May 9, 2018

CultureMarkets & Free Enterprise

I Spent 9 Months Living in Strangers’ Homes. Here’s What I Learned.

By: Jaci Woltornist

Last summer, my husband and I found ourselves facing a dilemma. Our lease was up, and the home of our dreams was stuck in short-sale limbo. Could we move in in six weeks, or six months? It was anyone’s guess.

Instead of entering into an expensive, month-to-month apartment lease, we decided to throw our stuff into storage and join the sharing economy. So with a suitcase apiece, my husband, our 7-month-old daughter, and I moved into our first Airbnb. It was the first time we had stayed at an Airbnb, and we were excited for what felt like the start of an adventure and an opportunity to get to know the different areas of DC that we hadn’t become familiar with.

Long story short, we ended up staying in four different Airbnbs consecutively (each stay lasting longer than the previous one) for the next nine months. Although it was stressful living out of a suitcase packed only with clothes suited for a DC summer, looking back, we learned a lot of valuable lessons which apply not to just living in other people’s homes, but living in general.

Learn from others’ experiences (in other words, read the reviews)

Normal people stay away from the comment section on the internet, but when participating in the sharing economy, peoples’ feedback is going to give you the best idea of what to expect. Do the owners upstairs make a lot of noise during the day? Probably not the best place if you have a napping baby. Is the kitchen well-equipped? Perfect for long stays if you’re trying to save on your food budget. Is there mold in the bathrooms? Gross, and probably indicates the state of the rest of the place.

Also, search knowing what you need. Since we only have one car between the two of us, my husband needed to be close to public transportation, and since I work from home, I needed strong wifi. We also quickly found that we need at least one bedroom, rather than a studio apartment, where we could put my daughter down for a nap in a separate room.

Finally, read Airbnb’s terms and conditions and understand the extra fees that come with the individual properties (some of them have cleaning fees, for instance).

Respect others’ property as your own

DC is a very expensive place to live, but what makes Airbnb a good choice is that there are a lot of options to choose from, keeping prices manageable. Unfortunately, I hear quite a few stories of people who used to rent out their homes, only to find it trashed after their guests leave. There have been damages up to $10,000 done, with no way for the owners to hold their guests accountable. The money they bring in from guests isn’t always worth the cost of repairs, and they are forced to remove their properties from the market.

If we want to continue to benefit from the sharing economy, to support entrepreneurial-minded individuals, and to use others’ products and properties at low costs to ourselves, then we need to make sure that we are treating those items with respect. Otherwise, owners won’t want to “cast their pearls before swine.” Don’t be that swine.

View every inconvenience as an opportunity to hone your problem-solving skills

While I enjoyed our times at the different Airbnbs, there was no perfect place. Either the location was great, but the apartment could have been better. Or the place was great, but the neighbors were noisy at all hours of the night. It was important for us to realize early that Airbnbs are families’ homes, and while they have been fitted to make their guests’ stays comfortable, it wasn’t like staying in a hotel where all amenities are available. Understanding that allowed us to roll with the inconveniences and work around any limitations we encountered.

At one Airbnb, we were so enthralled by the pictures of the spa-like bathroom that we neglected to see that the place only had a kitchenette. We arrived to find that we had no sink (besides the bathroom sink), and no stove or oven, but only a microwave and mini fridge. It was a very stressful afternoon trying to figure out how I was going to feed my family without eating out everyday. But my husband and I rallied, crowdsourced our Facebook friends, and quickly realized that purchasing a Crock-Pot would be the key to saving our food budget. We lived off of Crock-Pot meals everyday for a month and a half, and it wasn’t half as bad as it sounds. (FYI: Pinterest is a great source of Crock-Pot recipes.) We can laugh about it now.

You don’t need as much as you think

When we finally moved into our home many months and Airbnbs later, unpacking our stuff felt like Christmas. We had lived out of our suitcases for so long and from necessity had to cut back on material things. We had so many things that we lived without for so long, I had forgotten that at one time I felt that I “needed” them. Did we really need to put four different types of wine glasses on our wedding registry? Do I really need that many throw pillows for our couch? And do I really need this many pans?! (The answer to these questions is no.)

Living with limited space in our suitcases and a small car to transport them from one Airbnb to the next helped us prioritize the things in our lives that really matter. During our time in Airbnbs, we started, without realizing it, valuing experiences over things, quality over quantity, and family over possessions. I was able to survive with just one winter coat. My daughter played with the same stuffed giraffe and bag of jumbo Legos for nine months. My husband got by without buying multiple books in old Slavonic.

Would we do it again? Well, we probably won’t buy a short sale ever again. But living in an Airbnb was actually enjoyable. We were able to explore different parts of the city we’ve never seen in our five years living in the area. It was inexpensive, which means we’ll probably choose Airbnbs over hotels for future vacations. We met some wonderful people, the owners of the Airbnbs and their neighbors. And my husband and I were able to get involved in the diverse communities that make up the District of Columbia, and support local people who were just trying to make some extra money for their families.