Thinking of taking in paying guests? Three veteran Vancouver hosts share tricks of the trade

Emily Plommer knew from her own experience staying at Airbnbs that it was frustrating to rent an apartment with a full kitchen and discover that there wasn’t so much as a salt shaker or bottle of cooking oil in the cupboards.

So when Plommer, an avid traveller and then 26-year-old women’s studies grad, decided to make a living through hosting two years ago, she made sure the rental suite in her house in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood was well provisioned. Pots and pans and utensils. Basic cooking supplies, like oil and some spices. Milk and cereal. Coffee beans. Fresh fruit. Eggs.

Then she found that she was making a lot of banana bread with the leftover, disintegrating fruit or eating the cereal herself. “It was funny how people would book a place like this and then eat nothing at home,” Plommer says. “In the end, I just asked, ‘Will you be eating breakfast here?’ before leaving things out.”

That’s just one of the small lessons Plommer learned as she transformed herself into an amateur hotel operator, as many others around the world have done with help from Airbnb, FlipKey, HomeAway, VRBO and other such online services.

Plommer and her partner rented out a spare room in their house for about a year. Then in 2015 the landlord asked if they wanted to take over the basement suite, so they began renting that unit as a self-contained one-bedroom apartment.

Like others, they figured things out as they went along. Plommer, who now lives in Calgary, has started a consulting business for people planning to earn money through renting out a room or an apartment.

Her major piece of advice is actually not about supplies. It’s about being in charge of who is coming in. “When you’re starting out, have more control,” she advises. “So I would say not to use the Instant Book feature [on Airbnb].”

That feature means that anyone who puts in a request for certain dates is automatically accepted if the room is open. That’s different from the slower method, where someone wanting to book sends a message to the host and at the same time they’re encouraged to give some information about themselves, why they’re visiting the city and what they like about the listing. “If someone sends an inquiry like that, you get a good vibe,” notes Plommer. “You get a sense of why they’re coming.”

That can be particularly important if the person is from the same city, a circumstance that can set off alarm bells. Sometimes people need a temporary place to stay because their house is going through a couple of days of unlivable renovations. But other times, those who book in the city where they live are looking for a place to throw a party, which may not be what you, the host, signed up for.

Of course, the type of housing you have and the neighbourhood will influence the kinds of vacation renters you get. In hip, east-side Strathcona, Plommer got a lot of younger and budget renters. Off-site hosts who are renting out large houses with multiple bedrooms seem to be more appealing to partiers as well, judging by the extensive, sometimes daunting, rules those hosts often post about noise, parties and potential fines.

Travel: Airbnb2
Credit: iStock

Some owners of short-term rentals offer guests a fully stocked kitchen

Patti, a 60-something woman who runs an independent consultancy in her non-hosting life, has been renting out a one-bedroom basement apartment in her Dunbar house for four years. She never has to worry about partiers. She and her partner, who handles the bookings, are in the middle of a solidly residential neighbourhood close to UBC and several private schools. As of April, their place was booked through to September, almost all of their guests either young couples, perhaps with a child, visiting relatives or older couples seeing children at university.

Like Plommer, Patti found that providing food is hit and miss, although she continues to do it, as well as furnishing the kitchen so it’s like cooking at home. People appreciate that. “Some eat everything, others nothing,” she says. “Our experience is that, unless people are coming for a month, they’re not cooking much. If they’re there for three nights, not at all.”

As for what else to supply, it varies. Guillermo Serrano, who rents out a bedroom in the three-storey Yaletown condo he shares with his partner, added hand rails in the bathroom, put non-slip material in the bathtub and on the edge of each stair between the second-floor bedroom and the ground floor, and installed motion-sensor lights. “For us, safety is the main issue,” says Serrano, who works as a corporate trainer in communications.

Patti spent about $10,000 to furnish her unit with inexpensive but tasteful furniture, which included a new couch, comfortable bed, coffee table and more. Emily Plommer said she only spent about $300. There was some furniture and supplies already in the suite, and she did some strategic thrift-shop purchasing to add to that. She estimates it would have cost another $250 for nice linens and towels if she hadn’t had those already.

All emphasize that, as the host, you get to set the rules. If you want to make the kitchen off-limits, you can do that. If not, you can spell that out. “In ours, you can use the kitchen—you’re kind of like a house guest,” Serrano says. As well, he and his partner have two dogs, which they worried might be off-putting. But they weren’t about to get rid of their pets, so they forged ahead. As it turns out, almost every guest comments favourably on the resident animals and how much they like them.

None felt the need to go to quite the lengths that Airbnb recommends: folding the first sheet of toilet paper into an origami shape; putting out fresh flowers; hanging original art by locals; providing art supplies so guests can express their creative side.

But as a frequent Airbnb guest, I can attest that—after you’ve driven all day, navigated your way through a strange city in a foreign language, retrieved the keys from the exotic hiding place and mastered the multiple locks—a bottle of wine sitting on the counter is an awfully nice sight.

To Give and to Get

A few tips for would-be hosts on provisions, pricing and protection

ESSENTIALS 
• Nice bedding
• Clean, luxurious towels
• Coffee  
 
RATES  Rates
You can set your own price. A host with a one-bedroom basement suite near UBC in Vancouver has been charging only $105 a night for years. Or you can let Airbnb modify the price, according to demand, allowing it to rise on weekends or for events where accommodation is in short supply. A couple who rent the spare bedroom in their Yaletown condo say it usually goes for $100, but it has rented for as much as $180 on some nights.  
 
InsuranceINSURANCE 
Homeowners planning to rent out a room or a whole unit through an Airbnb-type service should check with their insurer to see if they are already covered or should purchase something extra, advises Aaron Sutherland, a spokesperson for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, Western and Pacific region. Some companies are starting to offer special add-on coverage. “It’s a relatively new product line, and it’s going to vary by company and product, whether you’re renting out a single room or entire home,” Sutherland says. “Often the risk is different for those.”