How to Stay Booked Rural Airbnbs

New York City began enforcing its restrictions on vacation rentals last week. Hosts must be registered with the city and remain on site during guests’ stay. These restrictions may reduce the number of vacation rentals in the nation’s largest city, but the picture is different in small towns across the United States.

That includes Tarkio, Missouri — a town of about 1,500 people — where Beverly Jones and her husband, Paul Seaman, have four Airbnb properties.

Cornfields and wind turbines define the edges of the small town. Besides the occasional passing car, the chirping of birds is the most constant sound outside the couple’s home.

While Tarkio may not have a New York City skyline, Jones and Seaman’s short-term rental properties remain occupied.

But not with vacationers.

The couple estimates that about 70% of their guests are in the city to work temporary jobs. Temporary workers in rural areas renting Airbnbs have become a big trend, said Jamie Lin, chief economist at AirDNA, a company that tracks the performance of global short-term rentals.

There are a growing number of Airbnbs available for small-town workers. Since 2020, more than 2,100 cities without a hotel have gotten their first Airbnb booking, according to Airbnb. Growth in the supply of short-term rentals continues to be fastest in small towns and rural areas, Lin said.

“These are widely some of the best-performing listings we see today,” Lin said.

Jones and Seaman’s Airbnb properties are 78% booked during the year, Jones said. Most of these guests have worked on wind turbines in the city built within the past decade or at the nearby power plant that has been in operation for nearly 50 years.

“There was such demand when we first did it,” Seaman said. “Once word spread like wildfire, they were full.”

Before the couple opened their Airbnbs in 2019, the only other lodging options were one 17-room hotel, a traditional bed and breakfast with a few rooms, and one bunk house that rented single bunk beds, Jones said.

Jones said Tarchio had hundreds of workers in the city at one time

When all the housing options in Tarkio are filled up, workers stay in slightly larger neighboring towns. That could add 45 minutes to an hour to their daily commute, Jones said.

Increased commute times mean less sleep before long shifts, said Ashley Flores, a traveling nurse who is staying in an Airbnb while working at a hospital in Bonham, Texas, a town of about 10,700 that has 15 listings on Airbnb.

Flores takes on out-of-town assignments for up to 13 weeks at a time, and Airbnbs are usually cheaper than hotels for her stays that sometimes last months, she said.

But the price of Airbnbs is not feasible for all temporary workers.

Small towns with natural amenities—scenic areas such as mountains, lakes, beaches, and deserts—often have a strong tourism economy that requires seasonal labor. Jobs in hospitality typically don’t pay enough to cover Airbnb expenses, said David Peters, a professor of rural policy and rural sociology at Iowa State University.

Tourist cities are also seeing greater numbers of out-of-town buyers purchasing properties with no intention of moving to the area. Instead, they turn the homes into investment properties and rent them out to vacationers, which is one reason low- to moderate-income rents are scarce in these areas, Peters said.

“No one buys a vacation home or a retirement home in Iowa, Nebraska or Kansas,” Peters said.

Bordered by a highway rather than the Tarkio mountain range, the landlocked city has a different workforce than traditional tourist towns.

Temporary work in rural, non-recreational areas like Tarkio is usually in construction, energy extraction, meat packing or agriculture, Peters said. Outside of agriculture, these industries typically pay temporary workers better than hospitality, which means workers in these areas are more likely to afford Airbnb, he said.

Instead of lacking affordable housing for temporary workers like tourist hot spots, small towns that aren’t clearly tourist-friendly in regions like the Midwest often lack quality housing, Peters said.

A large number of country houses were built in areas with no tourist economies before the 1940s. Like all old homes, they come with their problems, but homeowners in rural towns don’t have a phone book full of people qualified to make the necessary repairs, Peters said.

One of Jones and Seaman’s lists was created in the 19th century. The couple did a number of serious renovations themselves at all four properties before they were Airbnb-ready.

“This was a complete disaster,” Jones said when describing the entrance to an Airbnb. “We had to replace windows, ceiling fans and electricity.”

Peters said contractors are incentivized to build and repair in larger cities where they can work on a large number of homes rather than remodeling a couple of homes in a town the size of Tarkio.

But for Jones and Seaman, renovating the homes has paid off. Jones said Airbnbs provide an additional source of income that helps them weather shocks to the local economy, which is very important in rural areas.

“You’re always doing two or three things,” Seaman said. “We’re all rushing.”

But the current success of Airbnbs in small towns without tourism economies may be running out.

Short-term renters in cities that don’t have high levels of tourism may not be as consistent as short-term renters in smaller cities with tourist economies, said Steven Diller, a professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Popular tourist areas can count on a regular number of temporary employees coming in to fill jobs during busy tourist seasons. But industries that bring in temporary workers for jobs outside health care and tourism see more booms and busts, Diller said.

This means that the extra income that hosts like Jones and Seaman receive from renters could disappear without warning.

“We’re both sensible business people,” Jones said. “When it becomes a loss later, you have to reevaluate.”

But as long as there are jobs in Tarkio, there will be workers who need a place to stay, and for now, Jones and Seaman’s listings remain reserved.

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