Today we’re breaking down our experience after our first full (second partial) season renting our Michigan Tree House on Airbnb! We sure have learned a lot along the way!
Like most folks, 2020 changed our lives and our small business in ways we never thought possible. *Early last March, we listed our Michigan Tree House on AirBNB for our first official season. A few days later, the world shut down, travel restrictions were enforced and we were left scrambling to refund and reschedule all of our booked stays through early July. We pushed through and experienced our first (abridged) season as hosts and learned a lot about the process, what worked for us and what didn’t.
Now we’re in the final quarter of 2021, and we officially officially have our first full season under our belts! Lots of things changed, lots of things stayed the same and we’ve retained our Superhost status for another year! Here’s are some thoughts and FAQs as 2021 winds down.
Weeklong Rentals vs. Three Night Minimums
Our goal has always been to keep Tree House as a relatively affordable option for families and small groups of friends to escape to Harbor Country and experience all that Southwest Michigan has to offer. Given the restrictions and financial changes brought on in 2020, we wanted to offer shorter, more affordable trips as an option for people in need of a quick getaway so we set our minimum stay at 3 nights last season. We found, however, that the majority of our guests were staying for a week (or longer) so we made the decision to switch to week-long, Friday to Friday rentals through the peak Summer season for 2021. For those looking for a shorter or more economical stay, we still offer 3 night minimums in the ‘shoulder seasons’ of spring and fall outside of summer’s peak.
The change has benefitted us and our guests and we’ve gotten great feedback! For example:
- Week-long stays eliminate odd two night gaps in the schedule and keep the house full consistently each week
- Our guests can plan on a predictable Friday afternoon check-in and a Friday morning check-out the following week.
- Weekly turns cut down on textile washing, which in turn results in less wear and tear. We’ve invested in high-quality towels and bed linens and this helps them last longer.
- We’ve been able to lock in our cleaning/turnover person for every Friday morning, which allows her to schedule her other clients more easily and consistently.
Quality Cleaning and Turnovers as a Linchpin
Speaking of cleaning and turnovers, we have found this to be perhaps the most important aspect of hosting. We started last year’s partial season with a company that simply wasn’t able to keep up with our needs and expectations. In an effort to finish our turnovers as quickly as possible, they were completed by teams of two employees and laundry was handled offsite at a commercial facility. Unfortunately, the cleaning was inconsistent and things were never left quite the way we’d agreed upon.
Halfway through last year, we arrived for a stay of our own to find unsatisfactory cleaning, disorganized drawers and shelves and hastily made beds. Kim immediately sat down at her computer, made over a dozen phone calls and we were meeting with our current cleaning person in a matter of a few hours. She is kind, helpful, communicative and handles every aspect of her business on her own. We’ve found this to be the crucial difference between a self-employed small business owner and a company with a staff of employees. She does an absolutely impeccable job cleaning, the beds look perfect and our shelves and drawers are left exactly the way we like. She’s been an absolute godsend, so we do everything in our power to make her job as easy and efficient as possible!
Planning for the Unexpected
Regardless of how well we plan, stock up and organize, unexpected events will always come up (and usually at the least opportune time)! We do experience the occasional power outage at Tree House, since the surrounding areas are so heavily wooded and fallen trees and powerlines don’t mix. We’re also surrounded by nature, so critters can occasionally make their presence more known than we’d like. Last summer, for example, a swarm of hornets decided that it was a good idea to take up residency in a poorly sealed roof vent. In order to avoid any unfortunate encounters, I took it upon myself to make the 3 hour round trip to handle the situation. Armed with several cans of wasp spray and a headlamp, I eradicated the nest and caulked the exposed seam in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. Our neighbors probably thought I had lost my mind!
For other instances, we also have a local handyman, a plumber, an electrician and a wildlife management person available locally (he just happens to be allergic to wasps)! When things do go awry, we do everything in our power to make it right with our guests. We’ve sent digital gift cards to our favorite local shops, refunded nights and offered discounts for return stays when things are inconvenient beyond our control. It’s important to us that all of our guests feel valued and taken care of because we value them and strive to take the best possible care of them!
Personal Items and Locked Storage
We’re often asked how we handle our individual clothing and personal items since our home is occupied by relative strangers 75% of the time. We’re a pretty trusting bunch and we believe that if we take good care of our guests, they’ll take good care of our home and respect the few boundaries that we do have in place. For important items, Kim, Lucy and I each have our own locked drawer in the closet shelving unit in the primary bedroom. They each contain a few clothing items, swimsuits and a couple of Lucy’s toys that are special to her and would prefer not to share.
Inside the bathroom vanity mirror, simple labels that state ‘Owner use only, please’ denote the two cabinets that contain our belongings. The third cabinet is always kept empty for guest use. We try to think of it like this – if someone really needs to use a Q tip or a pump of face lotion because they forgot to pack something, it’s not the end of the world to us. It’s just simply a part of sharing our home that we couldn’t completely avoid even if we tried. And we’re OK with that.
Missing Items and Lost + Found
Occasionally, we’ll arrive to Tree House to find something that doesn’t belong to us. Since we spend the first week of each month in the home then rent it the following three weeks, it would be nearly impossible to determine who left an item behind. Sometimes we’ve uncovered incredibly fun stuff like sealed bags of great coffee or a large bottle of vodka(!). Other times we’ve found things like a tiny sock or other clothing item kicked way back behind the dresser. For non-consumable items, we’ll generally wash them and throw them into a small lost and found bin in case someone reaches out to claim them. Once the season is over, we’ll empty the bin and donate items to a local non-profit. Keeping outside items to a minimum allows us to maintain a curated, minimal space that has everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t.
That said, we’ve been asked frequently about theft of our personal belongings. Luckily, we haven’t had any instances of overt theft beyond the odd chip clip or pen that someone probably packed by mistake. Again, we chalk these tiny things up to the cost of doing business and replace them as necessary. Like Kim, our cleaning person also seems to have a photographic memory, so if anything seems to be amiss, she’s almost always the first to notice and let us know!
Monthly Maintenance Checks
With all of these procedures in place, we generally set aside at least a few hours each visit to handle our own maintenance checks and general upkeep. This can include things like winterization chores, touching up paint, caulking, trimming hedges and keeping an eye out for budding wasp nests. (I’ve learned their favorite spots and tend to mindlessly scan the eaves of the house all summer long).
Most of these chores are things that we’d have to take care of regardless of wether we rented the home or not, so the amount of work is fairly fixed. We’ve done our best to automate the home and rely on smart thermostats, lighting, smoke and CO alarms. We also recently installed a smart water shutoff that monitors ambient temperature in the crawlspace to alert us prematurely of conditions that could result in frozen pipes.
Beginning and End of Season Punchlists
At the beginning and end of each rental season we use our task management software to create checklists for more time-consuming projects. This might include things like swapping fixtures, adding amenities and larger-scale improvements.
This off-season for example, we’ll be adding some additional blinds and window coverings, as well as investigating some fun outdoor feature additions.
Is It Worth the Effort?
Absolutely. Yes! Renting our home on Airbnb has been an incredibly rewarding experience. After fees, taxes and expenses, every single dollar of the annual costs of owning and operating Tree House is covered by the income from our roughly 7 month rental season. Beyond the financial benefits, we truly love sharing our home and our little slice of Southwest Michigan with all of our guests! Hearing stories of family reunions, friend getaways and simple escapes to nature are incredibly meaningful to us and we absolutely love that so many of you have sent us kind words about the memories you’ve created here. The very first thing we do each time we arrive is read all of the new entries in the guest book. The photos, doodles, stories and thoughtfulness that you’ve all put into your entries warms our hearts and usually gets us a lil bit misty.
We’ll keep doing our part to maintain this special home if you all keep visiting and making memories that we hope will last a lifetime.
Psssst – a complete source list of every paint color and decor item can be found here.
hey hiya! you slip in a task management software… can I ask what you use? I’ve been trying to create a yearly task list for seasons for my husband and have yet to find something that sticks!
Trello! We have the free version and organize our whole business with it. There’s a phone app and desktop app that sync. For smaller tasks (like grocery lists or a personal to-do list), we use the Any List app on our phone.
I was going to ask if it was Trello! Thanks for asking! :)
I know you have probably mentioned this before, but I am a new follower. Where do you guys stay while your home is being rented?
We live in Chicago, and have this as a small second property. We use Tree House as a family ALL the time, but rent it for most of the summer. The rest of the time, we’re home in Chicago!
This is a great update! I always love photos of this house and today is no exception. Thanks for sharing the nitty gritty here. Are you finding the worker shortages challenging? My friend rents out her mountain home, here in Colorado, and can’t seem to find a good cleaner (or anyone that’s available) for the life of her! It sounds really frustrating and I hope you’re not facing the same issue. At least you found a great cleaner!
Luckily our current cleaning person is a small business owner that handles every aspect on her own. The lines of communication are clear and direct and she takes incredible care of our home! We’ve been lucky that the labor situation hasn’t effected us too much and have a team of trusted professionals that we can call on when we need an extra hand!
I am so pleased to hear you talking about this but I’m also stumped – how did you find this person? I’ve done the cleaning services in my area and had much the same experience as you (outsourced workforce, not a ton of pride in work/good comms, would prefer to support a person directly!) Please share any tips on how to find good people – the only ones that seem to advertise near me are just the opposite of this. Thanks!
Of course! We got so frustrated with the performance of the former company that Kim spent a couple of hours searching Yelp and Google and called every single number that she could find. Our current person returned her message within minutes and happened to be in the area. She was able to stop by a few hours later and we had the remainder of our rental season booked within 30 minutes of meeting her. Unfortunately, it was simple relentless persistence that connected us with her! Throw enough spaghetti at the wall and something will stick!
I’d also like to chime in and say that Susan’s comment hit the nail on the head: ‘a cleaning service has high turnover and spotty quality. A person like me, who is the sole proprietor knows that an excellent job means the business succeeds and a poor job means it fails.’ That’s been true in our experience, but of course every company will be different – and by no means am I discounting the work of the cleaning service industry. The owner of one company actually told us they don’t clean on the weekends because he can’t rely on his team to not call off! Anyway, I was RELENTLESS calling any and every number of single owner businesses, other companies, etc. When we found our cleaner, it was like it was meant to be. We take very good care of her to ensure she never leaves us, haha.
I am sooo happy for you that you found a great small business owner to do your cleaning/turnover for you. That has to have been such a relief.
I don’t know why I enjoy these posts so much — I’m not in any position to rent out a property, and I live in France, so I am not gonna be renting the Tree House anytime soon! But I love the insights you provide and you are obviously dream hosts. So glad it is going well!
Kim! Thank you so, so much.
We stayed in a wonderful (but a five flight walkup!) in Copenhagen that was jam-packed with booze. It was owner-occupied a lot of the time, but he also traveled a lot for work, and he rented the property when he knew he would be gone for more than a week at a time. The neighbor that was the rental contact showed us the booze, and she told us to please help ourselves as they were running out of pantry space to store it.. Other guests that stayed there had brought it, didn’t consume it while there, and then left it behind. Between 7 of us, there was a very small dent made. ;-)
That would have been a pleasant surprise if you’re into that sort of thing. Sounds like you guys lent a helping hand!
Thanks for this! If you don’t mind sharing: does the income from the Airbnb just cover the costs of the Treehouse, or is it a source of income beyond that? How do you decide how often to rent and how often to stay there yourselves? Has that balance worked out as you expected it would? Thanks!
It covers the cost of the mortgage, utilities and other expenses (such as landscape upkeep, lawn services, etc), plus we make a little more on top. This is only by renting it out from April through November. We haven’t yet rented it during winter, but I’ll be honest and say that’s my FAVORITE time to be up there, because it’s so peaceful.
As for deciding when we stay there, we didn’t have a good system last year, so we course corrected this year. Now we stay up there for 1 week every month of the summer, at least 1 weekend a month in spring and fall, and anytime we wish in the winter. This has worked really well for us, and it gives us an opportunity to touch up paint and tend to any maintenance, such as trimming the boxwoods, deep cleaning the refrigerator and so on.
As a long term landlord, I love the idea of offering week long rentals. It’s great that your environment and area is set up for week long vacations, and all the benefits, like schedule and wear and tear are crucial. You guys are so generous in your spirit, and I am glad Tree House has been a blessing for y’all. This makes me want to have an short term rental, on a weekly schedule only, of course.
Thank you so much, Julie. :)
Wow!! That’s an amazing first year and covering your costs is HUGE! We are renting out two separate properties in two very different situations. One has an onsite property manager (condo on Siesta Key, Florida), and the other we are self-managing in a very similar way to you (house in Canaan Valley, WV). The cleaning and turnover people at the self-managed house are KEY! If you find a good cleaner, they are gold and will help you through so much. They have caught damage (including a pillow with a burn hole in it!) and other random things that we have been able to recoup. We are heading into our first “high” season and hope to see the same results we have seen this fall!
The turnover team is absolutely key! Best of luck with high season!
As a small business owner I did vacation rental turnover for the same property owner on a consistent basis. I cleaned it to a level I would expect if I had rented it, and treated it like my own house. I also knew right away if anything was damaged or missing or if any systems in the house needed attention. I’ve also had hired cleaners come in and work in the same space as me. There is hands down a HUGE difference in quality if you have a business owner doing all aspects vs. a cleaning service. I cleaning service has high turnover and spotty quality. A person like me, who is the sole proprietor knows that an excellent job means the business succeeds and a poor job means it fails. It’s a different level of buy-in. It may cost a little more to have a business owner/operator managing the turnovers, but the quality and the stability and peace of mind are worth it. Glad you found someone. Make sure she gets a bonus! ;)
YES! Absolutely this. We take very, very good care of her and she takes very, very good care of us. As an added bonus, she actually charges LESS than the previous company since she’s able to do all of the laundry onsite as opposed to taking it to an offsite commercial cleaner. If you happen to be in the SW Michigan area, we have a couple of friends that will be in need of similar services by next year and we’d be happy to pass your name along! :)
As always, an enjoyable and informative post! As a new parent interested in more travel, I’m curious how you manage childcare during the summer weeks that you’re there. Do you set aside that time to prioritize family and work less/none? Is Lucy old enough to entertain herself a bit for short periods? Or a combination?
Thanks Michelle! Lucy is 3 1/2 now, so she’s self sufficient for short periods. That said, we do our best to front-load work in the weeks leading up to travel so we only need to work during her mid-day naps, if at all. If one of us has a deadline or a big project that requires focus, the other will take her to the beach, a playground or on a hike for an hour or two. While we like to do most activities as a family, it’s also important to us that we each get to spend solo time with Lucy as well. Hope this helps!
We own two Airbnb’s in Mid-Michigan and I agree that a good cleaning person and handyman are the KEY to a successful business. My husband and I often marvel at how our properties run like clock-work, and are relatively hands off thanks to our amazing cleaning lady and our two capable handymen. We couldn’t do it without them!
It’s definitely clutch to have a great team on your side!
It’s so fun to read all these details, thanks for sharing! I also love the coincidental similarity between the Tree House kitchen and Sherry’s before-kitchen. :) Just a thought – we get our backyard sprayed with wasp repellant each year in the late spring. There are still a few here and there but it cuts them way down.
Hello! Love this update, thanks, as always for sharing! I’m curious about the Friday-Friday rental – is that a common thing in your area? I’m on the East Coast and weeklong rentals are typically Sat-Sat, sometimes Sun-Sun. Friday turnovers seem like a nice option for beating some traffic!
Lots of rentals here are Saturday to Saturday, but we decided on the Friday turns to make our lives easier and also align with our own schedule better. Our guests seem to have loved it and we didn’t get any negative feedback. We’ll definitely continue with this schedule next summer as well!
Great post – our short term rental is currently under construction (rebuilding an old bakery) and I love reading your posts. We don’t do week-long rentals here in Australia, but so many good experiences and tips from you. If you’re ever visiting Hobart, Tasmania (the small island south of Australia) – look us up!
Sharing a rental story: for my mother’s 80th bday, we rented a lakehouse up north in Michigan for our large family to get together and celebrate; everything went fabulously the first 2 days, then, early morning the day of the actual party, when we had a few additional guests coming (pre-approved by the host), the septic system completely failed, toilets backed up, and no water could be used. We had multiple 80+ yr olds, an 8-mo preggo, and a cousin in a wheelchair, guests from 4 different states, a party to throw, and no bathroom. The host cancelled the remainder of our reservation (2 days), said he knew the septic was on its last leg and it was scheduled to be re-done in a couple months, and refunded half of our stay (2 days). We scrambled to pack up and had to find new accommodations for everyone. We were outraged; we told him that we ourselves are Airbnb superhosts (we host a small in-law suite off the back of our home), and that we have refunded entire stays for MUCH smaller issues (the worst being: one time the key-code message we sent didn’t go through due to a connection issue and we hadn’t realized it; our guests arrived and couldn’t get in and also couldn’t reach us because we were out to dinner not paying attention to our phones; luckily they had friends in town so they went to hang out with them for a couple hours until we realized the problem. They were very understanding, but we refunded their entire stay because WE SCREWED UP!). Anyhow, the lakehouse host refused to respond, I got absolutely nowhere with VRBO customer service and when I wrote a very honest, factual review, it got rejected. Very frustrated with VRBO and hope to not use them again. At this point its mostly funny, water under the bridge, but I wish more people were wonderful, conscientious hosts like ya’ll!
I’m curious if you’ve grappled with the “ethical” side of owning a vacation home and renting it out on airbnb. This is said with zero judgment and just curiosity because you are both thoughtful people, and this is a quandary I’ve struggled with myself. Where I live (east coast ski destination), 40%+ of the homes are second homes that are only owner-occupied for portions of the year, and meanwhile there is a massive housing shortage that is forcing locals to leave the state. Airbnb has created similar challenges in cities. We’ve owned a vacation home before and have thought about doing it again for personal use and income generation, but this continues to be a hangup for me. Obviously it’s really complicated and tourism creates business that benefits locals, but I’ve still seen the negative results for the stability and resiliency of our local economy and the availability of housing for everyone. I’m wondering if you’ve wrestled with this and would love to hear your thoughts! (and I’m sorry if you’ve written about this already!)