The summer vacation season is over, but the informal bed-and-breakfast that Jon Wye runs out of his house in the Brightwood section of Northwest Washington is hardly slowing down.
Since the spring, Wye, 35, has had a steady stream of guests renting out his three extra bedrooms for a month — and sometimes longer — at a time. A few are tourists. But the majority of guests are people relocating from other parts of the country.
The arrangement works for both: The guests get to stay in a homey place with a friendly host until they can find their own housing. And the sociable Wye gets to hang out with interesting people in his home and make some extra cash.
Wye is among a growing number of homeowners who list their extra rooms — and sometimes entire properties — on Airbnb and other online services aimed at linking hosts who have spare rooms with tourists and short-term tenants seeking a more cozy alternative to a hotel.
“I’m a small-business owner. The idea of a monthly expenditure for the house was daunting,” says Wye, who manufactures and sells graphic leather belts and other goods.
Wye said his sister, Pam Wye, a real estate agent who sold him the house, suggested that he could earn extra money going the B&B route — a plan that works well for him. “I’m a pretty social person — I enjoy learning about people,” he says.
Like other informal bed-and-breakfast operators in the District, Wye, who charges $850 to $950 a month for his rooms, has found a burgeoning demand from guests seeking neighborhoods in the city within walking distance of Metro stations, hot restaurants and other attractions.
In general, Airbnb, HomeAway.com and its sister sites Vacationrentals.com and VRBO make it easy for the hosts — they vet the guests, offer secure payment options for collecting the money and distributing payment to the homeowners.
The arrangement, nevertheless, is not for everyone. You often have to play social director for your guests. You have to keep your refrigerator stocked and make the kitchen available to folks who may want to cook. You have to be comfortable with a different set of strangers in your personal space on a continual basis.
And to top it off, you must make the whole experience exciting for guests so that they’ll be inclined to give you a high rating and a good review. Both are essential to draw more guests to your home.
While this might sound like a lot, for the 391 D.C. residents listed on HomeAway.com, it’s worth it for the second income. According to the Web site, the number of rental listings in the District has increased 124 percent from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2014.
“You see big bumps in the year around events like the Cherry Blossom Festival,” says Jon Gray, vice president of HomeAway Inc.’s North and South American divisions.
HomeAway, which started in 2005, offers rentals in 190 countries. This year it reached 1 million property listings, making its suite of Web sites the largest in the vacation rental market. In the District, HomeAway found that the most popular areas are Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, downtown and Columbia Heights.
“People are looking for a place to stay that is near attractions,” Gray says.
Gray adds that the “overwhelming majority” of rentals are second homes. “If you’re looking to rent your primary home, that’s fine, but make sure you’re outfitting it like a vacation home,” he says.
Still, earning the extra cash isn’t as easy as handing a spare key to a stranger. The home-share business model has been receiving more scrutiny lately from hotels and regulators in other cities across the country.
For instance, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering legislation that would legalize homeshares in exchange for stricter oversight that would require hosts to register with the city and restrict the number of days they could rent out their homes.
So far, the District hasn’t followed that path, but there are rental laws and other rules to consider.
A representative of Airbnb points to a section of its Web site titled “Responsible Hosting.” Under the permissions section is a special category for the District, which instructs users to check their zoning laws and obtain a Transient Use License. It also warns that the District “applies taxes totaling 14.5 percent that apply to various transient accommodations” and tells homeowners to check in with their housing authorities.
“Know the process — how to pay the taxes on your rental, how to make sure the property is available and that your HOA doesn’t exclude rentals of a certain length [of time],” Gray says.
Tynesia Hand-Smith and her husband, Derrick Smith, have rented out a basement unit with a bedroom, living room and kitchen in their rowhouse in Bloomingdale for three years in a long-term lease. Because their tenant is moving soon, they are preparing to offer the space to tourists through Airbnb. “We’re interested in it from a financial standpoint and like having the flexibility of having a space that wasn’t rented all the time,” says Hand-Smith, an interior designer.
Hand-Smith and her husband heard about the Web site last year from a friend, and while the catchy name was something they hadn’t heard, the concept was familiar. “My husband and I have a timeshare, and it’s a very similar situation,” she says. “[It has] the same amenities — you can stay in and cook, watch a movie. It offers the comfort of being at home. Knowing how we like to vacation, I’m surprised it didn’t catch on earlier.”
The concept is ideal for homeowners who often travel for work or relocate to another region of the country and may not be able to readily sell the property.
“I have a client who has a three-bedroom home that’s been on the market for 60 days,” says Hand-Smith. “If it doesn’t sell soon, she’ll make it available for [Airbnb] renters. You can re-market the home. It offers options for investors.”
Preparing a home to sell is different than opening it to travelers. Not only does it need to look good, it also has to be functional — real beds in the bedrooms and dishes in the kitchen. But one rule stays the same. “The photos have to be generic. No wedding photos, maybe pets, but you don’t want someone to feel they’re intruding,” Hand-Smith says.
For some homeowners and travelers, the social aspect is a huge perk of short-term rentals. Just ask Patrick Forrey, a homeowner in the U Street corridor in Northwest.
Camaraderie is what attracted him and his wife to the service. After having a renter in their basement unit for 61 / 2 years, they were able to explore their options when she moved out a few months ago.
“We love meeting new people,” says Forrey. “We’re doing it first for financial reasons and second for social reasons. You have to be a tour guide, and that’s not something you can take lightly.”
Rose Sahm agrees. She and her husband, Billy, own several traditional rental properties and have been renting space to tourists in their Friendship Heights home since the spring of 2013.
“Meeting people from around the world and country” is a great benefit, Rose Sahm says.
“We have people coming in to tour, to work, students coming in to look at colleges with parents. We didn’t realize that would be a plus for us,” says Sahm, especially since her husband has multiple sclerosis, which makes it difficult to socialize outside of their home.
“Everyone is different. Some don’t want to stay and talk. Someone prepared a Seder for us around Passover,” Sahm says. “We leave it up to our guests to give us a sense of what they want.”
Unlike some of the other homeowners, the Sahms do not have a separate basement apartment where they operate their B&B. Guests, who share their kitchen and living space, are regarded as members of the family.
“It’s a little bit different to make sure my kitchen is stocked at all times. I can’t run out of milk. It has required many midnight runs to CVS,” Sahm says. “With a [long-term] rental, you don’t have to think about it because it’s totally separate.”
Being perfect hosts is a major consideration when operating a B&B — high ratings are the key to success.
Each Web site offers tips for making guests feel welcome — something that should increase the homeowners’ stars. These tips include leaving out guidebooks, having city maps available or giving restaurant recommendations. Many homeowners have found that while these tips are helpful, the key to a good rating is genuine interest in their guests.
A guest named Caitlin wrote this review of Wye last month:
“Jon is an amazing host! I feel very fortunate that I got to live with him this summer,” she wrote.
“He answered every question I had and made me feel right at home,” she wrote. “The house is great and so is the neighborhood! Its not too far from the metro and downtown, but is far enough away that its a more relaxed environment [than] the rest of the city. Whenever I had any questions or issues Jon was more than willing to help or give me advice. If I ever come back to DC I am going to try and stay here again and highly recommend it!”
The hosts agree that the service attracts highly sociable renters with adventurous spirits.
“D.C. is the first place I used [Airbnb]. Since then, I’ve used [it] a few times in New York City; Brooklyn; Portland; Austin, Texas; Amsterdam,” says Katie Deolloz, a Dallas-based home-schooling mother of 11- and 8-year-olds. The family travels often, a perk that comes from her husband working for Southwest Airlines. “We get to stay in a part of town I might not be able to afford in a hotel.”
Deolloz says she prefers that the homeowners be present so she can interact with new people. “I want to meet them and learn about a person whose lifestyle is completely different from mine,” she says. This is an aspect she values even more for her children.
“I like this sharing economy and entrepreneurship,” she says. “We have to be able to trust people. I view it as an education in life.”