What I have learned from 20 years of being a holiday rental owner

I started renting soon after the world moved on from printed brochures to online listing sites. Those were days when you could put an ad on VRBO for about $100 per year and reel in the bookings like those tuna fishermen hoiking slabs of sea-life over their shoulders.

At the time VRBO proudly boasted of its 12,000 listings worldwide and had a teddy bear that blogged about its stays in various places. In the UK the big site was Holiday Rentals and their About Us page featured two labradors. Listing sites simply put you in touch with renters and let you get on with it by personal email. It was what we old-timers call ‘the good old days’.

It was not so easy to explain the concept of holiday rentals in 2001, you had to explain it was like renting a home but for a week instead of 6 months, and fully furnished, and yes people really did pay in a week what you might earn in a month for long-term rentals. Today one can simply say ‘airbnb’ as a verb or noun and the world understands.

Much has changed and while everything has got better in terms of technology it has got worse in other ways. Competition, guest expectations, that unfair review that will always be with you, the impossibility of appearing right at the top of Google, the percentage listing sites now take from you and the way they are commoditising us.

Perhaps you are just starting out so for what it’s worth here is what I have learned from 20 years as a short-term rental owner, learning from mistakes and from others on the Lay My Hat forum.

1. Guests will never cease to surprise you in the things they do. They will manage not to find your house despite the crystal-clear instructions; they will turn the heating to maximum and open the windows to cool off; they will use the pool as a handy repository for empties; they will break into the store cupboard to access the 7 towels per person they need.

Because guests are people and people do the strangest things, especially in that relaxed period when they go on holiday and turn their brain off. So don’t get angry when these things happen, make like the reed and bend with the wind.

Remember that guests don’t read everything you want them to and in some cases they don’t read anything at all, so don’t make assumptions based on them knowing everything you do, because they don’t. It’s not that they are stupid or insane, they are the same as you are on holiday.

To minimise callouts, have a house dossier that explains how things work (printed or virtual), rather than a pile of instruction manuals. This is especially true if you have white goods with buttons marked in another language. The first question will always be ‘what’s the wifi password?’, so make this blindingly obvious and also communicate it in the directions email.

2. The converse of guests acting strangely is that some people, and hopefully many people, will simply fall in love with your property. They will come back every year, they will become your friends, and they will recommend and send others. Along the way they will give you the feeling that you might actually be doing something worthwhile for pockets of humanity that ‘get it’. This is the reward of holiday rentals, the income is just numbers to work out your tax obligation.

3. There are two truisms that contradict each other and both are true: we are all the same, and everyone is different. If you rent to nationalities from all over the world you will discover that they all have the same hopes and concerns as you do. But also that everyone is an individual with quirks and oddities to discover. If you are an owner who actually meets your guests, you will either find that a chore or rather wonderful – try to make it the latter.

4. Don’t make assumptions about people (aka stereotyping). Certain nationalities have bad reputations in certain locations. As a contrarian I always ignored these and have never had a problem. One family from the very worst nationality (according to local wisdom) spent the whole of their penultimate day cleaning the house to a state of perfection. Whereas a very charming and urbane gentleman turned out to have the domestic habits of a feral teenager. Google ‘confirmation bias’ if you don’t believe me.

5. Despite the march of the modern, renting your house out to strangers remains a people thing. If you are not a people person you should think about using a property management agency.

6. I often hear a rental owner moaning about the expectations of their guests, for example: well why can’t they wait a couple of days for me to reply to an enquiry, the house isn’t going to go anywhere/it’s a year from now!

Don’t be one of those owners, be an owner who can see things from the other end of the pipeline. Give the experience you would want when booking accommodation, which is probably: speedy and welcoming responses to all communication, easy booking by card, perfectly clean house, everything clearly explained in writing. If that sounds like too much bother, you’re in the wrong business.

7. You will never have imagined how many things can go wrong in a house, and how many of those things will go wrong at the weekend. Boilers in particular will never fail on a weekday.

If you are not able to fix plumbing/electrical/general building issues yourself, make sure you become friendly with tradesmen who understand that sometimes you will need them at the weekend. When they stop picking up or responding to messages they are telling you something – it’s time to find someone new.

8. Regardless of how badly wrong something goes in your rental property, if you deal with it quickly, empathetically and apologetically, you’ll find that most of the time people just need an excuse to be on your side. To the couple who, faced with three days without water, refused the offer of a considerable upgrade to a fancy hotel, and wrote a 5-star review that didn’t mention the issue at all – I salute you.

9. The worst thing you can do as a rental owner is to double book, but one day you will. Hopefully you will catch it before two parties arrive at your door at the same time. Be completely open and honest about it, allow the wronged party to remember the times they may have made a mistake.

10. One day your guests will lose the keys (it will be a Sunday or at night), and you will have no way of getting keys to them. Plan ahead for this. You could leave keys with a neighbour but the best is to find a very good hiding place for a spare key, so you are not reliant on someone else being in.

11. First impressions count and for guests the first impression is way before they arrive at your door. It’s in the way you respond to their enquiry or booking, and communicate from there on. And it’s in the level of directions and instructions you give for them to find and get into your place. That means not just an address, but a map, GPS coordinates, instructions on where to park, etc.

And gone are the days when you responded to an enquiry in the next 24 hours or so. Today you have to aim to reply within the hour and preferably quicker.

12. Do you want your guests to rent your house and pay you, or do you want them to experience everything there is to love about your location? You don’t have to literally take guests by the hand and show them, but you can give them all the information they need about: where to go and when, your favourite restaurants/bars/shops/markets, itineraries for half-day or day, maybe you have negotiated a special offer for your guests with local businesses – or maybe you should.

13. Listen to the criticism you get whether in private or in reviews. Don’t dismiss it as unreasonable. Criticism stings but it gives you valuable clues to things you haven’t thought of, or warning signs that you are not on top of things – for example when a guest says the kitchen knives were not sharp enough, they may be the only ones who said something but they will not have been the only ones who felt the inconvenience.

Even when criticism is clearly unreasonable, ask yourself why a guest had such a different expectation, perhaps there is a lack of clarity in your description or communication. The more you can match guest expectation to reality, the easier will be your ride as a holiday rental owner.

14. Steal ideas from your competition. See what amenities they have and you do not. See what is mentioned in their reviews – perhaps a pair of binoculars to birdwatch is greatly appreciated, perhaps they are getting work-cationers who need the fibre broadband you haven’t installed yet. Don’t rest on your laurels, always be improving in small ways. A repeat guest will notice and become a recurring guest.

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