“You might as well call me Cinderella, because sometimes I feel like all I do is clean,” says Jon Pierson, a 37-year-old Airbnb host living in Athens, Georgia. But all that cleaning pays off, as Pierson has been able to adopt Airbnb as a lucrative side gig.
His main Airbnb property, the Yellow House, is bringing in tens of thousands of dollars a year. In 2018, renting out the house brought in $34,000 in revenue — around four times as much as the average Airbnb property. He's on pace to beat that in 2019.
Over the years, Pierson has worked at nonprofits in Albuquerque, as a park ranger in Yellowstone, and for the United States Forest Service in Arizona. These days, he’s a part-time marketer at a music venue, a county landscaping supervisor and a dad to his 8-year-old son, Benjamin, who lives with his mom in Athens.
But on top of dad-duty and working two other jobs, Pierson finds himself constantly scrubbing, mopping, and dusting to maintain his status as an Airbnb Superhost.
At 20, after dropping out of college in Maine, Pierson rode his bike across the country via the Trans-America Trail, sleeping on strangers' couches. That trip, which took him across 15 states and added up to more than 4,000 miles, "changed my life,” he says.
He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management from Northern Arizona University in 2008, at age 26. After a few years working in forests and parks, Pierson moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he thought back to his bicycle trip across the country and decided to start hosting travelers.
“So many people would stop and offer me a meal or a bed or a shower,” he says. “I wanted to give back, karmically.” Pierson started to host visitors through Couchsurfing.com and eventually, after realizing it could help him pay his rent, booking guests on Airbnb.
“I stumbled across Airbnb and started offering my spare bedroom. From there, I started offering my whole place,” he says, “to help pay the bills.” But he ran into trouble when his landlord caught wind of the activity, which violated his lease.
“I was a Superhost at that point; I had a great reputation on Airbnb,” he says. He made a deal with his landlord to let him fulfill his remaining reservations, but the landlord wouldn’t renew the lease.
“That was the point when a light bulb went off and I started looking for a house,” Pierson says.
Pierson moved to Athens and, with a relative's help, cobbled together a down payment so he could purchase The Yellow House, a 15-year-old, 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom cottage, for $127,000. He completed it with used furniture bought for $3,000 and put the house up for rent on Airbnb for $100 per night.
“I closed on a Monday, my first guests arrived on Thursday,” he says. “I wasted no time.” Pierson himself became something of a nomad, staying with friends and sometimes at the house when it wasn't booked.
Pierson’s Airbnb business and his new home, Athens, were a perfect fit. The city has a population of around 125,000 and is home to the University of Georgia, which can attract tens of thousands of visitors on weekends for graduations and football games. Events like those helped make The Yellow House so lucrative.
While the typical rate for The Yellow House is now $175 per night, football weekends can raise the rate much higher. For an upcoming game this September between Georgia and Notre Dame, the house booked a year in advance for $700 per night. Graduation weekends fetch similar rates.
“I make half my annual mortgage in six weekends,” he says.
Pierson’s been so successful on Airbnb that he’s even started managing profiles for other hosts. For 20% of each booking fee, Pierson launches a host's profile, has professional photographs taken of the property, manages the calendar, and coordinates with all of the guests and cleaning crews. Doing it all generally takes between 10 and 15 hours per week.
On a busy weekend, Pierson says he could be running up to six Airbnb stays simultaneously. “That’s where you make your money,” he says.
Pierson says that there are people making more than $1 million per year on Airbnb. But he warns that even making a lot less can be an incredible amount of work.
“I woke up this morning at 5:30 a.m. to clean,” he says, “because somebody wanted an early check-in.” Being a Superhost also means you’re always on call, dealing with cable and internet outages, or even a rogue spider that has guests cowering in a corner.
How much you can earn with an Airbnb largely depends on your location, Pierson says. Many areas are saturated with listings, which drives prices down. And managing a property is often more work and more stress than people anticipate.
But if you still want to give it a shot and have a property that you can legally rent out — many cities have rules governing short-term rentals, and, as he discovered, many landlords forbid it — Pierson says it can be a great gig. You’ll just need to stock up on Pine Sol. “Get ready to get really good at cleaning,” he says.
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