The World on Your Doorstep

Slew of sites make it easier to rent your home to travelers

March 29, 2013

Donna Reynolds began renting the extra rooms in her Hyattsville, Md., home through the website Airbnb.com.

Would you ever post an ad on the Internet inviting strangers to pay you to use rooms in your home — like a hotel?

That’s exactly what Donna Reynolds did in late 2009 after retiring from 33 years as a phone company cable splicer. She read a newspaper story about websites where people rent out part or all of their home to travelers. She thought it sounded like something fun to try.

In today’s hyper-connected culture — where virtual and real worlds collide — sites such as Airbnb.com, Wimdu.com and Roomorama.com are allowing people across the globe to open up their homes to visitors.

Reynolds, 59, was looking for a new adventure. She had three extra rooms in her house in Hyattsville, Md., so she posted a listing on Airbnb: up to three rooms available for only $60 per night. “I’m not doing this so much for the money — although that’s a big help,” she says. “So I keep it really cheap.”

Within a month, she got a few nibbles, and by the following spring, travelers from as far away as China and Africa were coming to stay with Reynolds.

The house can accommodate as many as 15 people, so a lot of her guests are families. Many are home-schooling their children and visit D.C. for its educational value.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Reynolds says. “The stories you hear from people? It’s just been incredible.”


Donna Reynolds has kept track of the far-flung hometowns of the families who have stayed with her.

You don’t have to own your place to participate in the short-term renting craze. Even renters can share their empty beds and couches with others.

To make some extra money during the inauguration in January, Jay Vilar, 34, tried Airbnb for the first time. He and his boyfriend rented their leased Columbia Heights three-story rowhouse to a group of five.

“We could not have asked for better renters,” Vilar says. “They were 100 percent respectful of the house.”

In addition to cleaning up after themselves (including washing and folding their sheets), the renters left a list of things they used in the kitchen such as milk and butter. “They even said, ‘We took four shots of your whiskey,’ ” Vilar says.

Because all potential guests might not be quite so perfect, the short-term rental websites offer screening systems to help hosts evaluate guests (and vice versa).

On each website, individuals create profile pages where they can provide photos and a bit of personal information. Guests and hosts can then post reviews of each other, which other members can view to help determine if they might be a good match.

“I will easily feel comfortable with [potential guests] if they’ve stayed with other people on Airbnb and they have reviews,” says Melissa Torres, who has used Airbnb as both a host and a guest for more than four years.

Torres rents out her entire Logan Circle loft when she travels or just her sofa bed when she’s home in D.C. She chats with potential guests via email and does a little Google research before accepting any reservations.

When it’s the sofa bed up for grabs, Torres says she’s more comfortable renting to women. “There’s the issue of toilet etiquette, and just bathroom and general privacy,” she says.

Torres lists on Airbnb as well as Roomorama.com, a European site. “I like a European tourist, more so sometimes than an American tourist,” she says. While home sharing is relatively new in the U.S., it’s been a popular way for Europeans and Australians to travel for a long time. “I think little by little, Airbnb has kind of opened that door to Americans,” Torres says.

For additional peace of mind, some websites offer insurance against damage to your home. But host beware: Be sure to read the fine print to make sure you know what is covered and whether your location is even eligible.

Airbnb provides what they call a “Host Guarantee.” They will reimburse hosts up to $1 million for property damage or theft, with the exception of things such as cash, jewelry, rare artwork and pets.

“It’s a good idea to put in a safe or firebox for all your small valuables and important documents,” says Emily Joffrion, Airbnb’s communications director. She encourages hosts to buy their own traditional home liability insurance in addition to Airbnb’s protection.

In addition to safety and security concerns, landlord-tenant laws can make short-term rentals difficult and, in some areas, potentially illegal. The New York Times reported in November that some hosts in the U.S. were facing fines in the tens of thousands of dollars for renting their homes through Airbnb.

“The laws vary from city to city, building to building, unit to unit,” Airbnb’s Joffrion says. (See box below for D.C. laws.)

Despite these potential licensing hoops and the possibility of property damage or worse, the rewards of short-term renting far outweigh the risks to Torres. But if you want to try it, she says you need to be the right kind of person. “If people are very attached to their things, and they are going to be nosy and annoying to their guests, then I don’t recommend that they do it,” Torres says.

“You’ve got to love people, and you’ve got to appreciate things like sharing your home and sharing your things with people,” she says.

Keep It Legal

How do you ensure you are renting out your home or apartment legally? Check with your municipality’s office of regulatory affairs, such as the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (1100 Fourth St. SW, 202-442-4400) to learn how to keep things on the up-and-up. “If you want to rent something out legitimately just for temporary transient use, then you need to go to DCRA, and you need to get a hotel license basically,” says Joel Cohn, legislative director of the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate.

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