The next day, instead of calling my real estate contacts and tracking down active property managers, I looked around my too-small, too-lonely, too-depressing home and called Jeff. I told him I wanted to rent his three-bedroom, three-bath townhouse while he was away. But I had one important condition: he’d have to allow me to rent rooms to travelers through the online travel marketplace for hosts and guests called Airbnb.com.
I first learned of Airbnb while ghostwriting for a freelance photographer I’d met in the winter of 2012. Annie was a wedding and corporate events photographer, and when her business slowed during the recession, she started renting two of the three bedrooms in her North Seattle home through Airbnb. Because of the erratic nature of freelance work (with which I was acutely familiar when we met), Annie wanted extra income to ensure she could comfortably pay her monthly mortgage.
Since its inception in 2008, Airbnb has provided everyday folks around the world a way to list extra rooms in their homes. Usually the rooms are in typical homes and apartments, but people also sometimes offer quirky lodging options like castles, treehouses, tents, and Airstream trailers.
The company name came from an experience two of the three co-founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, had in October of 2007 while living in San Francisco. As designers who often struggled to pay their rent, they’d noticed that an international design conference in town had filled up most of the city’s hotel rooms. Hoping to make a little extra cash that weekend, the gentlemen blew up a few air mattresses and built a website overnight that offered last-minute conference attendees who still needed lodging a chance to stay in their “air bed and breakfast.”
Three guests of varying ages—a man from India, a woman from Boston, and a man from Idaho—happily showed up and paid for the privilege of sleeping on the air mattresses in their home. Chesky and Gebbia observed that not only were the three guests intrigued by the website and the home-sharing concept, they were thrilled to have the opportunity to stay in a local’s apartment. That spur-of-the-moment weekend experiment planted the seed for what is today a multi-billion-dollar company.
Unlike other free, home-sharing sites like couchsurfers.com, hosts on Airbnb charge a nightly lodging fee. Guests pay the rate, plus cleaning fees and an additional service fee to Airbnb. It’s free for hosts to list their space, but they do pay a small percentage of the overall booking price to cover the credit card processing fee that the company incurs while facilitating the transaction.
In the nascent days of the company, when the co-founders were the primary users of the site—both as hosts and as guests in others’ homes—they experienced firsthand the uncomfortable aspect of dealing with cash transactions. To eliminate the awkwardness of guests and hosts exchanging money in person, they revised the terms so that Airbnb now processes a guest’s credit card when a reservation is confirmed. Airbnb holds the money until 24 hours after a guest successfully checks in, and then makes a direct deposit into the host’s checking account. Everything is above board, and at the end of the tax year, Airbnb sends the host a 1099 statement of their earnings to file with the IRS.
I met Annie a few months after I began the certificate program in editing at the University of Washington. That prior summer, after months of being a professional barfly and an aimless depressive, I decided it was time to get off my barstool and return to the classroom. I enrolled in the program and went to my first class in October. Nine months later, I graduated, certificate in hand. Editing was a natural transition for me, because in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t yet confident enough to pursue a writing career.
Writing has been a passion of mine since I was a little girl. Lacking the discipline and education I felt was required to become a professional writer, I’d spent much of my professional career wielding my red pen on other people’s work. Editing documents, both at the office and for friends, had become a runner-up to actually having the guts to write for myself. Because of the recent boom in self-publishing, I saw getting my editor accreditation as a great career move, especially since it didn’t require spending two years in pursuit of a master’s degree.
While acquiring my editing certificate, I supplemented my meager income with small writing gigs and freelance work doing floral designs (one of the many ways I put myself through college), but these jobs paid just above minimum wage. Through a floral designer I worked wedding and gala events with, I met Annie. An experienced documentary photographer, Annie had mastered the visuals on her website, but needed a wordsmith to help market her brand. She hired me to write blog articles and help her with social media.
One unusually bright winter morning, while Annie and I were working together on an article at her dining table, I heard heavy footfalls ascending her stairs. I knew Annie was single, so I was surprised to hear a man calling out a greeting to her as he approached the living room’s second-floor landing. At the top of the stairs, her two Yorkshire Terriers circled him excitedly and amicably, implying they knew him well.
A landscaper from Arizona, Annie’s visitor had decided to spend the winter months trying out a change of scenery in lush, verdant Seattle. According to Annie, he’d already set up shop here, and his business was booming in the wealthy neighborhoods that lined Puget Sound. After initially booking a one-month stay at Annie’s place via Airbnb, he had extended his stay for several months and didn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. I was surprised to hear that until he arrived, they’d been total strangers. But I was also very intrigued. Due to the casual nature of our professional relationship, as soon as he was out of earshot, I peppered Annie with questions about her experience as a host.
Was she worried about safety? Without asking for explicit details, was the income enough to make it worth the risk and efforts required to keep her home clean for guests? Did she have any bad experiences? Who were her favorite guests? As she patiently answered all my questions a seed was planted in my mind.
When I told Jeff about my decision to host on Airbnb—if he’d allow me to rent his gorgeously appointed, centrally located home, that is—I assured him he was welcome to visit anytime. Since enough time had passed since our breakup, and I’d learned about a deeper level of romantic connection from dating Grayson, I knew I would never be tempted to date Jeff again.
The night I met Grayson, a man sitting at the bar a few stools down from us looked at us and asked me how long we’d been together. We’d been on our first date for barely an hour, but our level of attraction and comfort with one another was obvious and palpable. That man—and numerous friends for months afterward—said they enjoyed watching us together. Falling in love with Grayson was swift and effortless. It was heady and intoxicating and unmoored me from myself. I’d never felt anything like it. I loved Grayson deeply, and for a time, he claimed to also love me. Since Jeff and I had never felt love toward, nor exchanged words of love with, one another, it was easy to see him as only a friend. If Jeff someday chose to return to Seattle for a visit, it wouldn’t be weird to have him stay in my/his home.
Jeff has always been a fairly laid-back individual, so he took the Airbnb request and invitation to return anytime in stride. I think he was simply relieved that I’d be living in his home instead of strangers. Jeff knew I would take care of the place, and he gave me his blessing.
My wish for change had been answered.
Energized by the prospect of my new life and the chance to escape my house and the memories associated with it, I sprang into action. I booked a lunch date with Annie to consult with her about the specific ins and outs of Airbnb, chatted with my accountant, secured tenants for my Green Lake house, and prepared to pack for the five-mile move across town.
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