7 Steps to Market Your Extra Space as a Vacation Rental

Photo: Ben Husmann

When my husband and I purchased our Manhattan condo, it was important for us to buy a two-bedroom.

Not only does the spare room encourage friends and family to visit more often — they don’t have to spring for an expensive hotel — but it also has become an extra source of income because, when it’s vacant, we rent it out to tourists who are seeking lower-cost accommodations with friendly locals.

For the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve welcomed into our home travelers from all over the world for a reasonable nightly rate. We’ve made great friends along the way, for sure, but we’ve managed to make a decent amount of money, too. Enough, in fact, to seriously offset our monthly mortgage payment. Check out this recent post to find out about some of the room-rental services we use — and exactly how much we’ve pocketed. (See also: 6 Weird Things People Sell for Cash)

Simply listing your property on sites like Airbnb and Roomorama, however, isn’t going to make your side business a success. There are other aspects that require fine-tuning to make this situation work to your advantage. The way I see it, there are more than 4,000 other entrepreneurial folks in NYC doing the same thing we are (though that will soon change due to a newly passed law), and I want to ensure that our guest bedroom is filled with paying customers as often as possible.

If you have extra space and live in an area conducive to travel or tourism, I highly recommend hosting travelers. To give you an edge over the competition, here are seven criteria to keep in mind for maximum results.

1. List Your Property on Travel Sites

When we first started this little business, we were strictly listing in the Vacation Rentals section on Craigslist. The geniuses (and I mean that wholeheartedly; they’re brilliant) at Airbnb contacted us after the site’s launch in 2008 and invited us to list with them. We continued with Craigslist but also took Airbnb up on its offer. Business increased dramatically. Then Roomorama, a similarly modeled site, debuted, and we took advantage by listing there, too.

Listing on three sites is certainly a lot to manage — especially in making sure that we’re not double booking (I’ve never had it happen, knock on wood) — but it means thrice the exposure. The travelers looking on Craigslist may not be on Airbnb or Roomorama, and vice versa. The best thing about Craigslist is that we receive the full amount of the rental, whereas with the other sites you pay a percentage of the rental as a listing fee. But the fee is so low — and we raise the rent on those sites a tad to make up for it — that it’s inconsequential. The popularity and power of Airbnb and Roomorama within the marketplace is so incredible, too, that our inquiries from Craigslist have significantly reduced. And I’m OK with that. Airbnb and Roomorama have many more advantages — automatic calendar updating, a photo portfolio for your listing, and direct deposit — that make this opportunity both manageable, fun, and financially rewarding.

2. Market Your Home as a Destination

There are an incredible amount of listings on the vacation rental sites, especially in well-visited cities, and to pique a traveler’s interest, you have to offer amenities. Our unit features an in-unit washer/dryer, HD cable, DVD players, and a LCD TV in both the living area and guest bedroom. We offer a mini-fridge stocked with simple breakfast items and snacks and a Keurig single-cup coffee maker in the private room. We have fresh Ralph Lauren towels, a Wii and Xbox 360, among other enticing items, which are all inclusive. These are perks that people want — they make their stay more luxurious and enjoyable — and they’re items that help the traveler choose us over another host offering less. In this business, the little things go a long way.

3. Write an Engaging, Entertaining Ad

Staying with strangers can be a precarious predicament, because you never really know who’s on the other side of the door. Even before the advent of the vacation-rental sites, I had written an ad for Craigslist that aimed to give the traveler an idea of who we are in a funny and charming way. Our guests have told us that the quality of our ad single-handedly sold them on the idea of booking with us. You can judge our ad for yourself. 

4. Vet Your Guests Before They Book

This tip ties in with writing an engaging, entertaining ad because 9 times out of 10, it’s conducive to conversation. My ad has motivated innumerable interested travelers to send me messages about how funny a certain part is, or how much they can’t wait to play Wii with us. With their response, they generally open up about themselves as well. From my end, it’s very important that travelers send messages that give me a little insight into the kind of people they are. If I receive a bland message that says simply, “How much per night?” or something with an equitable lack of personality, I delete it. A certain measure of caution must be taken when welcoming strangers to stay in your home, and the more I know about the travelers before they arrive, the safer I sleep at night.

Truth be told, there have been times that I have accepted bookings without really getting to know the traveler on the surface beforehand — and those folks, consistently, have been weirdos. Since then, I’ve learned to trust my gut. If someone seems shady via email, they’re probably much worse in person. That said, 99% of our guests have been an absolute pleasure to host; the weirdos are far and few between.

5. Keep Competitive, Affordable Rates

Rental rates will vary city-to-city, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. For instance, we live in Harlem and charge $90 per night during peak travel months ($110-$125 a night on holidays) while hosts in more desirable areas, like Chelsea, demand upwards of $200 per night — and if you can believe it, with far fewer amenities than we offer. 

I can’t compete with the units in the more convenient midtown and downtown areas, because if travelers have made up their minds about what area in which they want to stay, there’s little I can do to change that. Rather, I’m targeting the folks who want an excellent experience at a rate they can afford who are open to exploring new neighborhoods. With that comes the responsibility of researching similar accommodations in my area to guarantee that I’m undercutting the competition. The whole point of this venture is to book my guest room, and if it’s empty, I’m not doing my job. My number-one rule of thumb when it comes to the nightly fee is that I will reduce it to fit travelers’ budgets. For instance, during the slow winter months, typically January 3 to March 30, I lower the rate to $70 nightly. Still, I would gladly slash that rate in half rather than let the room stay vacant. $35 per night is better than nothing at all, in my opinion.

6. Provide a High Level of Hospitality

A big part of any business is repeat customers and referrals. Those play a part here too, but so do reviews and ratings on the vacation-rental sites. It is extremely important to me to provide my guests with the best experience possible — from clean linens and towels (and an immaculately kept home overall), to suggestions on where to eat and drink, to helping guests carry their bags if needed. When their stay is over I want them to feel like they got their money’s worth, made new friends, enjoyed their vacation, and want to leave an excellent review. Other potential guests will read that review before deciding whether or not to stay with us, so it’s a critical part of the process. The bottom line is that bad reviews will shut us down quickly. Luckily, all of our reviews are positive, which is a testament (and a source of pride) to the level of hospitality that we provide.

7. Ask for Feedback About the Experience

Ratings and reviews are one thing, but guests don’t often go into detail, especially if they’re leaving positive feedback. Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas of improvement to make the guests’ stay even better. I often ask our guests what they liked or didn't like about their stays, and I use their feedback to enhance the experience. Admittedly, though, that method can be off-putting, because guests don’t want to hurt your feelings while you’re standing in front of them, even if it's the smallest suggestion. To get more honest feedback, consider creating a suggestion box or feedback form that the guest can fill out upon departure. It lets them off the hook since you’re not in their face, and it will give you real information that you can use to be the best host you can be.

Do you host travelers to make extra money? What sites do you use? How have you fared? Feel free to tell me about your experiences — and provide additional tips — in the comments section below.

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Guest's picture

Great tips! One caution though: I've heard some cities in Canada adn the US are debating whether this is legal or not. Some condo owners haven't been happy with a steady stream of travelers coming and going in their building, and some people object to strangers constantly being in their neighbourhood.

Renting a room to a traveler sounds like a good idea, but I would never count on it as part of my income or as part of the price of buying a place. It would just be a nice extra :)

Mikey Rox's picture

NYC has already passed a law that will make it illegal for renters and homeowners who do not reside in the rental space full time to rent it out for less than 30 days, and even then you can't accept payment. However, the lawmakers have said that they won't hunt people down, it will only be enforced if neighbors, etc., complain.

Personally, I don't think it's anybody's business what I do with and in my own home. So long as I'm not impacting someone else's life, who cares. I think this sets a dangerous precedent. Does this mean that if I complain about noisy children, animals, the smell of weed, cigarette smoke, someone's gross food, etc., that those things will be banned soon, too? Unless people are getting hurt, everybody should mind their own business.

As for counting on it as part of your income, you definitely shouldn't. I've had friends who've seen the success that we've had with this want to move to two-bedrooms so they can do it, too. But I've told them that they need to be able to afford the rent on their own at all times. The winter months are very slow; we barely have any guests. But when it's peak season, the extra money is nice.

Thanks so much for your comment, Elizabeth!

Andrea Karim's picture

To be fair, Mikey, weed IS illegal. ;) For now.

And kids should be.

Mikey Rox's picture

It is, but as a neighbor I wouldn't infringe on people who smoke it. I can often smell it in the hallway, and I've asked people to politely put a towel in front of the door, but I would never call the cops on them. It's none of my business what they do behind closed doors so long as it doesn't impact me negatively.

Guest's picture

@Mikey -- I can see both sides of the story when it's a condo or apartment building. On the one hand, I agree that it's none of people's business, but on the other hand I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable living somewhere where strangers are constantly coming and going. (Many of the rentals I've seen nearby are on a night-by-night basis.) I chose a secure building for a reason, but I doubt I'd complain though until there were noise or vandalism concerns.

Mikey Rox's picture

I totally respect that. If my guests were causing problems, I can understand. But for people to tell me that I have to shut down this business because they don't like it - I don't get down with that. I don't like people stinkin' up the hallway with fish smells. And I don't like the hearing the baby scream its head off all day. But I wouldn't dare impede on somebody else's life and tell them what to do because I don't like the way they live. Furthermore, if I wanted complete privacy and nobody to bother me with whatever it is they're doing, I'd move to the suburbs and buy a house. I choose to live here and I accept all that comes with communal living.

Andrea Karim's picture

I've often thought of doing this, because our house is set up in such a way that would really be great for travelers. I'm just not sure that I could give up the stuff I really love - like having a second bathroom! Although our area is perfect for it....

Mikey Rox's picture

You don't really have to give much up. You have to remember that these folks didn't come there to visit you. They came to explore the city, which means they're gone most of the time. We've had guests for days that my husband never even met; they were out and about before he got up for work and came back after he was in bed for the night.

Andrea Karim's picture

We do utilize our downstairs space quite a bit, though, and I think the spare bathroom would be a good advertising point. I'm always up at 6:30. It would really be a matter of better organizing our lives, which is pretty much on the menu now, anyway.

Meg Favreau's picture

As someone who does her best cleaning when company is coming over, I also love how this would force me to keep my living space spotless. Then again, a one-room apartment is probably not the best place to host strangers.

Mikey Rox's picture
Mikey Rox

That is definitely a perk. The house is always in shape. But, it's also a lot of work. Some places charge an extra cleaning fee, which isn't a bad idea if it's nominal. It can be an extra motivating incentive when you don't feel like scrubbing the toilet every three days.