Illustration by Chris Reed
The sharing economy has hit the Valley. Notice strangers in your neighbors’ driveway? They just may be renters from online sites that offer visitors a chance to experience what it’s really like to live in Warwick — or Germantown, or Kingston — rather than stay in less-personal hotels, inns, and B&Bs.
I never pictured myself as Mary Frann, Bob Newhart’s wife in the 80s sitcom, Newhart, in which he played an innkeeper in a bucolic Vermont village. While I love having guests stay in my house, eat my cooking, and drink my wine, changing sheets, doing more laundry, and dusting aren’t skills that I have honed.
However, when a cousin, a real-estate professional, inquired if I wanted to rent out my home for a summer, I quickly replied, “Of course — not!” Why would I want strangers peering into my refrigerator or checking my medicine cabinet (like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride)? Even worse, what if they played my family baby grand with dirty hands? And would they remember the rule of today’s healthy traveler: Don’t put a suitcase atop a bed for fear of welcoming uninvited bed bugs?
“You might earn extra income,” my cousin relayed. My accountant informed me that renting would allow me to deduct and depreciate home improvements. Suddenly, the imagined sound of ka-ching became music to my ears. My head buzzed with possibilities — a new roof, one new bathroom, refinished stairway treads, a bigger deck. Suddenly, I realized that I had done something similar before. Writing a profile to rent my house was similar to the online dating profile I had crafted post-divorce. All I had to do was interchange the guy of my dreams for the renters I wanted to attract — respectful and cash-rich. Better yet if they didn’t ask to bring pets, children, or make what I considered excessive requests — like the one potential guest who wanted to host a rehearsal dinner. Mazel tov, but not here.
I lined up photos to post, studied the competition to determine my per-night price as well as what amenities they offered to be hospitable — breakfast foods, pods for a coffee maker, a welcome bottle of wine, information about area activities. I printed a list of my house rules and tried not to make it too off-putting: maximum of six guests; no food or drink upstairs; no use of my best dishes and crystal.
I posted my listing and waited. Requests poured in online. In response, I asked why they were coming and their professions, my form of vetting as a longtime reporter. Flattery from prospects often helped seal a deal: “You have a beautiful home” or “Great location!” At the same time, requests for lower rates surprised — and annoyed — me. I came to understand that anything is fair-game in the new economy. I also realized that I may have seemed inflexible at times. “I understand your dog is well trained, but I don’t permit pets,” I replied to one prospect multiple times. I also experienced some snarky remarks: “Why didn’t you say you were booked so we didn’t waste time emailing?” They were right. I updated my online calendar.
I didn’t flinch at the image of strangers sleeping in my bed, which surprised friends. “I could never do what you’re doing,” most said.
When the first guests came from their home in Rome where they owned hotels, I envisioned la dolce vita. They enjoyed their visit and asked to extend their stay. They raved afterward, too. “Barbara was a fantastic hostess… Her house is beautifully decorated…” Wow, this was easy, I thought.
It was in most cases, but there were disappointments. A glass was broken, lights were left on, I returned to an unsecured house. Fortunately, nothing was stolen. But I resented some guests’ less-than-appreciative attitude. When six 30-somethings came for a wedding, I texted, “Is all okay?,” thinking I was being maternal. I got a surprising reply: “It was unpleasant to receive multiple emails while we were staying in your house asking how things were going.” Whoa, I thought. Had I inadvertently channeled the late Leona Helmsley?
One family was unhappy with the master bedroom mattress, and a recently run but unloaded dishwasher. They were right, of course, but how about a dose of reality? This is a lived-in house, not a full-time business.
I’ve learned that I can handle constructive criticism better from a family member or friend, than from a stranger staying in my home. After all, my house is a mirror of who I am. Still, I’m growing a thicker skin — and learning to get the dishwasher unloaded pronto.
Barbara Ballinger is coauthor with Margaret Crane of the forthcoming book, Suddenly Single After 50 (Rowman & Littlefield). Read more by Barbara here.