What does one do with an empty cottage? Create a vacation rental.
My husband, Bud, and I have been Airbnb hosts for nearly five years and enjoy every minute. Surprisingly, our washer and dryer have not died yet from the extra workload. Behind our home is a 350-square-foot cottage we still offer to family and friends. Not suitable for long-term housing, it’s available only as a less-than-31-day rental. Like Napa and Marin counties, Sonoma County is a virtual hotbed of tourism with visitors from around the globe; so it was practical to rent it through Airbnb. People come for every imaginable experience: wineries and weddings, breweries and bakeries, music festivals, Ironman competitions, fairs and rodeos, cheeses and chocolates, cycling and zip lines, ballooning and kayaking, the beaches, marathons, business and life style conferences or quick romantic getaways.
And where do they stay? Hotels or motels, inns, B & Bs, Airbnbs, campgrounds or with family or friends. How do they choose their lodging? Cost, proximity to their event, ambiance, amenities, location, the experience. Airbnb guests say they seek something other than a hotel stay. They choose us for the privacy, the quiet neighborhood, the separate entrance, the personal attention, the ability to walk to restaurants or events, and the bottle of wine and scones. We’ve had visitors from Korea, Canada, Australia, China, England, Germany, France and practically every state across the U.S. What an experience to host folks whom we never would have met had it not been for our little cottage! Many are San Franciscans who simply wish to enjoy a Wine Country weekend.
Each Airbnb is different: stand-alone cottage or attached granny unit, whole house, apartment or single room. Some have pools. Some accept pets or entire families. Some are in the country, and many are right in town where the action is. We’ve had Ironman competitors (women, actually), as well as cyclists and marathoners, country music fans and cannabis aficionados, doctors, nurses, engineers, techies, teachers, brides-to-be, wedding attendees, anniversary couples, chefs, sommeliers, pilots, and girlfriend reunions. In 2018, about 228,000 Sonoma County visitors stayed in some kind of vacation rental other than a hotel. The Sonoma County Tourism office says approximately 750 such rentals are here. The County of Napa limits its short-term rentals to 101 units, and latest figures for Marin County indicate it has close to 400. According to Airbnb, Sonoma County hosts grossed $49 million from guests in 2018. However, it is not “free” money. Airbnb collects a service fee from us; we pay the city of Santa Rosa a 9 percent Transient Occupancy Tax, plus a 3 percent City Tourism fee. Napa and Marin counties have higher rates.
Hosts host for many reasons: to pay the mortgage, to afford travel, to pay medical bills or home care for a family member or for cultural exposure. We wanted the extra money to help put our grandson, whose parents are deceased, through college. It gave us funds to replace the 30-year old roof on our home and cottage. And, we enjoy sharing with global guests. It’s not clear exactly how much Airbnb guests contribute to the North Bay economy, but it’s significant. They dine at restaurants two to three meals each day. They visit wineries and return with bottles or cases of wine. They attend concerts, plays and fairs. They hold weddings. They shop the downtowns, the malls and the markets. They rent cars, buy gas or use Uber.
As hosts, we strive to provide the best experience possible. Through the Airbnb website, we rate our guests and they rate us. Neither sees the other rating until both are complete. We compete for the Superhost title: more than 90 percent 5-star ratings from guests, no cancellations, and 100 percent response rate. We’re proud of that Superhost badge on our Airbnb page; prospective guests look for it. In Sonoma County, many of us belong to the informal Coalition of Hosts. We hold bimonthly potlucks to exchange ideas, address hosting issues or discuss upcoming policies proposed by the city and county. We write to supervisors and council members and attend meetings to express our opinions and concerns.
Airbnb hosts are true ambassadors for the North Bay. Bud and I are Certified Tourism Ambassadors, having gone through the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau’s training program. We have a handsome CTA pin and are offered “familiarity tours” to unique places to better show off the county to our guests. In February, with 37 others, I went on a Chocolate Tour. The chocolatiers were welcoming and so generous with their amazing samples of all things chocolate! Who knew? Hosts don’t do this to get rich. We love doing what we do. And there are the occasional unexpected perks that are priceless. When is the last time hotel guests hugged their concierge?
Sandy Metzger and her husband have hosted their Wine Country Historic Town Cottage since 2014. Sandy bakes scones and maintains beautiful gardens around their historic property. She was a Sonoma County Master Gardener for 17 years and has been a Redwood Writer since 2009 and past president. Aka Sandy Baker, she has written eight children’s gardening books, three middle grade collections and a novel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (707) 526-3331
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