Home-sharing – the best of times, the worst of times?

Home-sharing websites like Airbnb, HomeAway and FlipKey give those with extra space the opportunity to earn money, but is it worth the hassle?

By Steve Smethurst

We tentatively entered the home-sharing market earlier this year after relocating from London (the UK capital, population eight million 1) to St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly (28 miles off the Cornwall coast, population 2,000 2).    

We suddenly found ourselves with a bigger house, a spare en suite bedroom and an extra three hours in the day from not commuting. So why not put it to good use and tap into the local tourist market. How hard could it be?

Overall, it’s been a positive, life-enhancing experience, but there have been times when we’ve questioned our decision. For example, we’re quite clear in our Airbnb profile that we offer a self-service breakfast of cereals and toast. We have an eight-year-old and a grumpy cat to sort out in the mornings, as well as our normal jobs to think about. We, therefore, made an early decision that no-one was going to get a full English.

So, it was something of a surprise to go downstairs one morning to find a guest had rummaged through our cupboards in search of a frying pan and was cheerily cooking himself some eggs. 

“I’m so sorry,” said his wife. “I told him he should have asked first.”

Another time, a guest asked if she could borrow a pair of scissors. “Sure,” we said.  She returned five minutes later complaining they were too blunt and could she borrow a better pair. It turned out she was giving her husband a haircut and the first pair “just weren’t sharp enough”.

The thought of having our newly refurbished guest room being covered in newly shorn hair wasn’t something we were quite prepared for and, ever wary of a bad review, you have to bite your tongue. It’s times like these that you have to remind yourself why you’re doing it. 

Money, money, money

Several companies facilitate homestays, such as HomeAway, One Fine Stay, FlipKey and Airbnb. The latter claims that the average host makes in the region of £3,000 per year 3

For most hosts, money is the driving factor, but a recent Aviva survey of hosts and visitors 4 noted that 63% of respondents saw home-sharing as a good opportunity to meet new people. A further 42% thought it was a good way to boost self-esteem by showing off their property and gaining ratings/feedback.

Our experience certainly backs that up and, some minor quibbles aside, every one of our guests would be welcome back. 

It’s worth noting that the UK government’s rent-a-room scheme allows you to earn £7,500 tax-free each year from letting a spare room, annexe or even your whole home – so long as you are living in the property at the same time as your guest(s) for at least some of the letting period. 

We share our home with guests – they get an en suite bedroom and our lounge (we’ll reclaim it in the winter), but others take a slightly different approach. Katri Iivonen-Gray, co-owner of Chilli Jam Vans in Cornwall, houses her guests via booking.com in a refurbished extension that they previously only used when their family came to stay. 

“We’ve got a standalone property on Airbnb,” she says, “but we decided that we’d try short-term lets in the annexe to see whether that would give us more income. One thing I learned quickly was to take a deposit to guard against any damage.”

Katri says nothing’s ever been broken beyond repair, but on a couple of occasions, the property's been left in a shocking condition. 

“One time, it was horrendous. Everything was on the floor and there was mess and sand everywhere. Even the sheets were beyond washing.”

Thankfully, she says, these instances are rare. 

Accidents happen  

But while they might be rare, calamities do happen. Adrian Taylor, who shares his house in West Wittering, West Sussex, with up to six guests, also has a cautionary tale.

Adrian recalls that after he had settled one family in, he heard a huge commotion. He says: “One of the parents came around and said she was really sorry, but they’d brought some finger paints and their daughter had painted all over the walls and the bedding in one of the rooms.

They cleaned up as best they could, and the wall was fine in the end, it’s just the carpet that still has a slight mark on it. We thought the bedding would be ok, but the paint wouldn’t wash out. It was an accident, so I didn’t charge, but when you have to buy new bedding, it wipes out any profit you make.”

Adrian, who is now into his third year of hosting, confirms that most guests have been quiet, clean and tidy: “We certainly have nice people most of the time. It’s not a party place, doesn’t attract that type.”

Seasonal income

As a freelance graphic designer, Adrian entered the home-sharing market as he found that more employers wanted him to commute to London and increasingly it wasn’t viable. “Without the additional income we might well have had to sell up and move out,” he says. “It is a big house and it’s just the two of us for most of the time.”

One of Adrian’s big learning points has been how few people take in the information you give them. “I’m always curious as to how much people read in the profile before they visit,” he says. “The amount of people who say: ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were two bathrooms,” or ask if they need to bring towels. But it’s all in there.”

Katri agrees: “I always email people to let them know where they can park, what to expect, check-in times and where the key is. People don’t always read it.”

What Adrian and Katri could both do with, however, is more certainty around future bookings, particularly out of season.

Katri says: “Overall, we’re very pleased. We’ve been fully booked over the summer and I’ve always had last-minute bookings, so I’m hoping that I’ll get some of those later in the year. I’ve got a few bookings already for next year, and they’re quite a bit longer, so, we’re very hopeful that it will be all right.”

Likewise, Adrian is considering reducing his prices over the winter. “We found pricing really difficult. We eventually came up with a figure of £200 per night as it’s for six people. But we would accept less out of season.”

Tales of the unexpected

Adrian recalls that he once received a call when he was taking his dog for a walk. “Our guest rang to say that her husband and their son were trapped in the bathroom as the lock had broken. I had to explain where she could find a screwdriver. We ended up putting new locks on all the bathrooms to be safe!”

So far, our biggest surprise on Scilly has been a good one. Our first weekend of hosting visitors coincided with the World Pilot Gig Championships, which is held on the islands each year. To properly cash in, we said yes to five burly rowers staying, even booting our son out of his bedroom to maximise earnings. 

We were somewhat nervous as we’d had lots of warnings that the rowing crowd could get a bit wild, especially after the final race. But our visitors were a revelation – giving us an insider’s view of the racing, being super quiet around the house and even loading the dishwasher for us. 

So, if you are considering throwing open your doors, be prepared for potential headaches!