Short-Term Rental Host

A big part of my life since Nov. 2016 has been serving as a short-term rental host, via listings on Airbnb and VRBO/Homeaway. I initially turned the family home, Hansen Woodland Farm, into a short-term rental after my husband divorced me. The business has been very successful. A little less than two years later, I bought a second property 1.8 miles away from the first one. As I write this, the second property, Wolverine Woods, has been open for about a month and enjoying strong bookings, but I’ve decided to turn it into a long-term rental for 6 months to a year. Stay tuned for January 2020 when Wolverine Woods will relaunch as a short-term rental. I have also experimented with campsites at both properties; had a few campers in 2018. We’ll see what 2019 brings.

Interested in renting a stay at Hansen Woodland Farm?

Here’s a chapter I wrote in Short-Term Rental Success Stories from the Edge about overcoming the fears of starting the business.

 

No Time for Fear; Too Busy Making Guests Happy

By Katharine Hansen, PhD

Starting a new business is scary. The risk factors are enough to frighten any would-be entrepreneur. But what would it be like if NOT starting the business was an even scarier proposition?BookCover

That’s the position I found myself in back in September 2016 when my husband completely blindsided me by telling me he was divorcing me and moving out of state. How would I support myself? I had a small income from online teaching, but it certainly wasn’t enough to maintain a 40-acre farm.

Thus, I was terrified. In a 32-year marriage, I had become rather dependent on my husband. Would I have the will, strength, wisdom, and guts to find a way to make it on my own?

One idea was tickling at my brain. I was fortunate that we had two homes on our property. We had purchased the adjacent property shortly after moving from Florida to Kettle Falls, WA. We didn’t really need a second home, but buying the contiguous property would help maintain our privacy and perhaps be a good investment.

I had worked slowly on re-modeling the second home, which is a double-wide modular, with the idea of turning it into a short-term rental (STR) someday. At the time of my husband’s bombshell pronouncement, the house was probably a year away from being STR-ready. My fear settled in as I contemplated how to support myself in the meantime.

Then, my soon-to-be ex made a suggestion that I’d like to think I would have eventually come up with myself: Why not turn the primary residence into the short-term rental? Eureka! I certainly didn’t need to be rattling around by myself in a four-bedroom home. Having been built in 2009, the house was in much better condition than the modular home was. It could sleep more people. It would need very little work and time to get it in shape.

I moved into the modular home and got to work in the STR-to-be converting an office and a fitness room into bedrooms. My ex even built me a set of bunk beds for one of them!

As I prepped the STR, I began to conquer my fear of managing the physical space. I was handling it! But a whole new set of fears creeped into my consciousness. I live in the rural boonies, outside a tiny town with a population of 1,600. Who has ever heard of Kettle Falls, WA? How would people find me? Who would want to come to this obscure area? Would I actually get any bookings?

I listed the place on Airbnb, with the intention of starting to take bookings about two months hence. “Opening day” was to be Nov. 13. I got my first booking starting Nov. 14. That was encouraging, but it didn’t quell my fears that bookings would be few and far between.

The rest of 2016 was slow, but by about February, the bookings engine was humming along nicely, and summer was almost completely booked.

Where were these guests coming from – since I was so sure no one would ever find or want to stay in Kettle Falls? I had anticipated that my guests would be mostly families taking in the recreational aspects of being near a National Forest and a National Recreation Area along the Columbia River. In the summer, that was the case, but the rest of the year, I had all kinds of guests – couples seeking a getaway, family reunions, people in town for a wedding or graduation, writers’ retreats, a nuns’ retreat, business people, folks looking to buy real estate in the area, hunters, boaters, and anglers. I was surprised that most my guests are from Washington, many of them from as close as Spokane, just 2 hours away.

My biggest amazement, however, came from how much people seemed to love my place. No guest we’d ever had in the house when we were living there ever said anything about how the place looked. But my STR guests rave about the décor. Contrary to current trends, I adore bright colors. You can tell me till you’re blue in the face that white walls are more marketable, but I will never change my brightly colored walls.

I’ve had 5-star reviews since the very first booking. 100 percent. I became a Superhost the first quarter I was eligible and have remained one. The volume of bookings I got went a long way toward helping me past my fears and making me feel successful, but it was the reviews and accolades that truly jazzed me. Ask me today my definition of success, and I’ll tell you in two words: Delighted Guests.

I am not analytical and not a numbers person. Many STR hosts would probably be aghast at my amateurish bookkeeping and the fact that I have reinvested quite a lot into the business. But I measure my success in happy guests. As long as I can pay my bills, I consider myself a financial success. I know many STR-ers would balk at my lack of emphasis on profit, but it works for me. I believe that if I continue to put my guests first, I will experience both financial and emotional abundance.

Further, I am constantly looking for ways to make them even happier. When guests arrive, they are greeted with a seasonal wreath on my front door. Once inside, they encounter a welcome card and bottle of wine, as well as some sort of flowers or a potted plant. Early on, I bought fresh flowers for guests before I realized what a costly practice that would be. In the spring and summer, my area is riot of wildflowers, so now I just cut some of them. I leave a small supply of breakfast items to get them started. I added a firepit and a “FirePit Fun Kit” (s’mores supplies and powder that turns the fire colors), as well as puzzles and games.

I believe the circumstance of moving out of my family home to turn it into an STR has been part of its success. While I removed virtually every personal item, what was left behind made for a much more “like home” feel than some STRs. It’s not sterile. It’s engaging to look at. I left behind books, DVDs, CDs, art, and knickknacks. Some hosts would eschew the “clutter” and fear theft, but since the contents of the house are working for me, I’m sticking with them and have decided nothing in the house is worth getting upset over if it gets broken or stolen.

The “former family home” aspect also makes it especially well equipped. In a review, a guest said, “If you can’t find it in this house, you don’t really need it.” The kitchen is especially well supplied and offers unusual small appliances, such as an ice-cream maker.

Interestingly, Airbnb’s new Plus program has motivated me to go further to delight guests. Now, I have no illusions that Plus will come to Kettle Falls in my lifetime (I’m 64). But I’m still motivated to make my place Plus-worthy. Plus hosts, for example, can’t have any beds that are directly on the floor, so I got a bed frame for my one bed that was like that. I’ve upgraded my bedding. I have a wish list of other Plus requirements I want to meet.

I still have fears about cleaning and maintenance, especially because I do my own cleaning. I was mortified when I once forgot to clean the shower, and guests pointed out the dreaded human hair in the drain. Anytime a guest makes a complaint I consider complaint-worthy (aforementioned hair in the drain, surprise ant invasion, hair dryer not working – even though it actually was), I give a token refund of $25. The gesture is worth it to me keep guests happy. However, sometimes I get carried away. Recently, I fully refunded a guest who complained of no hot water. I assumed the water heater had gone on the fritz. The hot water was fine when I went to clean the next day. The guest’s wife must’ve had a heck of a bath or shower that used up the supply. But the incident did push me get my act in gear to upgrade from a 55-gallon water heater to an 80-gallon so that the larger groups arriving this summer don’t have to wait for water to reheat between showers.

I have moved so far beyond my fears and attained such a high from delighting guests that I am itching to expand. I was approached by a couple of camping versions of STR platform, so I developed 6 campsites that are available for booking this summer (one booking so far). Next summer, I want to turn the shop on my property into a bunkhouse. I’m intrigued by possibly doing farm stays and inspired by a guy in a Facebook group who uses his property for a sport called “trail-running.”

But the biggest twinkle in my eye right now is the property about a half mile away that I am now under contract for. After all, even if you are fully booked year-round, you have only so many nights in a year, so the way to expand is with more properties. I stumbled across this new property accidentally and felt it was affordable. The land is amazing, with a creek running through it. The house and cottage on the property will take some work, but remodeling is truly the fun part for me. The place offers lots of intriguing rental combinations and is close enough to my existing STR to handle overflow groups from that listing. I can’t wait till I close on the property and can start listing it.

In Summary …

My story is about how I turned fear into success – which to me means delighting guests.

My 3 fears and how I overcame them:

  • Fear of not being able to support myself: I targeted a path I was already interested in – becoming an STR host ­– and found a way to make it work optimally.
  • Fear of failing as an STR host for lack of bookings: I focused on customer service and creating a wonderful experience for my guests. Certainly word of mouth, great reviews, and repeat guests have been a major part of my success.
  • Fear of not measuring up in terms of cleaning and maintenance: I continue to do the best I can and get cleaning tips from the various STR social-media groups. For example, a Facebook group recently had a thread about hosts offering barbecue grills. One commenter remarked on what a pain they are to clean. Ulp. Clean? Would you believe it never occurred to me to check on whether the grill had been used and clean it? I also give small, token refunds for legitimate complaints.

 

 

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