What it's like to be an Airbnb host – by a six-year veteran

Dubai’s short-term let market is booming, but anyone hoping to join in should be prepared

Airbnb listings in Dubai have doubled since 2021. Photo: Airbnb
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Unclogging toilets was not my ideal Saturday night activity when I was 21 – but since I had taken the plunge to be a landlord (more specifically, an Airbnb landlord), things like this came with the territory. So, ignoring 2am phone calls and going to a rave instead meant a five-star night would end with a one-star rating the day after.

Many will have undoubtedly been drawn to a report this week revealing how Airbnb listings have doubled in Dubai since 2021. “It is a lucrative business if you can get it right,” my colleague Neil Halligan wrote.

It most certainly is, if you don’t mind being the concierge, booking agent, cleaner, minder, chaperone, tour guide and complaints hotline, that is. Twenty-four hours a day.

What is hosting like without a middleman company?

I was an Airbnb host for six years in the UK and in that time I’d seen it all – different people checking out from the ones I checked in, every electrical item and light switch flicked on just before leaving, an entire suitcase of dirty clothes abandoned with a note saying: “Got carried away at Selfridge’s, free to a good home.” I still wear one of the hoodies today.

I joined in 2012 and was the first person in Manchester to list an entire apartment. It was so long ago that the company (now a $230 billion Nasdaq darling) was still finding its feet and used to invite me to meet them for overpriced coffee and networking catch-ups to ask how I was finding it.

Silicon Valley-style jargon of “crunching the data” to “optimise the end-user experience” was thrown around. I can’t remember exactly as I didn’t go.

This was well before the birth of middlemen companies that offer to run the bookings from start to finish – taking a heavy cut in exchange for light, if any, involvement from the owner. So all duties had to be filled by the landlord. Those looking to jump on the gravy train may wish to look beyond that “finfluencer” on Instagram sitting in a Lamborghini and telling you how he got rich by letting Airbnbs. There’s more to it.

Welcome gifts in the bin and full chickens in the oven

Firstly, this is a customer-facing job. You may think you’re normal, but the public is not. So if messages like: “Making a detour to the pub, going to arrive late, stay there and we’ll collect the keys in six hours, yeah?” or “Apartment too cold, got firewood. Where matches?” are likely to be a trigger, it’s best to avoid.

Secondly, be prepared for weird items to be left behind. A 36-pack of toilet rolls (minus five) was bought and left by a guest who stayed just one night. A whole roasted chicken sat in the oven, completely untouched though sweating in a rare warm Mancunian summer. A full load of clothing in the washing machine. An unsavoury amount of condiments, jars and oils used to cook merely one meal.

But it goes both ways – just as many items are lost, broken or chucked out. In the early days, while trying to impress guests in the hope of a glowing review, I used to buy posh jam (or what I thought was posh) and supermarket scones (taken out of the packet, so no one knows if they’re not posh anyway) to leave as a little “Welcome to England” gift.

I put them on a wooden chopping board for extra artisanal farmers' market vibes. I especially did it for those I knew were coming from abroad. Until one checkout, when I found the whole lot thrown in the bin by two research academics visiting from China – unopened posh jam and board included.

Complaints hotline buzzes at 5am

As any hotel concierge will attest, some guests love to moan. Most of mine had a particular knack for being vacuous whinge bags, as if I left an in-room phone with instructions reading: “Dial 0 to bleat.” But hosts live for reviews, so I had to act accordingly.

“Dean, the bulb in the bedside lamp has gone, please can you come and change it?” once rang a teary voice at 5am.

“Change it yourself,” I longed to reply.

“Righteroo, be there in a jiffy, madam,” I cooed instead.

“The iron burnt my shirt.” “I don't like the TV channels.” “I can smell the neighbour’s cooking.” “Why are Manchester’s trains always late?” “We can’t find the griddle pan” (like it’s a two-man job to find an item definitely not listed on the inventory, anyway).

On and on and on it goes. For check-ins, I'd always wait at the apartment for guests to arrive. After all, it was my own home, not something I bought specifically to rent out. I’d proudly show off the space, the quirky furniture, the spotless bathroom I scrubbed and diligently de-haired after every check-in. I’d bend over backwards to make it homely and share excellent insider knowledge of the city. They loved it, or so I thought.

How anyone can lurch between emotional states so quickly is beyond me. This was before Gen Z, too.

As soon as I'd be out the door those smiles quickly turned into riled demands – and back I’d go to get the welcome pack I pointed out five minutes earlier to type the Wi-Fi password into their own phones, run the tap until the water was hot enough for them, or provide directions and transport options better than Google Maps.

Finally, be prepared for competition. I was operating alone but still adopted the Ryanair model of sell it low, stack 'em high. For a fully furnished, fully equipped apartment that easily slept six, I charged less than a sorry two-star hotel nearby did – and half their rooms don’t even have windows. Occupancy was pretty much 100 per cent, but the latest report suggests it’s a little more than 50 per cent.

Then I realised greater peace came from prioritising longer-term bookings only, so I introduced a three-month minimum policy. And while it was bliss, the reviews dried up. And so did my love for it before I moved to Dubai in 2018. It wasn't all bad, of course. I ended with a 4.71 rating – I was 21, give me a break – and was probably one of the only millennial homeowners at the time.

Now there is greater competition for fewer guests – meaning those dreams of handing the keys to a middleman company and watching the pennies roll in while you relax on the beach might not be as close as you think. Many cities have also banned Airbnbs overnight completely or buildings refuse to let leaseholders run them, so bear those potential changes, and costs, in mind.

The only way to balance the books may be to grab the plunger yourself and get stuck in.

Updated: April 11, 2024, 6:53 AM