I plod up the stairs carrying my suitcase in the wake of the brisk, white-socked feet of my Airbnb host. Carmen lives in a narrow, turn-of last-century brownstone in Philadelphia, built from local sandstone. The entrance is just a few steps up off the sidewalk and it is another two flights on to my bedroom.
Everywhere I glance are stunning prints, and objects de art. The walls are carefully painted hues picking out the warm colours in the prints. My room once reached is lovely with billowing lace curtains, sponge painted green walls and a floral bedspread. A small woman in her 60s Carmen is not only spiritual but garrulous. After hearing I had flown in via San Francisco she regales me with stories of her own adventures of hitchhiking to San Fran as a teenage runaway. There she moseyed with the last remnants of the Beat Movement.
‘They actually treated me well. I was just a silly kid and they really looked after me.’ On returning to her family and schooling she had an affair with her art teacher twenty years her senior. ‘Two kids later and I discovered he was more into men than women. I got the house and brought up the kids until they left home. My career became my life. But an old high school beau recently contacted me through Facebook. Old flame — new love.’ My host appears to have her life together. A beautifully decorated home, a noted career as an art lecturer and artist, a long lost love, and a keen interest in world affairs. I observe her shaking her fist whenever Trump or Kim Jong-Un should dare to darken her television screen.
But something is a smidge puzzling. Every few minutes Carmen seems to yawn and I don’t think I am that boring. And the daily breakfast is welcome but it never varies — freshly brewed Italian coffee followed by a bowl of muesli, with plump blueberries and a meticulously sliced banana.
Also, for such a talented woman Carmen seems to spend a lot of time in front of her TV watching mindless Australian soapies. She says she likes the suburban architecture and listening to the broad accents. These are the things I feel I am escaping with my visit to Philadelphia with its dedicated Rodin Gallery, huge pillared Art Museum and charming architecture. So I do wonder about my kind host.
As Carmen is so talkative an explanation soon bubbles forth. ‘A few months ago I suffered a minor stroke and while my speech is fine now, I was left with an involuntary yawn. It just wouldn’t go down well in a lecture theatre teaching young art students.’ So Carmen reinvented herself by becoming an Airbnb host.
Given her illness’ she tries to make things a bit easier on herself. She has a cleaner to do all the heavy work, such as changing sheets and following her meticulous cleaning routine (most guests don’t stay long enough to become bored with the breakfast). And she always uses the flexible Airbnb calendar to block out rest periods between bookings.
As she loves meeting people with strange accents such as my endearing Aussie twang, her new home business works to her advantage. She might no longer be able to hitchhike across the country, but that doesn’t mean that the world can’t come to her.
Women make up the majority of Airbnb hosts worldwide.
Female Airbnb hosts are in the majority and a dedicated lot. They generally enjoy homemaking, meeting new people, and have an incredible knowledge of their cities. Yet while these women might like showing off their local knowledge and interior decorating talents, they might not have chosen to share their homes with strangers unless they also had an economic imperative to do so.
Life in your 50s and 60s can be one of two things. It can be sitting back and raking in the spoils of your work-life, in the form of long service leave or superannuation. There is room to breathe as the kids have (hopefully) left home and the mortgage is likely paid off.
But on the other hand, these years can be difficult for women. This might be because a divorce or the death of a partner has left one living on scant resources. Some have had to cease work to help a sick or ageing relative. It is also the great age of retrenchment, and in our ageist society there can be many roadblocks confronting slightly older women attempting to move back into the paid workforce.
This makes alternative occupations such as working online or running an Airbnb an attractive proposition. Especially given that Airbnb released figures in March 2016 showing that on average women can generally increase their income by roughly $6000 US dollars a year by hosting guests for an average of just under 60 days a year. Around 49 percent of these women would normally be trying to live off a fixed retirement income.
For some women it also means a chance to keep their greatest asset, their home. Hosting provides the money needed for costly repairs and upkeep, while for those women who like to travel, it can provide just enough to finance an annual overseas trip. I don’t run an Airbnb but I do travel extensively and stay mainly with female Airbnb hosts over 50. This has placed me in a unique position to observe how many women my age are knocking adversity on the head and reinventing themselves through this alternative business model.
Reinvention and restructure after fifty.
Like Carmen, Dianne in Trentham is an artist but still in the midst of her significant career as a printmaker. She is often asked to teach workshops overseas in places such as Japan, Greece, Japan the UK and the USA. But a couple of years ago Diane lost her husband to cancer.
‘I was living in Adelaide and I thought it would be best to move closer to my two sisters who both live in Melbourne. But Melbourne’s property market was so horrendously expensive that I came to Trentham in the Central Highlands knowing I could drive to Melbourne in just over an hour.’
In an enviable act of reinvention Dianne then set about totally restructuring her life to encompass her change of circumstances. Her new home was a 1970s A–frame. But within months she had transformed the downstairs into a studio from which she could run her printmaking classes whilst renovating the upstairs so she could offer accommodation. For her own living quarters, she built a small home across the way, which she adjoined to the A-frame by an attractive courtyard.
Originally the accommodation was intended only for out of town students attending her print workshops, but she soon found that Trentham, with its well-known waterfall, (the longest single drop waterfall in Victoria) its access to bush walks, eclectic mix of heritage pubs, bakeries and good restaurants was a bit of a mecca for tourists.
During my stay, I found Dianne the warmest of hosts. She loves nurturing people and each evening I returned to find a fire crackling in the fireplace or little gifts like fresh sourdough bread or a bowl of home-cooked veggie soup. As I am a solo traveller she invites me out with her close-knit group of female friends and we have a rollicking night in a local pub chatting and laughing till closing time.
During the day Dianne’s life is a hive of activity. She is busy in the garden with her little dog Lottie, or on the phone organising exhibitions and workshops. In between she works on her Ph.D. on significant printmakers. Running the Airbnb seems to be the icing on a highly successful lifestyle
In Sydney, I stay with Helen who is also making the best of the curve ball of circumstances that life has careened her way. She lives in a rented rather than owned property and operates her main bedroom as an Airbnb after obtaining permission to do so from her landlord. Her extended family helps her with the rent as she is doing the job that none of them can or perhaps cares to do. One of four siblings Helen is looking after their ninety-year-old father a few streets away. She visits him daily to help with life’s essentials – cooking, bathing and dressing himself.
Airbnb provides Helen a respite from her responsibilities as a carer. It helps her financially, but it enables her to engage in a couple of her intertwined hobbies. She loves op-shopping, and her artistic flair means she is able to find all the perfect items to create a uniquely decorated Airbnb environment – a style she refers to as ‘hippie chic.’
My room has a huge antique map of Australia, the green of which is picked out on the chintz bedspread and rugs. There is a whole library of arthouse DVDs sourced from thrift shops for my enjoyment. The kitchen is retro 1950s, with a row of matching red-topped canisters, a checked tablecloth and a trio of flying ducks on the wall.
A good fit for freelancers and the self-employed.
In Oxford, England, I stay with Patricia, whose home was advantageously close to the station, and looked amazing in its profile photos with its rich red tapestries and gold-framed paintings. In reality the home was smaller than I expected and my room quite minuscule. My host had strict stipulations about not arriving before 2pm and leaving by 10am, and not storing one’s luggage for the day.
But when I meet her I understand her need to safeguard her time. She is a fellow writer, so I felt sympathetic to her need for a quiet and uninterrupted workspace. Over breakfast she does the ironing, as it seems not a moment must be wasted. She chucks me a croissant and some jam. But she does have a brief chat. It seems she is recently divorced and has moved from a much bigger house to her tiny abode – bringing many of her beautiful antiques with her. When she was a bit younger, she had published a successful detective novel. Running an Airbnb means she can write at home, in the hope that in the next 20 years or so she might produce her next bestseller.
I come across this enviable ability to work from home in many of my Airbnb hosts. Kim in New York’s East Village has an attractive small apartment, which she shares with her King Charles spaniel, Snoopy. He is so cute, I forgive him anything, even when he steals one of my three pairs of undies and chews them to death.
The block has a 24-hour doorman and a swimming pool on the roof. Kim works from home, and when there are guests around, she works from her laptop in bed creating advertising copy. She tells me it’s good money when there is work, but it can be intermittent. The doorman tells me the building is filled with creatives. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love lives in the apartment above me.
Weighing up the advantages of becoming a host.
Running an Airbnb certainly has its advantages. It can be a full-time occupation, a little something to tide you over between irregular work gigs, or an occupation that allows you to work flexibly as a creative from home. Having stayed with so many female hosts, I have also picked up some information that might address some of the concerns for those thinking of becoming a host.
Firstly, Airbnb’s secure payment system means that you never have to deal with money directly. You receive the full payment minus their 3% service fee. Not having the issue of payment hanging over your relationship with your houseguests makes for a more relaxing time for all.
Any kind of damage to property is a rarity, but there is the peace of mind of Airbnb’s Our Host Guarantee, which provides up to $1,000,000 AUD coverage in case property damage occurs. There is also liability coverage should a guest have an accident whilst staying in your home. While many hosts offer automatic acceptance of all who apply, you also have the chance to carefully vet the age and sex of your house guest if you so choose.
Guests are asked to introduce themselves when applying which usually includes their reason for travelling, allowing you to work out if they are the right fit for your household. Airbnb also allows hosts to read hidden reviews that have been written about guests after they have stayed at other Airbnb’s. That means that you can easily vet people who do not meet the criterion of behaviour you would expect.
Generally, most guests are quite well behaved, treating their hosts homes better than they might a hotel room. They tend to let you know if they will be arriving later than expected, and usually tidy up after themselves. This is because they know that their hosts will be writing a short review on them just as they will be reviewing their stay.
They also have to agree to follow the house rules you set. Most hosts stipulate certain clauses up front, such as no parties, or no shoes to be worn inside. UK hosts invariably supply you with breakfast, which is a rarity in the States. In rural Australia there is often a request to restrict the length of showers as most houses are on tank water.
One house rule I thought a bit rich was on my stay in Woodstock, where I was asked to strip my bed on the last morning and put the sheets in the washing hamper. I inevitably complied because generally that is what good houseguests do, and I didn’t want the bad review. Airbnb also allows you to block out time on the availability calendar when you don’t wish to host any guests. It just appears as if you are booked out for that period. Dianne for example, blocks out large portions of time when she is running her workshops in the downstairs studio, whereas others might do so when they have grandchildren coming to stay or if they just need a break.
In essence, what is fantastic about the Airbnb model of business is that it empowers women, be it financially, socially or professionally. It provides women of all ages an opportunity to become part of the share economy and to earn money in non-traditional ways. So it comes as no surprise to find that Airbnb has declared that women aged 50-plus are usually their highest rated hosts.
Nadine is a travel, food and opinion writer and trainer at Open Colleges. She has been a contributor to The Age and Sunday Age, The Canberra Times, GAB – Australian Food and Travel blog, and Weekend Notes. Nadine also publishes travel and food articles on her own blog, Red Bag, Will Travel.