected. Every aspect of his place is inspiring and inviting.

“What else can I say,” Spilker adds. “We will absolutely go back to stay with him.”

A little paint, a little touch up

Newlyweds and new East Nashville homeowners Dan and Kailey Faber listed the house’s upstairs loft on Airbnb.

Kailey Faber says the couple’s investment was less than $500 and amounted to buying new linens, towels and pillows and sprucing up the upstairs space with paint and decorations.

“We recently bought our home and were surprised when we found out how much money it takes to maintain it,” Kailey says.

“We’re going to put some of the money back into the house and also start a savings and travel fund.”

Like Thorneycroft and Sack, the Fabers got an immediate response to their Airbnb listing. The $50-a-night room is booked until the end of 2013.

Thorneycroft says he spent about $8,000 getting his home ready for Airbnb, money that was spent on everything from electrical wiring to art to furniture. He is considering adding on to his home or converting his garage to create more rental space in the future.

“Overstock.com has become my greatest resource,’’ Thorneycroft jokes.

Sack moved from the downstairs of her home to the attic in order to accommodate Airbnb guests. She spent money on the attic conversion and routinely invests in fine linens and duvets to keep her Airbnb bedroom fresh and appealing.

“I also hired a cleaning person who comes in once a week, and I am diligent about keeping gardens,” Sack adds. “It all goes into making this feel like a vacation retreat destination.”

Is it safe?

Potential Airbnb hosts and guests often wonder about the services safety. The Fabers, Thorneycroft and Sack all insist they haven’t had a negative experience with guests thus far.

“It’s a new experience every time, but I haven’t had any weird experiences. I hit it off with most of my guests,” Thorneycroft says.

“Many guests are in their 20s and 30s, and they come from all over the world. They come ready to enjoy the Nashville experience. I’ve made some good friends, and I’ve realized that hosting makes me very happy.”

Thorneycroft often takes the time to give guests a tour of Nashville and sometimes joins them for dinner.

It’s not unusual for there to be spontaneous music flowing from his music room.

He points out that the Airbnb review system, which encourages guests to write in detail about their experiences, acts as a built-in radar system for filtering out potential problems. Guests are encouraged to heavily research reviews to determine which rentals will have the highest liklihood of being a good experience.

“The Airbnb rating and review system really makes it worth it,” Thorneycroft says. “It doesn’t behoove me to be a poor host.”

Sack has had a similar experience to Thorneycroft’s. Yet, as a single woman she takes extra precautions and rents only to couples and women. She also usually only takes in guests who have written reviews of other Airbnb experiences.

If a person hasn’t written a review Airbnb, she will email the individual and ask for a reference.

”I’ve had people decide not to come because I asked for a reference,” Sack says. “That’s OK. If they can’t make that step for me, I probably didn’t need them as a guest.

“I think there’s something like a code of honor with Airbnb hosts and guests,” Sack says.

“There’s a self-selection that takes place. A level of trust happens that’s hard to explain. I also choose to believe that there’s a greater force of good that helps me draw good guests.”

Many of Sack’s guests are travelers who want to take advantage of her close proximately to East Nashville’s burgeoning foodie scene.

“I’m 500 feet away from a flock of restaurants, Jeni’s Ice Cream, Ugly Mugs, Wild Cow and Eastland Café.”

Sack says many of her guests are parents and grandparents visiting their children, but she also gets a high percentage of creative, artistic types.

“I have a music room and a piano where guests can sit and play music and sing,” Sack says.

“Recently after attending Bonnaro, a guest wrote a song in the music room.”

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