We reached out to four hosts in Durham about their properties and asked for advice on how to enter the short-term rental world.
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
A weeknight staycation. Out-of-town relatives visiting for a wedding. College friends reuniting over a game weekend. A businesswoman in town for meetings. Durham plays host to myriad travelers all year long, and more are turning to platforms like VRBO and Airbnb for their accommodations. A quick search of Airbnb’s website shows that there can be more than 300 different types of rentals available in Durham on any given weekend, and a 2019 study found that Airbnb now accounts for close to 20% of the vacation rental industry.
The concept seems simple in theory – homeowners can list a bedroom or two, or their entire apartment or house. They make some extra money while travelers get a more unique, intimate experience with access to amenities like full kitchens, laundry, yards and porches – things they might not be able to find in a hotel. Sounds easy, right? Well, not exactly.
There is a lot of thought and planning that goes into hosting a successful Airbnb, and the profit opportunities can be enticing enough that some have turned their Airbnb side gigs into full-time jobs. There are governmental and private regulations to deal with, cleanings to arrange, guests to handle and a number of other details that come with work in the hospitality industry (of which Airbnb is arguably a major player). There are also real questions of the effect that short-term rentals have on neighborhood property prices and the rising impact of gentrification on historically marginalized communities. As simple as just listing a room, it is not.
Still, the opportunities presented to Airbnb hosts are great enough that thousands of people continue to list their properties on the platform. We reached out to four such hosts here in Durham to learn more about their properties, how they operate and what advice they might have for others looking to jump into the Airbnb game.
Choose Your Model
There are essentially three different models when it comes to operating an Airbnb – renting a property you own outright, managing someone else’s property and taking a cut of the proceeds, or leasing a property and turning it into a short-term rental, a process known as arbitrage. For stationery designer Ellie Snow, owner of Hello Tenfold, that last option suddenly became a reality when a penthouse apartment in the downtown building she used to work in became available in 2019.
“It seemed like it would be a fun project,” Ellie says. She made sure she was clear about why she wanted to rent the property – it is important for those wanting to turn a leased property into an Airbnb to make sure the lease allows for short-term rentals or to work with the landlord to insert such a clause. “I was really upfront with the owners of the property about what I was planning to do with it.”
Emmanuel Robinson chose to do a little of everything when he got into the Airbnb game. He leases, owns and manages eight properties across the area. “My goal is to build an empire from my Airbnb business,” he says. Besides carefully checking a lease to ensure a short-term rental is allowed, he also advises new Airbnb hosts to make sure their property isn’t covered by an HOA, and if it is, that the HOA agreement will allow for a vacation rental.
Turning a property you own (or purchasing a new one) into an Airbnb might be the most common way folks get into the short-term rental business. Deon McCormick got his start when he purchased a duplex in the Southside neighborhood two and a half years ago. “My initial property search started because my sister left college in Greensboro and needed a place to stay,” he says. Deon renovated the duplex and rented one half to her, listing the other on Airbnb. He now rents both units of the duplex, turned a 16-by-16-square-foot shed in the backyard into a tiny home rental and is currently building another house.
Financing an Airbnb property can be a challenge, especially for those without a lot of upfront capital. Deon, for instance, financed his first property with a traditional home loan, but since it wasn’t his full-time residence, he wasn’t available to take advantage of the lower mortgage rates that come with some loans. He also financed the duplex renovations out of his own pocket.
“I refinanced once the renovation was complete,” he explains, “and put that money into the tiny house.”
Stand Out From the Crowd
Once the property is acquired and ready for rental, it’s time to list. But with hundreds of rentals available on any given night, how do you make sure your property stands out?
“Most of the Airbnbs [I saw] were very white and very ‘Ikea,’” Ellie says. She set about making sure her penthouse was different. “I used vintage pieces, a lot of it from TROSA Thrift Store and Leland Little Auctions.” One of the main compliments she gets is how unique her Airbnb’s interior design is. It’s also opened a new source of income for her as a location for photo shoots. She’s had wedding shoots, design shoots and even a photo shoot for a cookbook. “It’s really helpful,” Ellie explains. “I do photo shoots mostly during the week, so if there are stray weekdays that don’t get booked, sometimes a photo shoot can fill in.” She also lists the property on a platform called Peerspace for those looking for photo shoot locations.
Justin Winter got started with Airbnb about six years ago when he and his wife, Amanda Winter, would rent out their personal home whenever they left town. One of the common reviews he gets on the house is that it feels “lived in,” and that renters feel more at home during their stay.
The Day-to-Day Realities
Managing multiple Airbnb’s can get tricky. There are booking inquiries to respond to, issues with repairs, cleanings and turnovers. Things can quickly get out of hand without a well-organized system. Most of the hosts we spoke to recommended getting some help in order to make the whole process easier.
“There is a lot of logistics coordination,” Justin says, especially in the initial setup of a property. He recommends turning to third-party software like Guesty or PriceLabs to streamline some of that orchestration. These programs can assist by helping to do everything from send check-in information to guests to establish real-time, dynamic pricing depending on the day of the week or time of year. Don’t have a reservation scheduled for Wednesday night by the Tuesday before? These programs can automatically drop the price to entice a last-minute renter into booking.
Using these tools is a lifesaver for Justin, who has eight different rentals (and more in the works) and now estimates that he only has to spend one or two hours a week managing all of them.
Ellie did all the cleaning and turnovers herself for the first year of her rental business before deciding it was time to look for help. “The best thing that I’ve done is to hire someone I really trust to help me with the turnovers,” she says. She partnered with AvenueWest, a company dedicated to assisting hosts with the turnover process, freeing up more of her time to focus on her other obligations.
Another great resource for first-time Airbnb hosts can simply be other people who also rent properties. Emmanuel is part of several Airbnb Facebook groups where hosts share success (and horror) stories and get advice.
Deon bought his first property, the duplex, from longtime Southside resident Darren Meadows. A chance meeting led to a two-hour conversation and ended with Darren buying the duplex and setting off on a new career path. “He’s been a mentor to me since the first time we met,” Deon says. He still turns to Darren (who also manages rental properties) for advice.
“Surround yourself with people who have done it or are actively doing it,” Deon recommends. “It will save you a ton of time and money on your journey.”
Be Mindful & Intentional
Many of the hosts we spoke to acknowledge the real concern that short-term rentals drive up property prices and can displace long-term residents, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
“That’s something I’m currently trying to balance,” Deon says. “I’m from South Georgia, from neighborhoods like Southside or East Durham. When I see that happening, when I see people being forced out, that resonates with me because I see my family.
“How do you slow that down? How do you protect the individuals that essentially built that neighborhood? I’m still learning, I’m still figuring that out right now,” he adds.
For all the possible negatives, however, there is also the undeniable fact that operating short-term rentals (and property ownership in general) is a chance for many to build the sort of generational wealth that has long been out of reach for marginalized communities.
“I’m taking this opportunity to create something that my family has never experienced,” Deon says, “to break the curse of not having something to pass down to my family.”
“There’s a place for the free market and opportunity to be a helpful vehicle as well,” Justin adds.
The Future for Airbnb in Durham
Three out of the four hosts interviewed for this article have enjoyed their Airbnb journey so much that they plan to turn it into their main job. All four see the need for rentals only growing as Durham’s population continues to expand.
“The degree to which there is opportunity today, in my opinion, is greater than what it will be tomorrow or next year,” Justin says.
Airbnb rentals provide a space for folks – whether they are parents visiting their kids at Duke University or North Carolina Central University, business travelers or families reuniting for a wedding – to gather and connect in a way that often isn’t possible at a traditional hotel.
“You’re talking to the guests, getting to know them, you might even go out to dinner with them,” Emmanuel explains. “You’re giving them an experience that they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.”