How We Manage Our Airbnb While Traveling
I’ve had a lot of questions recently from other traveling families – and want-to-travel-someday families – about how we manage our rental house while traveling around the world.
Here is all the information about how we manage our Airbnb unit, and long-term rental units as well, while traveling the world full time!
How It All Started
Jonathan and I made an incredibly lucky and – in hindsight – very wise decision to purchase a duplex house as our first house 10 years ago. We started house hunting only a few months after the market crash of 2008, so purchase prices in our city were at a record low compared to recent years. We were able to buy a house in a very good neighbourhood that we could NEVER have afforded even a year later!
We got very, very lucky. And we also made the smart decision to focus on buying a rental property, rather than our dream house. We’ve made some very foolish financial decisions since then, and sometimes wonder how we got this one so right!
We were able to renovate the unfinished basement into a third apartment, and this now-triplex in a desirable neighbourhood became our retirement plan.
This allowed us the financial freedom to never feel stuck in a job just for the pension plan, and to always feel we could take some risks in our careers, knowing we didn’t need a substantial amount of savings for retirement (which we don’t believe is ever coming anyway, but that’s a topic for another day).
Converting One Unit to Airbnb
This rental house is a key piece of how we’re able to afford full time travel right now. In February 2018, we converted the basement apartment into an Airbnb unit. Since this rental house is now our principal residence (having sold our other, “primary” house to travel full time), we fall on the right side of upcoming regulations in our city that only principal residences may be put up for rent on Airbnb. We also always have a place to come “home” to whenever we want.
And, finally, but importantly, it makes us far more money than a long-term lease did. For a long-term rental lease, we were getting $1,200 a month. With Airbnb, we’re averaging well over $2,000 a month. About $300 from this has to go back into house expenses (mortgage, property tax, utilities, etc.). The rest goes into our pockets. With a monthly target budget of only $3,000-$4,000 (we’re currently traveling in South East Asia and keeping costs around $2,500-$3,000 in Vietnam), this is a significant portion of our required income!
Long-term Renters + Airbnb = Great Mix
The main floor and top floor apartments are rented out to long-term tenants, which is one part of what makes this strategy work for us while we’re overseas. The long-term tenants know about the garbage pick up schedule, and what to put out when, so this small but important task is still done properly and on time.
One set of tenants was also doing our yard maintenance in the summer and snow removal in the winter, for a fee. They are moving out soon, and we will be looking into other arrangements, but I hope to strike a deal with the manager of the small apartment building next door. He has been kind and fixed random things for us while we lived in Whitehorse without even telling us (the eavestroughs were overflowing once, and he went over with his ladder and cleared them out – that kind of thing), so I’m hoping he might be willing to do some of this property maintenance for us, for a fee.
Brothers-in-law Make Great – and Cheap – Property Managers!
My brother-in-law and sister live on the other side of the city, and my brother-in-law isn’t employed full time. He is handy and knows his way around a tool box and basic house renovations, so he’s our go-to guy when we need something looked at. He was already doing this for us while we lived in Whitehorse for six years before leaving to travel, so we have a good rapport and arrangement with him.
We pay him for his time, at a “family” rate. He goes out to check on things like leaking taps, squirrels in the walls, and regular inspections to keep on top of repairs and maintenance. He installed an air-conditioner unit in the basement when the heat started this summer, replaced a lighting fixture in the second floor apartment – things like that.
Now that we have the Airbnb unit, he also makes sure the cleaning company for the Airbnb has laundry money to use, and is our emergency contact in town if a guest ever needed something urgent or something went really wrong with the house.
The Best Cleaning Company Ever
The most important piece of the puzzle, though, when it comes to the Airbnb, is our cleaning company. We just lucked out, again, in finding them – but then also made the smart decision to hire them. It’s a company of two young dudes who are doing well for themselves doing Airbnb flips – that’s cleaning and setting up the Airbnb unit between guests. So, they do a deep clean between each guest, do all the laundry, make sure the right towels are put out, and make sure things look tidy and neat.
We have also arranged for them to do monthly stocking up of supplies, for an extra fee – things like toilet paper, paper towel, dish soap, coffee and tea, and other consumables that we provide for our guests.
There are lots of people and companies who could do this, but what is essential to making this work for our travel lifestyle is: they follow our Airbnb calendar online, so I never have to tell them when to show up! They monitor our calendar (we synced our Airbnb calendar with a Google calendar which they then monitor), and know exactly when each guest is checking out, so they always know when they need to go in and clean.
We communicate with them solely through WhatsApp, which is their preferred method of communication. We pay them promptly through Interac Transfer (e-transfer).
I can’t stress enough that this is THE most important aspect in how we are able to manage the property from afar. I can’t tell you the number of times I would have missed telling a cleaning lady to show up on such-and-such a day because we were in the middle of trans-pacific flights or in the midst of busy travel days or adjusting to jet lag or a new time zone – or just in the middle of our normal, busy, living-in-a-foreign-country life!
They have really been incredible to us, and we literally could not be doing this without them.
Three Main Things You Need – But it’s All About the Cleaners
So, for us, there are three things that make it work: long-term tenants for some of the daily/weekly chores, family in town as on-the-ground contact and pseudo property manager, and a cleaning company that is professional and will track your calendar online.
I would say the first two could be achieved in other ways: a professional property manager should be able to provide the services of the first two combined, it would just cost you more. A helpful neighbour or friend/family member could also do many of these things, likely for a lower fee.
But it’s the cleaning company, guys. They are SO key. Guests need to check into a clean, fully-stocked Airbnb unit. Every. Single. Time. One bad review can be a killer for your rental business, so keeping your guests happy is so important.
Be Cautious of Regulations
Be careful about investing in a property solely for Airbnb purposes if there is ANY sign that your jurisdiction might enact regulations in the future to limit Airbnb usage. We always have the ability to turn our units back into long-term rental units or find 2-6 month short-term renters (for more money than long-term renters but not as much as Airbnb gives us) and still make a profit every month because we’re in a very desirable rental market, in a great neighbourhood (which allows us to be picky about finding good tenants). If your rental market is less stable, you could find you have issues if Airbnb regulations come along down the road.
How Much Time Does it All Take?
Because of the amazing cleaning company, I spend very little time on average managing the house from afar. My husband and I consider it one of “my” income streams – he does all the actual renovation and maintenance work on the house when we’re back in Canada, and I consult him about any decisions or changes we need to make, but I manage the day-to-day operations of the house: bill payments (all automated), long-term tenant communications and issue management, Airbnb profile/calendar management, Airbnb guest communication and management, Airbnb guest issues, cleaning company communication, sending my brother-in-law out for issue management, etc.
I would say that, in an average week, I spend 10-20 minutes on the rental house. That’s it – one or two reviews for guests that take 2-5 minutes each, and one or two payments to the cleaners, which take all of 1 minute to complete, plus a few messages back and forth (we’re chatty with them and they seem to like staying connected – they wish me Happy Mother’s Day, ask about our kids once in a while, stuff like that. They’re super sweet guys!).
Sometimes there is more intensive communication with a potential Airbnb guest who needs questions answered before they book. Sometimes there is a small issue with an Airbnb guest (e.g. can’t get the garage door to open, internet isn’t working, etc.), and I spend an extra few minutes on that.
Twice a month, I spend about an hour sending detailed check-in information to upcoming guests – I do it in batches so I won’t ever forget or miss someone!
Some guests ask detailed questions, and I always provide detailed and helpful responses. As an event manager by profession and a people-person by nature, I actually really enjoy helping our guests, even from afar, and they can tell – I get a lot of reviews that compliment me on my helpfulness, going the extra mile, etc. I do it naturally, but it’s definitely a helpful selling feature!
Key Aspects to Managing an Airbnb Remotely
I wrote a detailed House Manual where I tried to anticipate any common question and provide an answer there. I’ve had a few guests say it was very helpful, so it’s been worth the time I put into it.
My husband and I also spent the time, and money, to set the apartment up to look really, really good. Modern, clean, attractive, all new furniture, stylish but neutral art on the walls, super comfortable bed, extra kitchen amenities, thoughtful touches (q-tips and cotton swabs in the bathroom, plastic plates and cups for kids, etc.), and NO personal items. We make it feel as much like a hotel as possible.
We installed keyless locks (using smart codes you punch in), so there’s no worry about guests finding the keys, keys going missing, or guests making copies.
We did NOT install any kind of security camera. I know some units who do. If we didn’t have long-term tenants in the house, who we know are kind of keeping an eye on things, we might have installed something at the entrance – never in the unit, but somewhere we could monitor people coming and going to ensure there isn’t some huge house party going on or some other sketchy thing.
We don’t allow one-night rentals, to avoid house party situations (there can be a big issue with Airbnb and people who rent a place just to party hard for one night!).
We worked hard to make the Airbnb unit as seamless and user-friendly and question-free as possible! Between comprehensive check-in information that I send in advance, the detailed House Manual, keyless locks, and a well-stocked, well-outfitted unit (including excellent WIFI, and Netflix ready to go on the TV), guests have very little need to contact us. There are some guests who come and go and I never talk to them! That felt a little weird at first (these strangers in our house who never talk to us), but I’m used to it now.
Since we were already experienced landlords, and experienced at managing the property from across the country (we had moved to Whitehorse, Yukon, six years ago), transitioning to managing it while traveling hasn’t been a huge problem for us. If you are just starting out, I would suggest trying to manage it while living in town for a few months at least, just as you work out the kinks.
In terms of the time I spend on the management versus the income it generates, it’s a no-brainer – it’s hugely profitable. I average between $250-$500 an hour if you really look at it that way!
It’s not without its stresses, though.
When you get a message from a guest that the WIFI isn’t working and you were about to head out the door with the kids to swim and your husband was about to head off to the co-working space for a productive day of work, your plans have to slam to a halt until you solve the guest’s problem – or at least put a solution in motion.
You have to keep an eye on your phone regularly, just in case a guest has messaged with an issue.
There’s always the potential for something more major to happen – a leak, a flood, a power outage, where you’d have to be managing it from so far away. This can get challenging, especially with time zone differences.
But every job has its stresses, and for us, with our experience and shared skills/knowledge, we are quite competent landlords (if I do say so myself…) and able to deal well with the curveballs that the house can throw our way.
So, overall, I really recommend this route. Whether it be long-term renters (far less management, but far less profit usually) or Airbnb or other short-term rental platforms (far more management and need to have things always perfect, but much higher profit), it can be a great piece of your location-independent income structure!
If you have any questions about how we do it, or starting up your own rental income stream, I’d be happy to try to help – just comment below.
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