Inaugural Landlords

Homeowners become entrepreneurs, turning crowds into cash with rentals

January 14, 2013

Lara Hawketts, left, and her fiance, Alex Fuentes Gonzalez are renting out a spot in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood for the inauguration.

Every four years, Washington plays host to that magnificent symbol of democracy: a presidential inauguration.

And every four years, locals toy with the idea of making big bucks by renting their homes out.

Lending your place to inauguration tourists sure seems like an easy way to make a month’s rent in 48 hours. They’re starry-eyed and excited about democracy; you’re over it and want to avoid the crowds.

As the inauguration nears, some locals are getting into the vacation rental industry, finding help from such websites as Homeaway.com, Airbnb.com, Flipkey.com and Vrbo.com, which help owners list their homes for temporary rental.

“It’s ridiculous, the amount of inquiries,” says Lara Hawketts, 37, a business development director who uses those websites to rent out her Brookland home’s basement apartment to visitors. By late November, she already had a wait list for inauguration weekend.

“People know that they can capitalize on the market being saturated and hotels being in super-high demand,” says Emily Joffrion, Airbnb’s director of consumer strategy.

And higher demand means higher prices.

“The average price for that time period is about $600 per night for a two-bedroom, and those same rentals on average go for about $280 a night,” says Jon Gray, vice president for North American business at Homeaway.com. “So the prices have effectively doubled over that period.”

Hawketts says she’ll be charging double her normal price. “I don’t want to rip people off,” she says. “I think it’s fair to charge a bit more, but there is a limit.”

The price increase is par for the course with inaugurations. For 2009’s inaugural weekend, 98 percent of hotel rooms in the District were booked at an average rate of $605 per night, according to Smith Travel Research.

“We love the inauguration,” says Kate Gibbs, media relations manager at Destination DC, the official convention and tourism corporation representing Washington. “It’s like having an Olympics, but always here.”

Of course, conventional wisdom holds that this inauguration will be sleepy compared with 2009’s history-making affair.

The D.C. tourism folks disagree. Though Gibbs wouldn’t speculate on how many people we should expect on the Mall this year, at least one vacation rental site is booming.

“I … expected that a second inauguration for any person would have less demand,” HomeAway’s Gray says. “That’s not what we’re seeing.”

The site saw a 389 percent increase in interest in properties in the D.C. area just after the 2012 election, compared with the same time in 2011.

Some of that increase could be attributed to growth in the vacation rental market during that time, Gray says. “But the vacation rental market hasn’t grown 400 percent year on year,” he says.

Of course, even with the increased demand, success isn’t a guarantee when renting your home to visitors, even for inauguration weekend.

One woman who used Craigslist.org to list her place received two emails in response to her ad: both interview requests from reporters.

 

Gateway Experience

Renting your place isn’t as easy as putting money in the bank. “Most people don’t realize how much work it is,” says Lara Hawketts, left, with her fiance, Alex Fuentes Gonzalez. They’re renting out a spot in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood for the inauguration. “You’re to-ing and fro-ing with someone about whether they want the property, and they’re asking all these questions,” she says. But a successful experience can be a gateway drug to more vacation rentals, says Emily Joffrion, Airbnb’s director of consumer strategy. “[People] try it and they realize there’s a huge benefit to hosting,so they try it for other events or for weekend getaways.” Hawketts has had so much success that she and her fiance have created something of a side-business helping friends rent their homes. She says she’d like to do it full time one day. B.M.

Beth Marlowe is a senior editor at Washington Post Express. She has written for The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Bloomberg Television and other publications.
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