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Earn $37k a year by hosting travelers

Short-term room rentals via Airbnb or similar sites offer a way to make extra cash -- or, maybe, to make the mortgage payment.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 26, 2012 1:37PM
Image: Family vacation © Bounce/Uppercut RF/Getty ImagesAfter spending 16 years in arts administration, Michael Beard got laid off. Fortunately, he and his wife already had a side business in place: renting rooms through Airbnb, an online company that matches travelers with short-term accommodations.

The former side hustle is now his full-time gig. "In this present economy, making a job for yourself is probably a lot more productive than looking for existing jobs," says Beard, of Silver Springs, Md.

Can a B&B biz really pay off?

It has for the Beards. Gross income from Airbnb and another company called Roomorama totaled $37,000 last year. This covers a big chunk of the mortgage on their five-bedroom home, bought during the housing boom in 2005. (Post continues after video.)
Hosting isn't for everyone. You're inviting people you don't know into your home, and, after they're inside, you need to take care of them. Those beds don't change themselves, you know. Eileen Beard is a nurse-midwife and teacher; before she gets to her day job, she's usually spent a couple of hours helping her husband with the cleaning and laundry.

But you could look at this as not just a way to make extra cash but as the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. That's how Tracy DiNunzio views the 18 months she spent hosting from her apartment in Santa Monica, Calif.

"It's a great way to make extra cash," says DiNunzio. "But it's also a great way to allow a little adventure into your life."

Or to change that life. The $28,000 net income funded her startup, Recycled Bride. And speaking of brides: DiNunzio's first-ever guest is now her husband.

Guests and hosts

Airbnb, which operates in more than 19,000 cities worldwide, has been called "a social B&B network" and a "peer-to-peer hotel" system. But unlike the CouchSurfing travel community, you get paid in dollars rather than karma. Airbnb collects the money and takes a 3% fee from hosts before sending the money through PayPal.

Just as with a regular B&B, location and amenities matter. The Beards are a short Metro ride from Washington, D.C.; DiNunzio lives close to the beach. Hosts who offer special touches -- freshly baked cookies, the use of a bicycle, tips on local attractions -- will stand out in the Airbnb listings.

You can't get away with cheaping out or being cranky, because guests have the option of posting reviews of their experiences. But that works both ways: Hosts get to review guests, too, so you'll know if a customer is, say, particularly needy.

As a host, you have the option to decline a reservation if you think the client wouldn't be a match. For example, DiNunzio was a night owl who declined to rent to the early-to-bed crowd.

Risk vs. reward
Obviously, hosting is not without risk. In July 2011, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a host's home was burglarized and damaged by a guest. Shortly after that, Gawker published a report about a host who unwittingly rented to meth addicts who trashed the place and stole money and personal belongings, including his birth certificate.

Airbnb has a protection program for hosts in 18 countries; it's not insurance per se, but it will cover up to $50,000 worth of vandalism and certain types of theft. (The company advises hosts to "remove or secure" items such as cash, jewelry and collectables.) The Beards had a problem with just one group of visitors, several young women in a "party" mood who did minor damage. Otherwise it's been smooth sailing, they say. DiNunzio never had any problems at all.

For some, the potential risks are just too scary. But renting rooms could help you get out of debt or to fund a dream.

A few other things to keep in mind:
  • Make sure it's legal to rent rooms in your area.
  • You'll need lots of sheets and towels.
  • Fall in love with daily cleaning. Would you stay in a hotel where the tubs got scrubbed only every couple of weeks?
  • You have the option of seeing a guest's full name before accepting a reservation. Do it, lest you find yourself hosting that guy you dumped 10 years ago.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.