Make Yourself at Home

By Kevin Tankersley

A chat with three vacation rental owners

The hottest real estate market in the country? According to realtor.com, it’s Waco. In figures released in December, the nation’s top 10 ZIP codes searched on the popular real estate website were in Texas, and the top four most-searched ZIP codes were in Waco. So while Waco has seen an influx of folks moving in — or at least looking at homes in the area — there are lots of people simply coming to visit. Magnolia Market’s recent Spring at the Silos event drew tens of thousands, for example, and the first Brazos Nights concert of the year — featuring the R&B and gospel legend Mavis Staples — was a huge draw as well.

And when those visitors come to town, many of them are staying for a couple of days — or longer. While there are dozens of traditional hotels and motels up and down Interstate 35 and a handful of traditional bed-and-breakfast inns in town, the latest rental craze has property owners renting out rooms in their homes, renting out their entire homes or even an Airstream trailer. A recent search on airbnb.com turned up 142 rental properties available in or near Waco. A visitor could spend as little as $45 nightly for a single bedroom with a shared bathroom and window unit air conditioner in a “beach cottage,” or splurge on a four-bedroom, 1920 Castle Heights beauty that can sleep 10 for $825 a night.

Somewhere between those two extremes are three other properties with owners who took part in an online chat session moderated by Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley. Claudia Bachofen owns MacArthur House, Lisa Monroe owns Urban Myrtle and Genevieve Peel owns Midcentury Modern in Cameron Park.

The chat, scheduled to begin at 4 o’clock on a recent Monday afternoon, was delayed due to some online linking issues but got rolling soon thereafter.

3:50 p.m. Kevin Tankersley has entered the room.

4:25 p.m. Genevieve Peel has entered the room.

Tankersley: Hi, Genevieve!

Sorry for the confusion. Glad you’re here!

Peel: Hey there!

I’ll be multitasking at work…

4:30 p.m.
Tankersley: Multitask away. We’ll wait a few minutes to see if anyone else was having trouble, then we’ll start with questions.

4:40 p.m. Claudia Bachofen has entered the room.

Bachofen: Hi, everyone.

Peel: Hey there!

Tankersley: Hi, Claudia! Welcome. Sorry about the technical issues, but we’re glad you’re here!

Bachofen: Thanks!

Tankersley: OK. Some questions then.

How long have you been renting your property?

Bachofen: We started in early October 2016.

Peel: August 2015.

4:45 p.m.
Tankersley: What prompted you to begin renting?

Bachofen: We originally purchased the home for my mom who lives in Sun City [a community located in Georgetown], but she decided she was not ready to move, so we rented it out to some friends during their own home renovation and then decided to convert it to an Airbnb after they moved out.

Peel: My mom retired from teaching and purchased the home next door to us. She lives in Waco part of the year. I manage the property for her when she is gone. My hope was to help her cover taxes and insurance on her home next to us.

I had glanced at Airbnb options when traveling and thought it might work during football season. It’s proven to work well year-round.

Tankersley: So it sounds like your rental business isn’t your primary income. What kind of work do you do?

Peel: I have been at Hole in the Roof Marketing for almost 14 years. I also co-own Congress Clothing with my husband, brother and sister-in-law.

4:50 p.m.
Bachofen: I am a physician with Baylor Scott & White, and my husband Matt is a teacher at Waco High School.

4:55 p.m.
Peel: Fun, I hear you are a lovely doctor from friends!

Bachofen: Thanks! I’ve been practicing in Waco since 1999. I love my job and my patients.

Tankersley: Since you’re both close to your properties but also work full time, how much interaction do you have with your guests?

Peel: I typically text with guests about how to get into the property. I leave the level of involvement up to guests most of the time. They know that I am available and close by.

Some guests I never hear from and others have offered to come over for a glass of wine! I give local restaurant suggestions and hiking trails. One time, a group of girls texted asking about a cupcake tin at 10 p.m.! Thankfully, I didn’t have to go far so I could accommodate.

Peel: Last fall, three lovely ladies in their 60s had their annual “girls’ weekend” in Waco. They waved when I was walking with my 3-year-old. Next thing we knew, my son was reading books with one of them!

Tankersley: That’s very sweet.

Bachofen: I am an OB/GYN so my hours are kind of crazy, but my husband and I are always available by text, and we try to meet my guests if possible. (They are often out and about, so we don’t always get to meet.) Mostly I check in with them a few times during their stay to make sure they are comfortable or have any questions.

Tankersley: So, Genevieve and Claudia, what do you think sets your property apart from others available in Waco?

5:00 p.m. Lisa Monroe has entered the room

Tankersley: Hi, Lisa! Welcome!

Monroe: Hello… sorry that I am late!

Tankersley: Not a problem. It’s a come-and-go chat anyway.

Peel: Last August, we had a group in their mid-20s stay for over a week. They were launching a textbook app and camped at the house the week before Baylor went back. We were set up well for them to work from the house when they weren’t on campus. We have a 10-foot dining table and Wi-Fi.

Bachofen: The property sustained a fire before we purchased it and had it renovated, so it is a new build for all intents and purposes. It has a covered porch and a large yard that my guests with small children have really appreciated.

I provide a breakfast casserole for guests which they have also really enjoyed. I get regular requests for the recipe! I don’t believe that many hosts provide breakfast.

Tankersley: Lisa, when did you first begin renting your property?

Monroe: We just started March 13.

Tankersley: Brand new then.

Monroe: Yep! Still learning.

Tankersley: Lisa, what makes your property stand out from others in the area?

And, for all of you, what’s the biggest struggle with running a vacation rental property?

Monroe: We are just 291 steps from the front door of Magnolia/Silos! So far, the only challenge has been finding a backup cleaning person, when we have back-to-back reservations.

Tankersley: Lisa, I liked that you counted the steps to the Silos. How did you find a property so close?

Peel: What makes us stand out: Our property was built in 1955. At the time, it was the FIRST all-electric house in Cameron Park. When Mom renovated, she kept the clean lines of the mid-century ranch. It’s open, clean, airy!

Monroe: Actually, my husband cheated and used his Fitbit. We paid a lot for LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!!

5:10 p.m.
Tankersley: Genevieve, any struggles in running a rental property?

Peel: Struggle: I have to say, the process from top to bottom has been great! Once a guest locked themselves out, just had to get them another key. And a guest left town on her honeymoon WITH the key still. Otherwise, the people we have are a delight.

I have only turned a few down. We do not allow pets. The people renting from us are respectful of the property and leave the house about as clean as they found it.

Tankersley: We were staying at a guest house in Alpine last summer, and on one of our short out-of-town trips from there, we lost the key. Luckily, a window was unlocked, and it was our last day anyway. We left money to cover the cost of a new key.

Tankersley: Lisa, what kind of work do you do, outside of your property?

Monroe: I own Triliji Group Real Estate company.

Tankersley: And for everyone: How do you determine how much to charge for your rental?

Peel: I looked around the market in 2015 and charged about 30 percent more than the typical [3 bedroom, 2 bath] was going for. My hope was to cover mom’s taxes and insurance, so fewer rentals were okay with me. I also have a full-time job and a toddler, so the time had to make sense to me.

We had a local VRBO [Vacation Rentals by Owner, vrbo.com] vet say, “You’ll never get that rate in Waco.” Let’s just say that she increased rental prices the following year!

Monroe: We determined our rate based on a couple of other vacations rentals near Magnolia and Baylor. We tried the upper end price and have been very pleased with the bookings!

5:15 p.m.
Bachofen: Yes, I agree. I have had no problems with guests so far and everyone has taken great care of the property. We are, as hosts, required to establish “house rules” on the site, which guests are to agree to before booking.

For example, we don’t allow fires in the fireplace for safety reasons, and no one has had a problem with that. We provide cable TV, and a few people have asked to use the pay-per-view options and then they pay for whatever they rented at the end of the visit. I have a wonderful lady who does the cleaning for me, and sometimes we have to coordinate schedules “creatively” in order to accommodate her and my schedule.

Regarding price, we looked at other properties that could accommodate eight people and started in their price range. We have used the Airbnb smart pricing feature, which adjusts price based on demand, but I have found that tends to underbid it. I override the feature for weekends and set my own price.

5:20 p.m.
Tankersley: Did you have to go through the city to rent your property? Did you have to get a permit or anything like that? And how do you go about listing on Airbnb and VRBO and other booking sites?

Peel: It’s a simple set-up online. They walk you through the steps once you set up an account. Tax ID, verify your identity. The part that was muddier was navigating the city permits and approvals. It’s, of course, more streamlined now.

Bachofen: And guests can only book through the Airbnb site. They can instantly book or can request a booking. It’s up to you as the host.

Peel: I think having good photos are key to drawing people into your profile. And, of course, your rate.

Peel: I need to bow out and pick up the kiddo. Good luck! Ladies, good luck with rentals! I’ll send people your way when we are booked.

Tankersley: Thank you, Genevieve!

Claudia and Lisa, just a couple of more questions and we can wrap up, too.

Monroe: I agree with Genevieve. It is simple to set up on Airbnb. Just follow the steps. We did go through the city permitting process, but it was fairly simple for us, because we did a complete remodel and the permitting was in process already for the commercial checks, etc.

The city required a commercial check (smoke detectors, meeting code requirements, etc.) then the Temporary Vacation Rental Permit process is an application, some required documents like a site plan showing adequate parking, zoning check, etc. Then it had to be approved in a planning and zoning meeting and a city council meeting. I think the process is getting more streamlined at the city.

5:25 p.m.
Tankersley: How far out are you booked? I assume Baylor graduation and football weekends fill up pretty quickly.

Monroe: We have booked pretty much every weekend and some weekdays through May, a couple of June bookings and then several September and October dates.

5:30 p.m.
Bachofen: I have a couple who stayed with us last fall who has already reserved every Baylor home game date!

I have it set up so that guests can book as far as six months in advance. I block the dates where I know I will be out of town, but that becomes somewhat difficult that far in advance. Since we didn’t know our summer plans back in January, I set it up for six months but then manually blocked all of August until we had solidified our vacation plans.

We are booked every weekend as well through June and have occasionally booked a few guests for an entire week. Our longest rental was three professional tennis players and their coach who were here for a tournament that Baylor hosted.

5:35 p.m.
Tankersley: Next-to-last question: I assume you read the reviews of your own property on the booking sites. Do you read reviews of other properties in the area?

Bachofen: I read my reviews religiously to keep track of what makes guests happy and what we can do to improve their stay. I will occasionally read others’ reviews to see what others are doing that guests appreciate or enjoy.

One thing that I have done that guests have commented on and really like: I label everything. Every drawer and cabinet in the kitchen is labeled with its contents, every light switch labeled with what it operates, and I have detailed instructions for cable, AC, etc. I know it’s obsessive but it keeps guests from having to guess where things are.

5:40 p.m.
Tankersley: I would totally appreciate a host doing that in a rental.

Monroe: We do read other reviews to try and learn from other comments that people post about other places that they have stayed. We love reading the reviews from our guests. They are very kind and complimentary!

5:45 p.m.
Tankersley: Finally, what can a guest do to avoid being known as “that” guest, the kind you hope never, ever returns to your property?

Monroe: Regarding being known as “that guest,” I would advise them to please leave the house as close to the way you found it when you checked in and kindly put soiled linens on the washer or in the tub.

Also, remember that you have a deposit at stake that you would not want to get used up for damages or lost items! Just enjoy it like it was your own home.

Bachofen: All of my guests have done an amazing job at taking care of the space and leaving it tidy, and as a host, that is what we appreciate the most, that they treat the house as if it were their own. I feel blessed to have had great guests in that regard. Great communication is also a must!

Tankersley: Genevieve, Lisa and Claudia, thank you for your time. We really appreciate it.

I’m glad to hear your rentals are doing well. I like when independent businesses succeed.

Bachofen: My pleasure! Have a good evening, everyone.

Tankersley: Thanks. You too!

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