Most days I can be seen dashing away with the smoothing iron. When that chore is finished, I’m shoving armfuls of bedlinen into the washing machine, changing sheets, cleaning out toilets and wiping down the shower – all day and every day.
So, welcome to my brand-new career as a laundress and chambermaid or, as it is sometimes known, being an Airbnb host. Over the past six months, I have welcomed more than 100 people from all over the world into my home, through the auspices of this website which now has nearly a million listings in 33,000 cities.
My current guest is a German professor, here for a month. During some of the time he is with me I will also be hosting his wife and adult daughter. Over breakfast we chat about opera, film, physics and computer science. He speaks excellent English, as do most of my foreign visitors.
Airbnb began life in 2008 as a sofa-surfing website whereby students and others could, for a small sum, crash down in people’s living rooms for the night. Gradually, it became more upmarket until gracious ladies like myself started opening up their lovely homes as a kind of ad-hoc guesthouse. Nowadays, the majority of hosts are over-55s whose children have left home and who now have spare rooms, and perhaps spare capacity, to entertain strings of complete strangers.
We are more intimate, more welcoming than a hotel and, of course, vastly cheaper. Possibly because we are amateurs, we go that extra mile to make sure our guests are comfortable and happy. My guests have tea, coffee and biscuits in the room, plus an iron and ironing board, and hairdryer. Basic toiletries are in the bathroom and my God, do they go through the loo paper.
Liz Hodgkinson’s kitchen: her Airbnb guests may eat breakfast here, but cooking facilities are not offered
Mostly, I have to say, it works well. I provide breakfast in the kitchen but do not offer cooking facilities. Many potential guests ask if they can cook or invite friends or relatives round to dinner and the answer is a resounding no. Nor can they sit in my living room to watch television. They are emphatically not one of the family, and what I offer is a purely business arrangement.
I do wince, though, when guests lug in huge tin trunks and bang them against the sides of my newly-painted walls. I do not allow small children into my all-white apartment and the youngest age I will take is 16, if accompanied by a parent.
As I have two single beds I can put up a variety of guests. Guests are handed a key on arrival and can then come and go as they please. There has been the occasional disaster, such as the time when police had to smash down my front door in the middle of the night.
A young Chinese man was staying and I had told him I would be late back. When I got home at 1am I found he had locked the door from the inside. I hammered on the door, rang the bell, rang his phone, my phone and he slept through the lot. I tried to call a 24-hour locksmith but none would come out. Eventually, in despair, I called the police who took an hour to arrive and forced open the door. Still my guest did not wake. The police went to his room and banged on the door. No sound from inside. Was he dead?
They forced their way in and finally he awoke, rubbing his eyes in bewilderment. He was contrite, but he had caused £280 worth of damage for which, admittedly, he paid.
You do have to be a bit of a mum, I find. I was working in my office one morning when my guest knocked at the door asking if I could sew a button on his jacket before an interview. Fortunately, I could and he was mightily impressed.
You hear life stories and become firm friends over breakfast – then never see them again. Because I live right near the Oxford colleges, most of my guests are academics doing research, attending conferences or giving presentations, but some are here for other reasons, such as the two girls who arrived from Hong Kong to shop. Instead of booking guided tours or wandering round the historic sights, they had come for the sole reason to shop at Bicester, the designer outlet village nine miles away. “Don’t they have shops in Hong Kong?”, I asked. “Tax relief,” they answered. Anyway, they were delighted with their purchases and left a huge heap of bags for me to clear away.
Some visitors head for historic sites; others for Bicester. The Vivienne Westwood outlet at shopping Mecca Bicester Village
People ask: What about security? And does it change the “energy” of my home to have these strangers constantly traipsing through? Airbnb does operate largely on trust, although since both parties have to post a detailed profile, the chances of hosting an axe murderer are rare. Then, guests have to pay when a booking is confirmed, even if they won’t be arriving for several months. Each party is invited to write reviews afterwards, and this provides valuable feedback. I decided not to host one potential guest when I read a review saying that she was untidy, dirty and rude.
I charge £60 a night for a single guest and £75 for two. This is about half the price of a boutique hotel in my street. But there are no discounts, so please don’t ask, I tell people. The price is the price.
As for the altered “energy”, I rather like the stimulus of different people coming. All, I have to say, have been fantastic and I have hosted every nationality and all ages from 16 to over 80.
So far Airbnb has worked brilliantly for me – and even more brilliantly for the two men who dreamed up the idea, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. They take a cut from both the host and guest for every booking and in 2014, the company was worth $10billion (£6.7m).
As for me, I rake in some welcome extra pocket money for a little bit of inconvenience and a lot of ironing, and meet loads of interesting new people all the time. And if it gets irksome, I can just close down the listing and put it down to experience.
How to make Airbnb work for you
- Be very clear about what you are offering and don’t leave guests in any doubt. I provide breakfast at set hours but no other meals, and don’t allow cooking in my kitchen. Guests can, however, store food in my fridge and freezer. I have no facilities for pets, babies or disabled people and cannot offer special diets.
- You will need extra bedlinen and towels; more than you might think. I buy very cheap ones from Primark or Sainsbury’s – you can get a pair of pillowcases for £2. That way, if they get stained, you can just throw them away. Mattress covers are essential as well. Guests go through loo paper like crazy so buy in bulk.
- Set specific times for check in and check out. As with hotels, never let new guests see a messy room. Everything must be 100 per cent clean and tidy on their arrival.
- Make sure guests have their privacy. I never enter the guest rooms when somebody is in residence and never disturb them. With long-stay guests I leave clean sheets and towels outside for them.
- Provide wifi, foreign adaptors, extension leads and a table or desk where they can work. Guests often appreciate it.