Before Airbnb was a glint in anyone’s eye, my husband, an HR manager, and I, a content developer at the time but now a freelance writer, decided to rent out our bungalow near Churchill Downs in Louisville for the famed Kentucky Derby. We were shocked to find that people would pay the equivalent of our monthly mortgage per night for a three-night stay — but we didn’t get off to a great start when our first guests scammed us with a bad check. Even after we wised up and got paid in advance from then on out, when Airbnb came on the scene we started using the platform just to be safe.
Fast forward to 2013: We fell in love with Detroit after visiting and, drawn by the energy of a comeback city, decided to buy a $17,000 house there and stay part time, near my husband’s family. We ended up with a triplex, so — knowing we couldn’t leave it empty or risk break-ins — we fixed it up floor by floor, renting one flat long term and the other two on Airbnb when we weren’t there.
In these earlier days, systems weren’t in place like they are now for things like co-hosts or management companies, smart locks, and specialty cleaning companies, so suffice to say it was a challenge to handle long distance. We made back some of what we’d spent, but the learnings were invaluable.
Tied for lesson one and two? Learn how to accurately set expectations — and weed out guests looking for a party pad. I also learned that most people don’t read instructions, and that, sadly, some people will break things and not tell you.
But overall I loved introducing people to a city I was passionate about, and the chance to change the narrative. The majority of guests were great, and came away sharing my love for Detroit.
Still, it was just too hard running a hundred-year-old multi-unit property from 400 miles away, so we decided to sell it once we bought a great big fixer upper in Old Louisville. I sold the Detroit house lock, stock, and barrel as a rental property — right down to the silverware and pillowcases — and gave some coaching to the new owners on how to successfully run an Airbnb. I was so proud when they became superhosts!
We bought our new old house with a private third floor entrance specifically to Airbnb, and immediately there were roadblocks. My husband was unexpectedly laid off, and our city rolled out a new short-term rental ordinance that seemed designed to all but prohibit Airbnb in our historic neighborhood.
We faced a choice: Burn through our savings to renovate the third floor for an Airbnb — not knowing how long it would take my husband to find a new job, and with no real idea what kind of occupancy we could expect —or play it safe and leave it an ugly attic. After much discussion, we decided the best thing to do was plan for multiple streams of income so that if we ever found ourselves in dire straits again, we would at least have rental revenue.
That meant weeks of an arduous and costly application process that culminated with a public hearing where the zoning board, thankfully, approved our application. We were fortunate to have the support of our neighbors, who understood the economic impact of having guests spend their money in local businesses (and who trusted that we would be responsible hosts).
After several months of renovation work totalling close to $30,000, we launched Vertigo Louisville (named for the steep, vertigo-inducing outdoor stairs guests use!). Two years later, we completed work on a more modest redo of the garage apartment, investing just a few thousand dollars, and launched Little Carriage House on the Alley.
As I write this in the second week of September, my Airbnb dash tells me I’ll earn about $4,150 this month (it’s a good month!). When I broke down my last 12 months, after the biggest expense (cleaning), I brought in about $30,000. That includes a year with Vertigo, two months with the new Carriage House, some walking tours I do with my dog through Airbnb Experiences, and renting out our main house — all three floors — for the Kentucky Derby (that alone brings in almost $10,000).
According to Airbnb’s numbers, in the last 12 months Vertigo has averaged 73% occupancy (based on my available nights, and I often block out dates we travel and holidays), while the market average in Louisville is 42%. My average nightly rate in the last quarter is $102, while the median locally is $90. Since opening our second full-time Airbnb, we have averaged around a dozen stays per month, combined. For the upcoming year, I plan to increase my prices a bit, which will likely decrease the occupancy (which I want; running two rentals somehow seems like more than twice the work of running one).
Based on my previous experience and knowledge of the market I expect to bring in between $16,000 and $21,000 per Airbnb after cleanings but before taxes and other expenses. If I land on around $35,000 for this year, that pays our mortgage and utilities for our entire property and then some. (I’ll also continue the walking tours, which could be another few thousand.)
I couldn’t reach the earnings I have without stellar reviews. And — knock on wood — I’ve only ever received five-star reviews for both Vertigo and Carriage House.
With a background in travel writing, I’ve had the chance to stay in and write about some of the best hotels in the world. And I’ve found that the biggest difference between a $300 a night and $3,000 a night room comes down to service. So I do everything I can to give guests the kind of service I’ve experienced at those top hotels. That means I essentially serve as their concierge, helping them make the most of their stay with my insider tips. And I think about all the details so they have everything they need to stay comfortably, from enough outlets to real Kleenex and make-up remover to quality linens.
I also write a lot about (and have a passion for) design, so I ensure the spaces I rent out are beautiful, stylish, and of course ready for Instagram. Beyond looks, I think carefully about how spaces will be used, so we periodically stay in our Airbnbs ourselves. Of course, none of that matters if the space isn’t immaculate, so I have a multi-page checklist for the cleaners and I personally check the space before every single check-in.
But honestly, I think I get five-star reviews because I genuinely want my guests to have an amazing experience, and that shows. This isn’t just about money for me, because trust me, there are easier ways to make a living.
The internet is awash with self-proclaimed experts telling you how to make a killing with “passive income” through short-term rentals. And if you want to buy a property, spend a few bucks, and hire a company to handle everything, sure, you can make some money. But if you treat it like an investment, not a passion, it’s going to come through in the guest experience. When my guests need something, they can reach me personally, and I’m on the property. That means I sleep with my phone by my bed, with my current guests’ number set as a favorite so it will ring through. There’s nothing passive about that.
And there’s nothing passive about checking and perfecting the space before every guest arrives, or chatting with my guests and making sure they have what they need, or surprising them with treats for their dogs, or — in one case — helping them with their elopement.
Competition is brutal, and I won’t lower my prices (my aversion to the Groupon effect of discounting rates is a whole other story) so I have to compete on the quality of the experience. That means I spend time and energy on every single person who stays here. It’s not passive, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dana McMahan is a freelance writer and Airbnb superhost who calls bourbon country home. She’s a serial renovator usually at work on the 1887 behemoth she shares with her husband, two dogs, and a parade of travelers in her attic and carriage house Airbnbs. She writes about travel, food, and bourbon; home, design, and real estate; and Airbnb hosting for a slew of national outlets. Learn more at bodybybourbon.com, check our her popular Airbnb, and follow her on Instagram.