Bed and Maybe Breakfast

W ould you prefer a “Modern Condo on the River” or a “Bungalow by the Sea”? Are you a “Luxury Living at College & Crown” type, or is “Yale Crash Pad” more your speed? Maybe you have a particular neighborhood in mind. If so, you can choose “Comfy Artists’ Flat Close to Yale” or “Westville Village Oasis” or “East Rock Gem.” Or maybe you prefer to keep it understated. Then “Nice Cozy House” might be just the thing.

This is just a handful of the hundreds of New Haven listings on Airbnb. It’s hard to say exactly how many there are, since a search for “New Haven” will reach out along the shoreline and north to Wallingford, and some spaces are listed more than once. But it’s safe to say that New Haven is welcoming dozens of Airbnb guests every night.

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In case you’re still a Marriott-and-Hilton type and need a primer, the Airbnb concept is simple: hosts open their homes—from a single room to the whole shebang—to paying guests who make a reservation via the Airbnb website or app. Guests rate hosts at the end of their stay, and hosts rate guests. That gives hosts the opportunity to check up on potential guests in advance—they don’t have to say yes to every booking inquiry—and vice versa.

This may sound sketchy to some, but in its 10 years of existence, Airbnb (the “air” comes from its original name, Airbed and Breakfast) has garnered more than 5 million listings worldwide. For Lisa Nielsen, whose home is near Yale’s Science Hill, becoming an Airbnb host was logical. She was already a landlady with tenants on the first floor of her three-story Victorian home. When relatives came for an extended stay, she gave them the third floor. “I put in a door, and that’s how it kind of grew into this,” she says.

Today Nielsen’s third-floor “aerie”—officially hosted by friend Jeff Eyrich, who handles the booking and other tasks—boasts two restful bedrooms, glossy dark hardwood floors, a well-appointed bathroom, a large TV, comfy living room furniture, pretty frosted glass doors and a full kitchen stocked with wine, beer, soda, breakfast staples and snacks. In a little over a year with Airbnb, Nielsen and Eyrich have hosted more than 60 guests, all of whom stay for at least two nights and many of whom are coming for Yale admissions visits, conferences and reunions or to pick up and drop off their undergrads. The nightly rate is $175.

Not every Airbnb offers such amenities. The company requires only “toilet paper, soap, linens/sheets and at least one towel and pillow per booked guest,” according to its website. “We go above and beyond,” says Eyrich of the property, which has earned the maximum five-star rating from guests. In fact, Eyrich is listed as a “Superhost,” meaning, among other qualifications, that he responds quickly to inquiries and reservations, has received a five-star rating at least 80% of the time and has never cancelled a booking for a reserved guest.

In another part of town, not far from East Rock Park, Superhost Shelley Caldwell offers a different kind of experience. Caldwell is sitting in her breezy screened porch when I arrive. Inside, her sleepy dog opens one eye and decides nothing exciting is about to happen. The cat seems to care even less that a stranger is in the house. Caldwell leads me upstairs to a bedroom outfitted with two twin beds and a bunk bed, sleeping four in total, though kids rarely come to stay. There’s a bowl of fruit and a crock of croissants on the sideboard. The bathroom is shared with Caldwell and her daughter, who lives with her.

Caldwell’s original motivation for renting a room was financial, a way of making ends meet after her husband died. But she quickly learned there were other rewards: meeting people and making new friends. Guests sometimes cook meals in Caldwell’s kitchen, which they eat with her at the dining room table. She once offered a father and son from Estonia a ride to a monster truck show they wanted to see, and they bought her a ticket to join them. One couple with a long stay even invited her to their wedding. She went.

Some guests stay for a single night, but others have stayed for as long as several months. “I don’t know… whether there is a certain type of person that chooses Airbnb or whether I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky,” Caldwell says, “but I have had such a good time with almost every single person that has come.” She’s especially fond of hosting students from all over the world, and she keeps her pricing low—$47 a night—to cater to them. Over three years, she’s hosted hundreds of guests.

Though Nielsen and Eyrich’s guests keep more to themselves, they, too, come from near and far. Chinese families, in particular, seem to have spread the word that Nielsen’s house is a good place to stay in New Haven. And the hosts echo Caldwell’s experience: they’ve never had a problem with their temporary housemates. “Everybody that’s stayed here has been great,” Eyrich says. “For the most part, people treat it like it’s their own place, which I think is really nice.”

If by now you’re thinking of opening up your own Airbnb, Nielsen says, “Do it!” But, she adds, “It’s a lot of work,” and doing it right might mean devoting some of your own space to it. “If you saw my [own] apartment, you’d see it is the staging ground for an Airbnb: sheets galore, ironing board…” Nielsen says with a smile.

Hosts should also be honest about the limitations or peculiarities of their listings—“for example, ours is on the third floor,” Nielsen says—and represent them accurately in the online photos and descriptions. Getting good reviews will make or break your business, Eyrich says. “You have to go a little bit further than you think. It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’ve got this extra bedroom.’”

For Caldwell, who shares her actual living space, the most important advice is that hosts “have to enjoy being with people. And I think it probably helps if you’re not fearful of people.”

All three agree that working with Airbnb itself is easy. The company, which takes a 3% cut on most bookings, takes care of financial transactions, including taxes and fees. It also provides $1 million insurance in case of problems and phone support for hosts. Guests can also negotiate with Airbnb directly if there are problems—and sometimes there are. Nielsen herself once stayed in a Santa Barbara Airbnb that she found “creepy” and “cold and lonely.” What guests experience here in New Haven depends largely on their hosts.

But with so many otherwise private corners of the city now up for rent, a staycation has never felt more plausible—or tempting.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 depicts Shelley Caldwell. Image 2 depicts Jeff Eyrich.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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