Women who are potential Airbnb hosts may hesitate to join the platform due to safety concerns. The homesharing site’s non-discrimination policy doesn’t allow you to accept only female guests, but there are measures you can take to attract the type of person you feel comfortable sharing your home with.
Kathleen Forest is a Superhost is the DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia. Since her listing went live in February of 2017, she has had much success and accrued 42 positive reviews. Because her husband is often traveling for work and she has two sons, Kathleen had concerns about listing a room in their family home on Airbnb, but she has developed strategies to set forth clear expectations and establish boundaries with guests.
Listen in as Kathleen shares the precautions she has taken to protect herself and her sons, her approach to the Instant Book feature, and her suggestions for hosts with children. Learn to design a listing that appeals to your ideal guest so that you feel comfortable and safe!
How to attract your ideal guest
Precautions Kathleen has taken to protect herself and her sons
How Kathleen approaches Instant Book
How Kathleen establishes boundaries with guests
Unique aspects of Kathleen’s Airbnb
Kathleen’s suggestions for hosts with children
Kathleen’s general tips for Airbnb hosts
This episode is sponsored by Hostfully.com where you can create a custom digital guidebook for your guests!
Complete Transcript for Get Paid for Your Pad Episode 159
Welcome to Get Paid For Your Pad, the definitive show on Airbnb hosting, featuring the best advice on how to maximize profits from your Airbnb listing, as well as real-life experiences from Airbnb hosts all over the world. Welcome.
Jasper: This episode is brought to you by Hostfully, a company that helps you make beautiful guidebooks for your listing. Make your own at hostfully.com/pad, and a special for Get Paid For Your Pad listeners, you’ll get a free guidebook consultation after you make your guidebook.
Jasper: Welcome to episode number 159 of Get Paid For Your Pad. I am Jasper, your host. Today I am with Kathleen Forest who is an Air BNB host in Arlington, Virginia and has been since February 2017. She’s been very successful, she’s a super host, she’s already got 42 reviews. Kathleen actually reached out to me a while ago before she got into Air BNB hosting because she wanted to have some information about safety for female Air BNB hosts. Now, I told her I would find a guest but it slipped my mind. Then she reached out to me again and she told me, “Well, I would be happy to be that guest to talk about safety for female Air BNB hosts now that I have some experience.” Kathleen, thank you so much for joining today. How are you doing?
Kathleen Forest: Good morning, Jasper, thanks so much for having me, I’m great.
Jasper: Awesome. Yeah, it’s a subject that of course will be difficult for me to comment on since I’m not a female. I’m very interested to hear what your thoughts are on this topic. Let’s start with how you got started with Air BNB and your experiences so far.
Kathleen Forest: All right. Well, as you mentioned we’re in Arlington, Virginia which is a suburb of Washington, DC. We get a lot of summer interns here and people coming through, it’s a very transient area. In the past we have rented out our room to interns over the summer or other people coming for a very defined period of time. Most recently last Fall we had a woman starting to stay with us a couple nights a week who lives in Philadelphia and commutes to DC for work. She was just raving about the room, and the location, and how convenient it all was. That’s really what got me thinking, “Hey, she’s only here maybe eight nights a month. We really could be doing something with the space the rest of the time.”
I had started listening to your podcast quite a while ago and had sort of been getting information from that and making mental notes of things that I would need to do. It felt a bit overwhelming because there’s so many things you can do to have a great listing and have a great offering that it felt almost too much. It took me a little while to get over that mental hurdle and jump in. As you mentioned, I had contacted you because one of my main concerns was safety. I had been an Air BNB guest but I had always rented private apartments. I had never rented a room in somebody’s home so I didn’t know first of all what the market was for that, was there even significant demand.
I didn’t know about the safety issue as a female host and also I have children in my house and that’s an important consideration for me. That launched me on this path of trying to get information, and experimenting, and figuring it out. I’m happy to be here today to talk to people about what I learned along the way in the hopes that it will help somebody else.
Jasper: Awesome, that’s great. What are the precautions that you have taken before you started Air BNB hosting to improve your safety and that of your children?
Kathleen Forest: One of the things … Starting at the very beginning with the actual listing. Our listing mentions … Actually, let me back up a little bit. My very first question to you was, is it possible for women to host only other women? Actually, I never really was able to find anything that said definitively yes or no but my understanding of the answer really is no. That Air BNB is a very inclusive platform and so that that’s really not an option, that’s not the way it’s designed to work. Fortunately from my experience now having done this, I’ve hosted many men and I really don’t feel the need to host only women now that I’ve actually done it, but that was an initial question going in.
I was looking to build in as much safety as I could at each step. The very first thing obviously that people see is your listing. The name of my listing is safe, comfortable room near our Metro station. I chose that wording specifically because I thought the safety issue, that’s going to appeal to other women. That was the audience I was initially targeting, women and couples. Sure enough, that title has proven to be very popular. Then in the listing itself I’ve also mentioned that it’s a safe neighborhood and that we’re ideally suited to solo female travelers and couples. I’ve also had a lot of people say specifically, “Oh, that put me so much at ease,” or, “My husband was worried about me traveling by myself and he saw that and felt better.”
Just the wording that you choose can help find your audience. With that being said, I’ve had two men stay with me, I’ve had single men stay with me. I’ve had all different iterations but that’s what I was initially targeting, that made me feel more comfortable.
Jasper: You mentioned a very important point. That is, before you start your Air BNB listing it’s very smart to think about who are the people that you want to host. Then when you set up your listing you are automatically going to appeal to that particular demographic. The second point I wanted to make it that doesn’t mean that other types of travelers aren’t going to book your place because like you mentioned you’re still getting men to book your place as well. Even though you’re targeting that audience you’re not excluding anyone. By the way, you are absolutely right, Air BNB is very strict when it comes to discrimination issues so we’re definitely not meant to discriminate against anyone.
Kathleen Forest: Exactly. On your point about the niche market, that was one of those things that I’ve heard in your podcast and I’ve read in your book about finding your niche. I think before you’ve started that’s an overwhelming thought. How can you figure out what your niche is? My advice there is just do it and you’ll figure it out. You’ll find who comes to you and what you’re well suited for. It turns out we happen to be walking distance to Reagan National Airport. That’s very convenient but I didn’t, in my mind, perceive that that was going to be as big a draw as it is. We get lots of people who have a really early morning flight and so they want to be right by the airport. We’re also right on the Metro that takes you into downtown DC so we get tons of tourists.
Those seem to be our two major draws and I just had not perceived in advance that the airport was going to be the draw that it is. Even if you don’t know your niche when you first start, you can try it and see what works but you might find that you attract something else entirely.
Jasper: Absolutely. When I started I had no idea that my apartment was very convenient for couples, I never thought about it.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah, that’s something you discover as you go. There’s a lot of that with the Air BNB hosting, you’re tweaking things as you go and as you learn and have different experiences.
Jasper: Absolutely. I was looking at your profile, I felt some notice … And I don’t know if you did this on purpose but I felt some notice that your picture, your profile picture is a picture of you and your husband.
Kathleen Forest: Yes, that was deliberate, that was about something. Because of schedules and this and that he is at this house about 50% of the time and so because of that I’m here a lot alone and I had these safety issues. I did deliberately use a photo of us together. If you’re not in a partnership you could post a photo of you with a friend. You fill out your profile and talk a little bit about yourself in a way that makes other people comfortable with you and hopefully they’ll reciprocate and share information about them. Yeah, the choice of the photo was deliberate and also the language that we used in some of the messages. Particularly when I was first starting my very first booking, we’ve talked about I was targeting women, targeting couples. My very first booking of course was a single male. I used we language instead of I language like, “We look forward to hosting you,” signing it Kathy and Jim whether or not Jim was going to be here.
It just puts out in the universe, “Okay, there’s other people present, there’s other people around.” That was just another little thing that I did that made me feel more comfortable. I’m conveying information there.
Jasper: Yep, absolutely.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah. We started with the listing and the use of the photo. Somebody else suggested to me, and this is not something that I have done yet. That if you really wanted to target a female audience that you might try decorating the room in a way that might appeal more or having features or offerings that might appeal more to women. Again, that’s not something I’ve done, I think that mine is very gender neutral. I get a lot of comments that it’s almost like a hotel room, it’s white, and clean, and very neat. Now that I have this experience, like I said, I’m not really not trying to have male guests. That’s not something I have done but it’s something, if that is a concern of yours and you’re interested it is something to consider.
Jasper: Yeah, that’s a very good point, I didn’t think about that. If you want to target a different type of audience you could do the same thing. You can always decorate your room to appeal to the people that you want to host whether it’s females or males or couples or a certain age range or whatever it may be.
Kathleen Forest: Exactly. What you’re touting is the features. All of that is a way to help find the audience that you’re looking for. Then as a female host, one of the biggest hurdles. You know of course that Air BNB encourages the use of Instant Book. That was a very hard decision for me to make because it takes away some of the control, some of that screening control that you have as a host. In the end I did decide to use the instant booking and we’ve had great results. I think that was part of our initial success of getting so many people.
Like you said, we have had a lot of reviews and we’ve only been up since February. When I listed this room within two days the first two months were completely booked. I was completely astounded by the demand. I think obviously instant booking contributes to you getting more traffic but it takes away some of your control as a host. In the end that’s worked out fine for us, we have not had a single negative experience. I do have the settings set so that if somebody does not have any prior reviews then I need to approve them. There have been instances of people that I have not approved and I think that it’s important. Obviously we’re very careful not to discriminate against people but you do need to listen to your gut.
You’re inviting people into your home and you have to think about, “Is this right for us, is this right for my family?” When you get that kind of request that makes you uncomfortable it’s okay to say no. I had somebody message me at 10 o’clock at night, “I see your room’s not available tonight, I’d like to book it for tomorrow. I’m at the airport. Can I came over now and leave my suitcases?” The answer is no. You’re not booked to stay at my place, you’re not coming by my house at 10 o’clock at night completely out of the blue to leave luggage here. The answer was no. This person also had a cartoon character as their profile picture and what not. Just everything about it to my gut said, “No. This is not something that we need to do.” I will decline a request like that.
Sometimes if I am not sure about something you just dig deeper. You communicate with the guests. I got a request from a young woman in Poland whose profile picture … She had no reviews and her profile picture was extremely suggestive in a way that I thought, “This is not an appropriate profile picture for any social media.” That made me uncomfortable. I had her first name, I had from her profile where she had gone to school and so I googled this person. I pulled up her Instagram and saw pictures of her and her boyfriend traveling all over Europe and this and that. I was like, “Okay, this is a real person who’s interested in traveling and what not. This is not …”
The photograph was really suggestive and that had given me pause. Then when I looked into her a little bit more I’m like, “Oh no, this is just a normal person looking to travel.” She and her boyfriend ended up coming here and they were great guests. You have that freedom to do a little bit of digging and if your guests … Air BNB encourages them to tell the host why are you traveling, what brings you here, why did you choose this listing? If they don’t choose to do that initially you can reach out to them and say, “Hey, tell me why you’re coming so that I can give you recommendations.” You just start a conversation and you get a sense of what they’re about and that can also increase your comfort level.
Jasper: Yeah, those are some really good points, really good steps. As a curiosity, did you tell your guest that she might want to change her profile picture?
Kathleen Forest: I did not. I felt like that probably was not my place but certainly it’s not a picture I would have chosen for myself.
Jasper: She might want to know that.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah.
Jasper: I can understand that you don’t also don’t want to offend your guest, of course. If your guest shows up and the first thing you say is like, “Hey, that profile picture of yours, it could be you want to be a little bit subtle about it.”
Kathleen Forest: That’s why she chose it. Yeah, and then the listing and there’s obviously the area of the rules. That was something that I focused on and that I’ve added to and refined. I heard a podcast that you did recently about a woman who had a negative experience where her apartment was trashed by guests and how she went back and refined her rules and requirements. Some of the very specific rules that I had put up where I talked about our quiet hours. Our quiet hours are very kid friendly. We have kids and they get up in the morning. If your plan is to sleep until 11 am then we’re probably not the right listing for you. We convey that in the fact that our quiet hours are 10 pm to 6 am.
Usually people are not running around at 6 am but still, that prepares people that we are a household where people are going to be getting up and getting ready for their day. I very explicitly stated … I mean, there’s some things you think you don’t need to state, I would say state them anyway so I specifically said no illegal activities, no illegal substances. We’re in the United States so I specified no firearms and no unregistered guests. If you’re coming give me the name of your second person if there’s two of you. Hey, you make friends while you’re in DC, that’s great, your friends can’t come over. It’s also a way of controlling who’s coming in and who’s coming out.
Then, another thing that I’ve done is I really have advertised just the room. I’m not advertising access to the entire house. My guests, obviously they’re welcome to use the kitchen and I have people come down and make coffee. We had lovely Indian families here and they would make Chi tea in the morning. All of that is great but I don’t advertise, “Come hang out in our living room. Come hang out in the dining room.” I’m trying to convey, “You’ve rented a room and this is your space. The rest of it is pretty much our space unless you need some sort of special access.” That kind of limits the amount of interaction that we have.
Jasper: Yeah, that makes sense.
Kathleen Forest: Let’s see, what else? We had talked about communication earlier. One of the things, if you looked through my profile quickly you’ll notice that I have in my photos a photo of a penguin. I also have a note at the end of my profile about penguins. We picked this because my youngest son loves penguins. Basically what the note says is, when you contact us be sure to mention penguins or tell us a penguin joke or something like that. We have, I would say about a third of people actually do that. What that tells me is they’ve read the full listing. When they don’t do that I know that I need to be a little more proactive in making sure that they are aware of what we’re offering, what the rules are, expectations, all of that. I know that maybe they haven’t really reviewed the entire profile.
Jasper: Smart move.
Hosts, I can’t emphasize how important it is to share recommendations of things to do or eat near your listing beforehand. Your guests won’t have to go through TripAdvisor, Foursquare, or Yelp. They won’t have to scratch their head and think about possible places right in the moment. I’ve been using Hostfully to create an online and printable guidebook to show my guests my favorite coffee places in Amsterdam. They use my recommendations, and I’m getting fewer questions from my guests as a result. I’ve also included screenshots of my guidebook on my Airbnb listing as a way to differentiate my listing from others. So, make your own guidebook at hostfully.com/pad.
By the way, I’m looking at your pictures. I’ve also noticed that you have an actual guest book where people leave a message, that’s pretty cool.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah, I put that in the room because I’ve found … As an Air BNB guest before I appreciated one property in particular where they left a survey in the room. I was much more frank I felt in that. You don’t want to necessarily criticize people on the public platform but there were suggestions that I thought could help them improve it but I didn’t want to come across as criticism. Having a place that I could put something like that I really appreciated.
We had put out the guestbook and it’s been all lovely notes. In fact, my youngest son, the first thing he does when somebody leaves is run upstairs to see if they left a note in the guestbook. He really enjoys that and it’s sort of an engagement thing for him as well, and other guests can see. They’re also writing to you while it’s fresh in their minds.
Jasper: I also love how you’re providing instructions for how to ride the escalators on the Metro.
Kathleen Forest: Yes, I consider that a public service. In DC we are very adamant about standing on the right and walking on the left on the escalator. If you are a tourist and you are standing on the left you are very likely to get run over. It helps people feel like they’re in the know and also it causes them to not make enemies in the Metro.
Jasper: I mentioned in the Washington area there’s a lot of politicians and people who work for the government who are very busy and they don’t have time to stand in the elevator, they need to hurry up to get to a meeting.
Kathleen Forest: Exactly. We have so many visitors in Washington, DC, it’s one of the great things about our city, people love to come here and visit. If you want to stand out as being a tourist stand on the left side of the elevator. If you want to blend in and feel like a local then stand on the right.
Jasper: I should probably provide tourists … Well, I’m not hosting in Amsterdam anymore now but in Amsterdam one of the things that causes trouble sometimes is that Dutch people always bike to work. We calculate how long it takes to bike from our house to work because we want to sleep as long as possible. For example, from my house to my work it used to be 12 minutes. If I have to be at work at eight I will leave at 7:48, which means that if there is a tourist who’s going really, really slow or there’s two or three of them and they’re taking up the entire width of the biking lane that I’m going to be late for work. I’ve had quite a few occasions where I’ve had to kind of yell at them and ask them to get out the way.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Sometimes on the Metro I’ll see people, I’ll say, “Oh, are you visiting Washington?” They’ll say yes. I’ll say, “Well, let me give you a tip. If you want to blend in here’s what you do.”
Jasper: I like how you frame it.
Kathleen Forest: It’s a nice way of saying, “Get out of my way.”
Jasper: It’s a nice way to frame it. Instead of saying, “Hey, you’re on the wrong side, get out of the way.” You say, “Hey, if you want to blend in,” because people always want to blend in, don’t they?
Kathleen Forest: Exactly, exactly.
Jasper: Smart moves.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah, continuing down the safety path here. Another thing that we did in our home is to install keypad locks. We have one on the front door. I have to say, that one hasn’t worked quite as well as I would hope so we’re still using keys primarily with people. I find that some people have trouble inputting the codes. What the front door lock does do is tells me on an app on my phone when people have gone in and out. I can monitor traffic, did people really leave when they say they were going to leave or say I’m out for the night. Why is the door opened and closed 20 times, do they have people over? It’s just a tool to kind of keep track of what’s happening with your property.
Then, the most important thing for me was putting keypad locks on all of our bedroom doors. Like I said, I have children in the house, their rooms are 100% off limits. At night their doors are locked. They have the code so that they can get in. I can obviously get into all of the doors in the house but it makes it impossible for anyone to access any of the bedrooms. We keep the bedrooms locked. If we’re home they’re generally unlocked unless we’re sleeping. If we’re out, all of them, we just keep all of those locked. That also provides us a place where we can keep valuables.
I made some adjustments in where I store things but not a whole lot. I no longer leave my checkbook by the computer, I keep it in my purse now. The computer is, I make sure that it’s locked when we leave. We don’t leave iPads sitting around and this and that. I really don’t worry very much about theft because we’re in the home. People have contact with you and they see you and they know you’re around. I think some of the problems that people run into when they’re renting a separate unit is … We kind of avoid those. They know you’re there and they’re respectful of it. If there’s anything happening you can see that right away. Not only have we not have people take anything, we’ve had people leave us multiple gifts which has been really nice.
We’ve let people keep their car in our driveway if they came for a flight. We had this young couple, we let them leave their car in our driveway for a week, which cost us absolutely nothing but they went to Puerto Rico and they came back with gifts for us, which was a really nice thing. We’ve had guests from Montreal which is where I went to University. They found that out and they brought me special treats from Montreal which was really sweet. I think people are generally good and I really don’t worry about people taking things. What are they going to take from my kitchen and my living room?
Jasper: Yeah, exactly, that’s what I always thought as well. I don’t really have anything that’s that valuable. I don’t know, my TV’s kind of big, I don’t know if you’d really want to bring that on the plane and take it back home.
Kathleen Forest: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Good luck getting my TV out. Exactly.
Jasper: Awesome. Are there any other important things that you want to mention as we’re getting towards the final part of the episode?
Kathleen Forest: I think just the last thought would be about doing this when you have kids in the house. It’s a different challenge because … Deciding whether or not to do it might be based on the age of your children. If I had infants who were napping this might not be a good solution but I have a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old. In doing it, it was important to get their buy-in and make sure that they were okay with this and that they liked this idea. Initially they were very enthusiastic. Like I said, the youngest one loves to check the guestbook and they like interacting with the guests. We get people from all over the world and I find that the boys ask them really interesting questions and learn stuff.
Conversely, these international guests have told us they love staying with an American family. That they’ve only ever seen American families on television and it’s nice to see what a real American family lives like. It’s just important how the kids buy-in. In our case, the children gave up the bathroom that had been theirs. We now devote that to the Air BNB so that was a sacrifice that they had to make. They understood that conversely they get advantages. This is extra bonus money so we just took a trip to Columbia and this summer we’ll be going to Germany and Czech Republic. Those are things that Air BNB helps to make possible.
My older son about a month ago started pushing back a little bit. He’s like, “I don’t want to do this, this is too much.” We sat down and had a conversation about it. I said, “What are your concerns? What specifically is bothering you?” He particularly liked to complain about the giving up of the bathroom. We sat down and had a conversation and at the end of it he said, “You know Mom, mostly I just like to complain about giving up the bathroom, it doesn’t actually bother me.” We reached an agreement, we found okay it’s fine. I do try to build in breaks and block certain dates just so that it’s not constant and overwhelming. Certainly, any day that we put out there gets book so that’s nice.
Just trying to balance it and make sure that it’s working for your family. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to jump into this, you have to remember it doesn’t have to be forever. If you try it and you don’t like it you can stop or you can initially … You might float a trial balloon and just open it up for a month first and determine whether or not there’s any interest in your property, whether there’s any market for it. From there you might say, “Oh yeah, there was good demand, let’s give this a try.” You might say, “Well, this doesn’t really seem to be catching on, maybe we should try something different.”
Nothing is permanent. You can figure out what works. If it doesn’t work for you, you can do something else entirely.
Jasper: That’s great advice. Kathleen, thank you so much for joining the show. I think you’ve provided some really valuable information, I definitely learned a few things. You mentioned a few things that I literally had never thought about. I’m very grateful that you took the time to be on the podcast and I wish you all the luck with your Air BNB listing and congratulations for achieving what you’ve achieved.
Kathleen Forest: Thank you so much, Jasper. I have to credit you with a lot of the success. I’ve got a lot of great information from you that made it all that much easier so thank you.
Jasper: That’s great to hear, thank you very much. For the listeners out there, thank you for listening. Of course, we’ll see you next time on Monday or Friday.