Confessions of an Irish Airbnb host
It began as a way of making some easy money but quickly became so much more. House-proud Dave Robbins comes clean about putting his home on the rental site.
I saw the taxi pull up outside, heard the footsteps on the path, listened for the doorbell. I was as nervous as a Mount Anville girl on debs night. Outside stood our first Airbnb guests, a Dutch gentleman and the person he referred to in his emails as his "lady friend".
The house was cleaner than it had ever been - and emptier. As I went to open the door I noticed a scuff mark on the hall skirting board. Would they see it? Would they mention it in their review? And what about the fridge door that doesn't close properly, and the tear in the sofa fabric?
Putting your property up on Airbnb sounds so easy - rent a room or a whole property and make some easy cash. What can possibly go wrong?
But it's not as simple as that. The first thing that happens is that you start to look at your own home through what my wife came to refer to as "Airbnb goggles". You see every flaw and mark and chip, every blemish and stain, every crease and imperfection. You suddenly see your home as a renter would see it.
But before I open the door to the Dutch gentleman and his lady friend, let me back up a bit. A month or so before we'd had one of those conversations that happen in a marriage every now and then. A stock-taking, a state of the union, an annual review. Or in this case, an EGM.
I had just started a PhD and was receiving a "modest" scholarship from DCU. My wife had just left her job as a magazine editor. We had a hungry child and a hungrier dog. The phrase "funding our lifestyle" began to be bandied about.
So one night we sat opposite each other at the kitchen table and reviewed our assets with a view to maximizing them. It didn't take long.
"If only there was some way to make some money from the house," I said.
"I know," said my wife. "Airbnb."
For those who still stay in hotels and book their holidays through travel agents, Airbnb is a web-based home-sharing service that has taken over the world, and possibly Mars too. (Early reviews lament "complete lack of atmosphere".)
In the beginning it was gloriously simple: Bohemian, arty, studenty types rented out their spare bedrooms to Bohemian, arty and studenty tourists. It was cheap, cheerful and nobody looked too closely at the skirting boards.
Plus, there was a vicarious pleasure to be had from nosing around other people's bedrooms - and lives. Part of the attraction was meeting the hosts and getting the inside track on your destination.
That was way back in 2009. Then, it seemed like a slightly more together version of the idealistic, hippy-dippy, free-for-all couch-surfing trend of the early naughties. Since then, however, Airbnb has gone mega, with over one million listings in 190 countries, including 80,000 villas, 4,000 castles, 9,000 boats and 2,800 tree houses.
In 2013 the company had revenue of $250m (€234m) and according to sources quoted in the Wall Street Journal, is telling investors that 2015 revenue will be $850m.
The company predicts income of $10bn by 2020 and says it will become profitable by that time. In June, it was approaching investors for funding of $1bn based on a valuation of $24bn. It has just 1pc of the global lodging market and, according to the same newspaper, would need to hit 10pc to achieve that 2020 projection.
In Ireland, figures are hard to come by. The Airbnb media department did not respond to requests for information. But they have said elsewhere that the number of properties listed in Ireland is growing at about 200pc every year.
A search recently on the Airbnb website showed that there are over 1,000 properties listed in Dublin, 399 in Galway city, 657 in Galway county, 623 in Cork county and 167 in Cork city. Oh, and one three-bed terraced house in Dublin 6 with a scuff on the hall skirting board.
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Averages prices are €111.19 per night for an entire property (€133 in Dublin), €52.52 for a private room in someone's house, and €33.26 for a shared room. Having looked at prices in our area we decided that €300 per night was about right.
Those Airbnb goggles, though, they show up a lot of flaws. They're like X-ray specs for the house-proud. Here are some of the things we saw through them:
* Chips in paint in hall, bathroom, TV room and sitting room. We repainted the lot.
* Wonky marble fireplace. We had it taken out, reconditioned and replaced.
* Over-stuffed wardrobes. We got the attic floored so we could move our stuff up there out of the way.
* Patchy lawn out back. We laid a new one.
* Old towels and bed linen. We bought new ones in Ikea.
* The shower leaked. We recaulked it.
* Bashed-up antique writing desk. We had it French polished and replaced the leather inset.
That's why the scuff mark in the hall was so annoying. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The Dutch gentleman and his lady friend were very pleasant. I took him on a mini tour of the neighbourhood. In the meantime, the lady friend had a look around. When we came back I saw her exchange a curt nod with her companion, as if to say: "It's clean".
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They stayed for a week while we went elsewhere. We heard from the neighbours that they had the blinds pulled down all the time. We heard from the local coffee shop and wine shop that they were "lovely".
When we returned we found some anti-bacterial wipes, an air-freshener spray and several boxes of tissues. The words "Howard Hughes" suggested themselves, and that was before I discovered they'd cleaned out the detergent drawer of the washing machine.
Our second guests were more, well, mainstream. They had just got married in New York and were having the Irish leg of their wedding celebrations in Dublin. The husband was from Dublin originally and the wife was from the US. They met online, they said. You do hear interesting stories as an Airbnb host. It's a bit like being a concierge in a Maigret novel.
They too left the house spotless and were very complimentary about their experience. We felt that Airbnb glow you get when someone likes and appreciates your home.
Both sets of guests gave us 5-star reviews and we reviewed them favourably too. The Airbnb website is pretty easy to use but be warned: some of Airbnb's cut comes out of your rental. They take 3pc of the hosts' fee and charge guests 6pc to 12pc as well.
"So," said my brother a few days after our last guests had left, "how did that Airbnb thing go for you?"
"Expenditure about €5,000. Income about €3,000," I replied, Micawber-like.
"Right," he said. "Did you see that they're giving Revenue all the details of their hosts' income? You might have to review the expenditure bit."
Dave's house is no longer available on Airbnb.