When Airbnb was founded back in 2008, the idea was that people could open “air mattress bed-and-breakfasts” in their homes to make a little extra money, and the site would connect them to travelers with just a few basic needs. How things can change in a decade. Today Airbnb’s offerings include mansions and castles and cool urban lofts all over the world, and its users have become highly discerning in their tastes.

In other words, competition is stiff. If you’re considering listing your second home on the site, what’s the best way to attract guests? These days a five-star user rating is almost a requirement, but don’t despair: There are things you can do to get one. We talked with Houston experts and Airbnb superhosts—the best of the best, who receive consistently high ratings—about how to dominate the short-term rental game and have fun doing it.

Know your niche

Hotel rooms are standard-issue, but Airbnbs run the gamut. You’ll need to grab potential guests’ attention to get booked. Laura Spanjian, the Houston-based senior policy director for Airbnb, recommends showing off your personality, and the place where your rental property is located, through one-of-a-kind design and site-specific touches. That can mean anything from chic furniture to a fridge stocked with local beer.

Christine Plum's Galveston property

A photo is worth a thousand dollars

Professional photos of a pristinely clean abode are key to catching travelers’ eyes when they’re scrolling through endless options on their phone. “If those pictures don’t grab the person, they are unlikely to hold them all the way to booking,” says Airbnb superhost Mehdi Rais, who’s listed the first floor of his family’s duplex in Montrose for the past three years.

A local location is key

“People want to experience the city as a local,” Spanjian says. If a traveler is visiting Houston, “they want to go to the East End, they want to go to the Heights and Oak Forest.” The same rule applies to other destinations. Guests appreciate recommendations for the best java or cocktails in a given ’hood—or at least a stack of local mags on the coffee table (hint, hint). Investing in a less saturated area can also make business sense, says Daniel Martinez, a Houston realtor and superhost who lists his one-bedroom Energy Corridor condo. “Understand your value,” he says. “If you’re in a crowded space, your rates have to be competitive.”

Find the line between extra and excess

Bikes and beach gear help bring in five-star reviews at superhost Christine Plum’s two Galveston properties, but she’s careful not to go overboard. “Make it really uncluttered,” she recommends. If your space can accommodate a group, Martinez says, board games and shared amenities are a nice perk. For a one-bedroom, though, he believes creature comforts like Netflix access, chargers, and everyday appliances will suffice. “Honestly, the coffee maker brings in a lot of interest,” he says. 

Follow the rules—and set your own

Each quarter a 17 percent hotel-occupancy tax on Airbnb rentals goes to the city, county, and state (local short-term rentals must be registered with Houston First). Airbnb collects the state’s 6 percent through its fees, and hosts pay the remainder. The company protects up to $1 million in damages for every night a property is rented out, and it also allows hosts to be doubly sure they’re covered by purchasing short-term rental policies through outside agencies, something many superhosts recommend. Apart from formal insurance, Airbnb will step in to enforce a host’s rules—like no-smoking policies or noise limits—as long as they’re outlined in the listing before a guest books.

Crunch the numbers

If you want to make a profit, treat the endeavor like a business. “Estimate monthly costs down to a T—this means tissues, toothpaste, detergent,” Martinez says. “All of that needs to be on paper so you know what’s really going to be your overall cost.” Some hosts create separate bank accounts for their properties; many analyze neighborhood trends, occupancy rates, and listing prices on AirDNA.co, a website that collects data on vacation rentals.

Talk to people!

“You have to be a responsive host, and the Airbnb app needs to be tied to your phone,” Plum says. “It makes guests feel more comfortable.” And hosts should—at a minimum—give their neighbors a heads-up that strangers will be coming in and out of the area. “Be a good steward to your community,” Rais says. “You want to bring everybody into the process rather than surprising the neighbors with it.”

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