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Six Lessons from Home Sharing Sites for House Hunters and Home Owners

Home sharing sites

By Ramon Robinson

It’s not an overstatement to say that home sharing sites like AirBnB and Couchsurfing have been major forces behind some of my biggest life developments. Two years ago, I embarked upon a 108-day journey to build a global network of friends from those home sharing sites. The itinerary, which led to a doubling of my Facebook friends total, looked like this:

mortgagehippo_post_airbnb_couchsurfing-2

Since then, my goals have changed quite a bit. I’ve been writing for MortgageHippo – a company that, much like these home sharing sites are doing with renting and lodging, wants to simplify and improve the home-buying process through technology. Most of the people with whom I work are also in their early 30s, and even though they’re passionate about travel, they recognize the importance of a solid home to which to return from backpacking expeditions. In conversation with them, I couldn’t help but wonder: What do I want in a home, and how do I reconcile my passion for traveling a lot with my desire for a home I can really call my own?

To answer that question, I decided to go home sharing abroad again with this itinerary:

mortgagehippo_post_airbnb_couchsurfing_itne2013-2014

It would be the stickiest of bubblegum stretches to say that I returned to Chicago with a firm sense of place in the world, confident in my vision of my future as a head of household, with hands tightly clasping the financial, intellectual and social capital required to realize that vision. What has instead materialized from conversations with my AirBnB and Couchsurfing hosts, recent and distant past, is this little guide to exploiting home sharing sites to gain clarity about the right home for oneself.

Lesson 1
When you find yourself home sharing in a part of the world that’s amenable to your long-term interests, seriously consider just living there. If your hosts are good personality matches, they may even agree to let you stay with them until you can reestablish yourself in the new city or country

It’s not just the stuff of fiction: Even in “this economy,” people who may have several decades of life ahead of them are quitting their jobs, renting their apartments out, and even selling their homes to couchsurf while traveling. Their time spent test driving homes and lifestyles around the world lasts anywhere from months to years, often thanks to the advent of these free home sharing sites.

Short-term home sharing – the kind that doesn’t require completely dispensing with your safety net – can yield revelations about the ideal place to invest in a home too: During my second stay in Macedonia this past spring, my friend Lidija – a musician in the capital city of Skopje – remarked that her interactions with American couchsurfers like me made her grateful to live in a country where it’s normal to continue living with ones parents well into adulthood. “What I hear about the U.S. is that even with a good salary, you have a hard time finding a new home that does not come with big problems,” she said over a multi-course lunch not costing more than $5 USD total for the two of us. “The living conditions in New York and San Francisco just sound disgusting to me. Here, I have a large room of my own and feel no shame about living with my parents at 40, since many other adult Macedonians live with their parents too.”

Can you imagine how much money Americans could save, and how amazing the homes we’d ultimately build for ourselves would be, if there weren’t a cultural imperative to have our own places before we’re financially established? One way of fighting that imperative, or any other that ails you, would be to relocate where it doesn’t exist. Home sharing while you’re gathering your bearings would make that a much less expensive proposition than it might otherwise be.

Lesson 2
It might be okay to think small. Beyond traditional homes and apartments, home sharing sites offer hippie bus, tiny house and tree house stays. Stay overnight in the most sustainable of the three living options – the tiny houses.

AirBnB has been a godsend – a sort of fairy godmother-send, to be precise – for my childhood friend Klara. Beyond permitting her access to most of the amenities of a private hotel suite at prices within her SF Bay Area librarian’s budget, it also allows her to play house at the ripe old age of thirty. She always books places to stay without a host present for this reason: “It’s much easier to pretend I live there if the actual owner isn’t wandering around.”

The good news for Klara and all you other domestic bliss dreamers out there is that there are fully-appointed, owner personality-infused rentals where you can play house for a while, even in a community of other whimsical types also playing house. Then if you decide that they should be your real homes, you can buy them furnished as they were when you were a guest in them. I read about these toy-to-true abodes in The New Yorker before I began spotting them in places like rural Louisiana, the English countryside, and even along the railways of Eastern Europe this past trip. They’re called TINY HOUSES: Low impact, multipurpose, portable living units that are exactly what their name suggests. For those listed on AirBnB, the owner is often present in a nearby big house for guidance on tiny house living. House hunting fans of the 1939 Judy Garland film The Wizard of Oz will be giddy upon hearing that one tiny house currently available for rent through the site is even shaped like a mushroom, while another was constructed from mushrooms. In other words: Welcome to sustainable Munchkinland, folks, and make yourself at home!

Lesson 3
If you happen to move from one bad home sharing experience to another, keep a healthy perspective: You can learn a lot about what you want in a home even by comparing an undesirable option to a more undesirable option.

If there’s one thing that has left me in awe of even the modest homes where I’ve stayed on travels, it’s my memory of the shadiest ones where I’ve stayed both as a resident and as a traveler.

As a graduate student visiting New Orleans for my 29th birthday: I booked a place described as a “stylish, comfortable and functional room” in a “peaceful and serene neighborhood” just “a short walk to the Legendary French Quarter.” The quality of the room was understated: With its gold, yellow and black trimmings, Mardis Gras wall masks, and books recalling the city’s history, the room was so inviting that I often didn’t leave it for sightseeing until early afternoon. Unfortunately, I discovered on a casual stroll recommended by my hosts that the neighborhood only appeared serene because its residents preferred to remain locked inside. Nightly police sirens from all compass angles signaled that I’d better run back to the house if I couldn’t hail a taxi along the way. “What the hell do you mean ‘it doesn’t seem safe’?,” one of my hosts would say as I’d rush inside after desperately fumbling with the keys to unlock the front door. “Hurricane Katrina turned this into one of the safest neighborhoods in the city.” This host bore a diagonal knife wound from his left ear to his right cheek, courtesy of a man he’d killed in combat during the Gulf War, and the most conspicuous manifestation of his PTSD was his habit of building traps for roosters in the B&B’s yard and axing them into mattress and meat pie filling for fun before brushing his teeth in the morning.

Such cringe-worthy experiences informed my appreciation for my most recent AirBnB – one that some call haunted while others, including me, call it charming. It’s located in the Scottish town of Dumfries, otherwise known as the gateway to the site of the 1988 Lockerbie air disaster. My Dumfries hosts were imbued with a sort of controlled jolliness – as if they were only allowing themselves to appear tipsy enough for legitimate Scotsman-ship, despite possessing the permanent internal sobriety common among survivors of a mass tragedy. The house suggested the same paradox: Fluffy red velvet curtains and bedspreads contrasted by narrow stained glass windows, and a rather dimly lit den where the host’s children were encouraged to ride tricycles in small circles ad infinitum. It wasn’t the prettiest picture of home and family, but I’d look for inspiration in a home suggesting peaceful resignation any day over ones asking me to rest on high alert.

With that in mind, as you’re investigating homes, just remember this: You might learn even more about what you need in a house by comparing bad ones to better ones than you would by projecting yourself into a rental so splendid that it feels at odds with your true persona.

Lesson 4
The person or people with whom you can share a mortgage, and a lifetime, may be awaiting you at an AirBnB or Couchsurfing home.

Officially, you’re in violation of Couchsurfing.org policies if you use the website as a dating or hookup application. That said, love knows no e-bounds, and I’ve met people who found their husbands, wives and home co-investors through home sharing sites. It makes good sense: Home sharing sites encourage people to profile their homes and interests so that they can be matched with people who share those interests and would like to spend at least one night in those homes.

The story of Alexis and Kyle Kleinbeck illustrates at least three ways to approach this step: The couple introduced themselves to one another at a meet-up for Couchsurfers in Cincinatti, Ohio. Sidestepping any obligations to the invisible Big Brother figures at Couchsurfing.org, they allowed their flame to kindle and decided to marry in Autumn 2013. At their wedding in Wisconsin, guests from as far as Alaska and India – including other Couchsurfers – were invited to camp out in the backyard of Kyle’s mom’s house in Wisconsin for a whole weekend. The gathering was an enormous hit, and the Kleinbecks later used their wedding party in combination with Couchsurfers they met as husband and wife to build an international living community. Now that they have a strong network of friends and wedding guests around the world, they can probably generate a substantial amount of funding for any home and lifestyle initiatives they have in mind should they ever want to do that. As a recent Forbes article suggests, the Kleinbecks could even crowd-finance a home using donations from their personal Couchsurfing community on websites like Crowd Estates and Indiegogo.

The three major takeaways here are: 1) Built-in crowdfunding circles 2) Members passionate about communal living scenarios in which dozens of people split the household bills and 3) Wealthy spouse and benefactor prospects. Could home sharing sites be a quick-fix for the lonely and loveless? That may just be the hot topic for my next trip.

Lesson 5
You can use home sharing sites to pay your mortgage. Maybe.

Using AirBnB to pay ones mortgage and avoid being tied to a traditional job is something of a phenomenon: One couple made nearly $349 between four guests sleeping in their living room over a single night. Another couple are prepared to describe themselves on LinkedIn as an AirBnB Real Estate Tycoons. My New Orleans host retired from the military in middle age to make a living renting out rooms in his home on AirBnB, and despite the revelation that his neighborhood is The ‘Hood, he seems to be living well off his profits. And, surprise, surprise: A “Get Rich Quick Using AirBnB” self-help book is in online circulation now.

As you might imagine, there are legal issues associated with home sharing rentals in some states: Some leasers have been evicted for renting out rooms in their apartments on AirBnB. Others have found that they have no legal recourse when guests damage their property. And in a news item that has gone viral, one AirBnB host in Palm Springs, Cory Tschogl, is currently being sued by a guest squatting in her property. The reason for this is that in California, if someone rents a room for over 30 days, he becomes a tenant and can only be evicted through the traditional three to six month process requiring up to $5,000 in legal fees. Those are some of the reasons why I can’t blindly recommend AirBnB and other paid home stay arrangements as a means of paying off your mortgage.

However, if you can iron out the details of a host-guest agreement in advance of any stays so that you’re covered legally, you may never have to think about foreclosure again. That’s something I plan to keep in mind for the home of my unforeseeable future.

Lesson 6
Don’t just show guests their rooms and vanish for the remainder of their stays all the time. Host too!

Settled into the right home? Then host in it! Once you’ve caught the home sharing bug, ‘home sweet home’ will always be sweeter with more people in it.

And to get you there along the path of least resistance, here’s an ideal itinerary you can follow to get the house of your dreams. Click on the map below to start your journey:

mortgagehippo_post_airbnb_couchsurfing

Author: Ramon Robinson is a writer and contributor for MortgageHippo. He’s also the founder of ThePrecociousUrchin.com

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