Airbnb For Extra Income
Beyond Airbnb: Sharing Homes Offers Seniors Financial and Social Advantages
Lack of retirement savings and help with chores may lead more to consider renting out extra space
Think sharing a home is just for college students and millennials?
Renting out a spare bedroom, even for a few days a month, can yield serious benefits for older homeowners, financial and retirement experts say. In addition to more income and companionship, it may give seniors stretched by high housing costs a way to stay in their homes longer.
Only about 2% of older people currently live in a household with someone other than a family member, a percentage that has stayed relatively constant for decades, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. But experts expect those numbers to rise, driven by economic need, demographic changes in society, and online services that make it easier for lodgers and homeowners to connect.
One reason seniors may be increasingly likely to share their homes is a lack of retirement savings, according to Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research and a professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. More than half of all working-age households, and 43% of those in the top-third income bracket, haven’t saved enough to replace their income in retirement, Ms. Munnell says. For many, renting out a spare room thus offers a way to help pay the bills each month.
Deborah Hirshfield, a 67-year-old retired art and music teacher in Evanston, Ill., says she began renting out a room in her condo six years ago when she discovered her pension payments were going to be less than she had hoped. Ms. Hirshfield, who rents the room to postdoctoral students working at nearby Northwestern University, says the extra income has allowed her to stay in the home where she has lived for the past 25 years. She finds her tenants through places4students.com, and gets help vetting applicants and drawing up rental agreements from Open Communities, a nonprofit that advocates fair-housing policies based in nearby Winnetka, Ill.
Thousands of other older homeowners, meanwhile, are discovering sharing applications like Airbnb Inc. that help them rent out rooms on a short-term basis, says Kenneth Smith, a senior research scholar and director at Stanford University’s Stanford Center on Longevity.
Seniors are Airbnb’s fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. Senior Airbnb hosts, those older than 60, doubled from March 2015 to March 2016, according to a recent analysis by the San Francisco-based company. There are now 62,000, making up 13% of all Airbnb hosts in the country.
The average older Airbnb host has guests for about 60 days a year, according to a separate recent survey by Airbnb, which the Stanford center helped design, that looked at the company’s listings globally. Among older hosts, 49% said their primary reason for hosting was financial; 43%, meanwhile, said their motivation was to meet new people, stay socially connected or be active.
For homeowners who crave more social interaction, using sharing apps isn’t the only way, of course. Cynthia Janus, a retired medical librarian, says she rents out the bottom floor of her home in Silver Spring, Md., to a close friend at a below-market price, creating what she calls “a retirement home for two.” Divorced with no children, Ms. Janus says she enjoys discussing her day and drinking coffee together with her housemate. They also carpool to events.
Another big reason retirees may consider opening up their homes: for help around the house. In an AARP survey published in 2014, some 38% of respondents (ages 45 and up) said they would consider sharing their home as they grow older, while 26% said they would do so for extra income. A whopping 43% said they would consider it for help with everyday activities, like transportation or household chores.
Helping hands are an increasingly valuable commodity for older homeowners and may become a more common reason for taking in a boarder, says Stephen Golant, a gerontologist, professor at the University of Florida and author of “Aging in the Right Place.” Traditional sources of such help have declined in recent years, Mr. Golant says, as more women have entered the workforce, as families continue to live in disparate parts of the country, and as older couples, especially baby boomers, divorce.
Let’s be clear
There are a few caveats for seniors considering house-sharing. For those who want to make chores or other responsibilities a condition of a rental agreement, for example, experts advise describing such expectations clearly in the written agreement beforehand.
Many older people also may find that sharing their homes infringes on their privacy and threatens their ability to control their personal surroundings, says Mr. Golant. Like most Americans, seniors cherish self-reliance and are likely to want to stay independent as long as possible, he says. So, homeowners should be aware of what they are potentially giving up, as well as what they have to gain by taking on a boarder.
Lastly, some warn that for many seniors, house-sharing should be seen as a temporary solution. Andrew Carle, an adjunct professor at George Mason University and chief operating officer at Affinity Living Group, a senior-housing company, notes that while boarders may be happy to assist with basic tasks, like transportation, there is often a tipping point where daily tasks, like grooming, walking and keeping track of medications, become exceedingly difficult and more professional care may be required.
“House-sharing,” says Mr. Carle, “is likely to work really well—until someone faces the real trials of old age.”
The Mushroom Dome is a pentagonal cabin with a geodesic dome for a roof, surrounded by a wooded farm filled with hundreds of nectar-obsessed hummingbirds. True to its name, it looks like an oversize mushroom. For about half the cost of a night at the Four Seasons, a family of three can spend the weekend in the charming but cramped quarters by booking through Airbnb Inc.
Kitty Mrache became the caretaker of the Mushroom Dome after a friend built it on her property in Santa Cruz County, Calif., near Silicon Valley, and lived there for a while. After her friend got married and moved in with her spouse (they wanted something bigger), Mrache fixed the place up for her children. By 2009, her kids were grown up and living in non-mushroom houses, so she listed the oddball cabin on Airbnb, a budding room-rental site that was less than a year old at the time.
Today, the Mushroom Dome is the most popular property on Airbnb and has become a full-time job for Mrache, a 65-year-old with four children. “I was a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “When my kids left home, I started looking around for some kind of work. I studied computers, and I learned the high-tech industry wasn’t interested in hiring a woman in her late 50s.”
While Mrache was an early adopter of Airbnb, she’s become the poster child for the company’s fastest-growing and most-beloved demographic. In the past year or so, the number of hosts 60 and older grew by 102 percent, outpacing the overall U.S. growth rate of 85 percent. Those hosts also receive the most favorable reviews, with 62 percent of stays garnering a five-star rating. In almost every age group, women receive higher ratings than men on average, and female hosts 60 and older are the best of the bunch, Airbnb says. “Many people assume that Airbnb is something for younger generations, but that just isn’t the case,” says Belinda Johnson, chief business affairs and legal officer at the company.
Mrache was something of an anomaly when Airbnb started. In the early days, people often rented out couches or air beds. It appealed to college students, whose parents and grandparents were still booking Palm Beach getaways on VRBO or staying in hotels. But Airbnb is growing up, and so is its clientele. Mrache’s Mushroom Dome had such an impact on Airbnb that the company modeled a conference room after the property in the startup’s headquarters. Coders use it as a nap room.