Manda Maggs

Manda Maggs, Penticton BC

Five Tips for New Vacation Rental Hosts (Airbnb, VRBO) from someone who Learned the Hard Way.

Okay, it's been a while - a year isn't so long, really? What can happen in just a short year? 365 sunrises, 52 Mondays to get through, and approximately 104 hours spent trying to figure out what to do on a Friday night.

Mike and I started a new endeavour last year: a vacation rental. I thought I'd share some of the things we learned along the way. 

Our Airbnb suite did really well in our first year and we learned so much. I wanted to share some of our experiences, and especially the top 5 things we learned about running a vacation rental so if you're thinking of starting one up, or you are looking to improve your reviews, you don't have to learn it the hard way - see what I did there?

Five Tips for running a vacation rental

  1. Be clear. 
  2. Don't put anything you love where strangers can touch it
  3. Be legit. 
  4. You can't make everyone happy.
  5. Busy guests are happy guests. 

LESSON 1: 

People love clarity. List your house rules clearly and concisely right up front. Know what you're willing to compromise on (like off-season or mid-week pricing), and what you aren't willing to budge on (pets, smoking, quiet hours, extra guests). Ask the guest if they read the rules before you book them in. 

Pro-tip: Provide gentle reminders to guests about what your expectations are, and what their responsibilities will be. The review process of vacation rentals leaves a lot of room for uncertainty. Alleviate that by making everything super obvious. Be up front and honest.   

Example: Feel free to help yourselves to fresh herbs and vegetables  from the garden, please ask before harvesting the fruit trees. 

This boundary is clear, and it not only prevents your guests from picking your harvest clean, it invites those who would be too shy to ask about picking fruit to come forward and do so. 

It helps people to know how to treat your space: We noticed that people weren't putting dishes back where they found them, or they put them away dirty, or they didn't bother washing them at all and left them in the sink. A small sign above the sink politely stating that "guests are expected to wash their own dishes for the next guests" worked nicely to solve the problem - not only did our dishes get cleaned more often, if a guest did find a piece of food on a plate, they didn't leave us crappy reviews because it was obvious that the responsibility lay with the previous guest, not us. It passed the entire responsibility of dish cleanliness onto our guests.

cupboard decals.jpg

Make it obvious.  

People will follow, if you provide direction. 

To solve the issue of having guests put things away properly (and be able to find items, I made some fun kitchen decals that not only helped guests locate and put away their coffee mugs, they looked great. 

The icon styling suits our modern kitchen well, and is also suitable for guests who don't speak english. Guests LOVE these! I mean, who wants to get up in the morning and trudge into an unfamiliar kitchen and grope around for twenty minutes trying to find the coffee, mugs, sugar, and filters, amiright? We had guests tell us that it was such a nice touch and made them feel like we had thought of everything to make them feel comfortable in our home.

Did I mention that I like sharing? You can download the full set of kitchen decals on the FREEBIES page. 

This year, I labelled everything in the garden too, since we always had people asking what kind of trees we had, what kind of flowers, etc. They've also been noticed, and now guests are engaging with and exploring the back yard more, making them feel like their suite has expanded and they've gotten more value out of their visit. 

 

LESSON 2: 

Don't put anything you love or can't replace where strangers can touch them. 

Our very first guests turned out to be quite unpredictable, to put it mildly. Among other things, they decided to rearrange all of the furniture - all of it. There was a dining chair in the bathroom. A mirror was removed from the wall and discarded in the kitchen. The couch was moved aside. Books were everywhere (except the book shelf). And our beloved coffee table was in the bedroom, broken, on its side. 

...and that was the last photo ever taken of that magnificent coffee table. 

...and that was the last photo ever taken of that magnificent coffee table. 

We put this coffee table in the suite because it's not only beautiful and fit the space perfectly, it's indestructible - or so we thought. It's 1.5-inch thick glass on a wrought iron frame and weighs more than anything else in our home. Mike's father, a 320lb rubgy guy, stood in the middle of it and it and jumped up and down without even a hint of a creak. It was a custom-built piece from Mike's grandparents, who got the glass as an off-cut from the Vancouver Aquarium way back in the 50s or 60s.

At any rate, our unpredictable guests decided they'd move it out of the living room, down the hall, and into the main bedroom. I guess they didn't realize that it weighed about as much as a small pony - it was dropped it on the concrete floor, breaking off a corner. It's unfixable, unfortunately. We've since replaced it with a cheap table we have no attachment to. 

If you can't replace it, keep it away from guests. Everything in the suite or room should be replaceable and have no sentimental attachment. 

Pro-tip: Use the damage deposit systems offered by Airbnb and VRBO. It's easy. Not only will you be able to replace things that get stained/broken/lost/damaged, your guests will treat your stuff with more care. A guest unwilling to leave a damage deposit is probably not a guest you want to host. 

Guests may not be trying to hurt your stuff on purpose, but accidents happen! 

LESSON 3: 

Be legitimate. Keep everything above board from your insurance, to your local bylaws, to reporting revenues from your rental on your taxes. 

We got on board immediately with applying for a business license. Yes, we had to spend a lot of time educating ourselves about our local laws regarding vacation rentals, made a dozen or so phone calls, and made sure we fit all the rules out there. Yes, it was an added expense - the licence cost $375 and we had to install a new hand railing and fancy smoke detectors (they talk to each other through wifi!), even though our old ones worked great. Yes, we ended up paying more for adding extra liability insurance to our home insurance, too. It was all worth it.  

Here's a little story to illustrate why it's important to be above board with insurance and licenses:

You never know who is coming to stay or what their experience is. They may be delightful, kind, and fun! But also, they may have never learned life skills such as using a BBQ... 
One group of guests were delighted to find that we had a covered patio with BBQ for cooking dinner on those hot summer evenings. They asked if they were free to use it. "Of course!" I said.
I didn't think to ask if they knew how. 
Long story short, their dinner was burnt to black ashes (they went through an entire propane tank with all burners on high) and our irrigation timer ended up melted to the patio.
It could have been worse, the patio is a wood structure covered in ivy and could have gone up in smoke. 

Without proper insurance and a legit business license that lists our activities, we could have lost our home and received no compensation whatsoever for our guests' mistake. Not to mention, I bet Canada Revenue Agency would have some questions if we were forced to declared bankruptcy after defaulting on our mortgage for a non-existing house that burned to the ground by people who weren't supposed to be there but were paying us in undeclared funds...So yes; we have all the paperwork done and we declare our income from it. 

In the end, just the knowledge that you are following the rules as best you can will buy you peace of mind.

LESSON 4: 

You can't make everyone happy: We tried. It was exhausting. Some criticisms were completely valid (we'd like more towels, the suite is too cold, we'll be out of dish soap soon) but other complaints were downright ridiculous:

"I didn't like the colour of the living room, you should change it" - 3 stars
"the weather here is too hot" - 4 stars
"the lake was too cold"  - 3 stars
"The garden was nice but my hay fever flared up terribly!" - 4 stars
"there's nothing to do in Penticton that's indoors, free, and interesting", - 3 stars
"there was a spider in the bedroom and I had to kill it" - 4 stars

....and so on. These reviews were often left by guests who seemed like they were bored, or hadn't really looked into many options before driving here (see the last lesson #5 for more on that little problem).

Most of their concerns we had little control over, and we just had to nod, sympathize, apologize, and agree to look into the matter. 

BUT SERIOUSLY. I don't have control over the intensity of the sun or the temperature of the lake. I don't know why I was apologizing so much about the lack of free indoor entertainment to be found in Penticton. These reviews are concerning, as they do affect our ratings on rental sites and we lost our "Superhost" status due to not have 5-star ratings across the board.      

Sometimes, the attempt to solve someone else's problems just makes more problems for you. And it doesn't always mean they're happy that you tried. 

Sometimes, the attempt to solve someone else's problems just makes more problems for you. And it doesn't always mean they're happy that you tried. 

Overall, we have great reviews, but we noticed a trend: the people whom we tried the hardest to please were the ones least likely to give us positive reviews. 

Finally, we had to take a step back and decide what was reasonable - was it worth it to try and squeeze another star out of a review, from someone who probably isn't going to give you that 5-star rating anyways ? We both work full time. We aren't a hotel, we don't have a 24-hr concierge, and we can't afford to devote more time and energy to this endeavour than we do our own lives. We can't change certain things, like the weather or make allergies magically disappear. 

When we finally started to relax about our guest's every whim, they began to relax around us. This year, we will provide exactly what our guests need and invested our energies in some key areas (see the final lesson #5)...and reserve the rest of our energy for ourselves. Our reviews have never been better. 

LESSON 5: 

The happiest guests are the ones who spend most of their time away from your vacation rental. 

The happiest guests (who leave the best reviews!) are the ones who have things to do: they leave in the morning, come back and sleep at night. These are the people who are going to feel like their vacation was a success - and you, as the home-away-from-home, is going to get all the credit for it even though all you provided a comfortable location and a bed. 

Pro tip: Invest in comfy beds, good pillows, and soft, easy-to-clean sheets. You won't regret it.  

Yes, we provide TV, movies, books, board games, and a patio to enjoy. But these are not the activities that give satisfaction to a vacation. Bored guests do not leave 5-star reviews - whether or not your listing was adequate. 

I can't stress this enough: encourage your guests to get out.

Guests want NEW experiences, new things to see, do, eat and drink. New places to explore, new friends to make. THIS is what will make their vacation memorable, not your perfect decor, or your extensive cable package. 

Spend some time to find out what they want to do well before they're set to arrive, even right at the time of booking. Ask them questions about how much exploring they want to do and casually offer suggestions for activities; it may even encourage them to add a few days to their stay! Go one step further to push them out the door by providing access to sunscreen, bug spray, hiking and biking trail maps (or websites where they can easily find them), a list of beaches and wineries, and information on where they can rent paddle boards or scooters.

There's a lot of work involved in finding out activities to do in a given area, which is made even harder for guests who probably aren't familiar with the layout of the town or region. Make it easy for them by doing some homework yourself. 

I even use it when I'm totally bagged after work and can't face the prospect of cooking myself a decent meal...I check out the appropriate day on the calendar, and realize that I am definitely in the mood for an amazing burger and beer for a mere $10 from one of my favourite eateries (Burger 55). 

So after about the 25th guest asked me "So is there to do today in Penticton?", I had a lightbulb moment and organized a list of regularly-occurring events and put it into a guide organized by weekday. 

Guests loved it! They went to places they hadn't heard of and wouldn't have known about otherwise. It kept them busy, even on weekdays, and I never got asked what to do ever again. 

This year, I took it further and expanded it to food, drinks and deals. Most guests want to do some fancy things - visit a winery, or eat in a fancy restaurant, but they also want to save some cash and eat like locals. Everyone loves a good deal, too.

Anyways, I appealed to the facebook hive mind to fill in the gaps I'd missed, and wasn't disappointed. So, in gratitude for the help I received and in recognition of the wonderful city I call home; I decided to offer the listing of daily deals, events, and drink and food specials for free to anyone who wants to download it. You can find the most up-to-date version on the FREEBIES page. 

The bottom line: Keep your guests busy - it's worth it to take the time and make some suggestions for activities or restaurants. At least throw in some take-out menus and pick up some free brochures from your local Visitor's Centre and leave them on the coffee table or by the bedside. 

That little extra touch makes guests feel like you care about them (and you should care!). Your reviews will speak for themselves! 


Did I miss anything? Any sage advice, or experiences you want to share? As a guest or vacation rental homeowner, do you agree with what I've listed here...? 

Let me know!