Have you ever thought of investing in a second property and starting a short term rental business? What are some considerations when renovating, launching and managing a short term rental? Today I’m sharing 10 important lessons I’ve learned while renovating two 60 year old lake cottages and turning them into vacation rentals.
In 2020 my husband Sean and I completely gutted and renovated a small lakefront cabin. In August 2021, we launched Our Little Lake House as a short term vacation rental. Then, in the Spring of 2023 we renovated and launched a second vacation rental: Our Tiny Lake House. Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve learned a LOT about renovating and managing a short term rental. It’s been a whole lot of work, but the process of having a vacation rental has been incredibly rewarding. If you’re thinking of starting a short term rental business, here are all the things I’ve learned that you’ll want to know too!
This post was first published in February 2022 and has since been updated.
Things I Learned Starting a Short Term Rental
Be prepared for a large initial investment
Like any home renovation, renovating and starting a short term rental will end up being more of a money and time investment than planned. We looked for a small home in need of a ton of work in a great location. When we found both lake homes, they were in poor condition, but they both ended up needing even more work than planned. Both had rot, water damage and rodent issues, so we had to completely gut them and start from square one.
On top of renovation costs, be prepared to spend a lot of money on furnishings and accessories when starting a short term rental. You’ll want it to have all of the furniture, bedding, kitchen accessories and appliances your guests will need. A lot of the smaller items will add up like a nice coffee machine, plenty of towels, double sets of sheets etc. You can find my ultimate list for setting up a short term rental property right here.
Thankfully we had extra saving set aside for unexpected costs, so we were able to finish our renovation and furnish the cabins. We had to spend more on insulation and other raw building materials, but we saved money by using used appliances, getting some finishes & furnishings sponsored, and using more budget-friendly furnishings.
Durability is key when choosing finishes
When sourcing finishes for your short term rental, don’t forget that your home will see a lot of different guests of all ages, and maybe even pets (if you’ll allow it)! Choosing flooring, counters and furnishings that hold up well to wear & tear is extremely important. If you decide to go with more fragile finishes, be prepared to replace or repair them every so often. Our cabins are by a lake, so we also wanted to think about moisture in the home.
We’ve had guests in our cabins for a couple of years now, and we’ve been extremely happy with how the following durable finishes have held up:
- luxury vinyl plank flooring
- laminate countertops
- Behr Ultra Scuff Defense Interior Paint & Primer
- washable fabric sofa
- solid wood beds
What finishes have we been unhappy with? I wish I would have put the luxury vinyl plank flooring in out Little Lake House bathroom, too. The marble flooring looks gorgeous but I can already see it wearing and it’s harder to clean. I also wish I would have used a separate primer first on the exterior doors before painting them – I’ve already had to fix many chips and scratches.
Cleanliness is #1 when starting a short term rental
Related to durability – cleanability is just as important if not MORE important when choosing finishes for your rental. Having a clean vacation rental will be the most important element to getting good reviews and great guests. When picking out finishes and the amount off furnishings and accessories you’ll put in your home, think of how it will be cleaned. Finishes need to be easy to clean, and the space needs to stay uncluttered so that cleaning is efficient.
As tempted as I was to decorate our lake houses to the max, I’ve since realized the benefit of keeping the furniture and accessories minimal so that we can clean absolutely everything between guests. Create a comfortable and unique experience for your guests, but there’s no need to go over the top with your decor.
We have very talented professional cleaners that clean and sanitize the cabins before each stay, but we have cleaned them ourselves on occasion. I recommend hiring a professional to clean your short term rental, but be prepared to do it yourself if the need arises. AirBnB has a fantastic cleaning and sanitizing guide (and a handbook for hosts) that we follow.
Keep guest experience in mind
Throughout the entire home renovation and rental management journey, it’s important to keep your guests’ experience in mind. Through every renovation choice, finishing choice and management choice, decide on the feeling you want your guest to have at your short term rental and deliver it.
At our cabins, I want our guests to feel peaceful and relaxed. To achieve this experience goal, I chose finishes for the home that are light, bright and coastal inspired. We also chose a very comfortable couch, invested in a Smart TV, and add little surprise extras in the cabin like a generous amount of free coffee pods, free toiletries from our favourite local companies, soft robes and slippers, and natural smelling dish and laundry soaps.
Your guest experience goal might be different than ours, so keep your unique vision for your guest in mind. For example, you might be wanting to create a vibrant & trendy experience in the city downtown, so you’ll choose brighter and more exciting colours for your decor. You might also add fun local art on the walls, a Bluetooth speaker for your guest to play music, a guide book full of local restaurant suggestions and a bar area. Imagine your ideal guest and make sure you design your rental to create the ultimate experience for them.
Use Smart features in your home to save time & aggravation
Sean and I are both tech lovers, but we’ve learned to love technology even more as we’ve set up our rental. Using “Smart” features in your vacation home can save you a lot of time and make things so much easier for you and your guests.
My favourite piece of tech are our Smart Locks on the doors. We opted for Alfred Smart locks, and they can be locked and unlocked at the tap of a button on our phones. I can also easily program unique lock codes for all of our guests during their stay. We also have a Ring security camera at the front of the properties to notify us when guests arrive, and to help keep our homes safe and secure. This is also connected to an app on our phones that’s easy to manage.
Motion sensitive lighting and fans are also helpful in a vacation rental, and so is a Smart TV. We went with a Smart Roku TV that uses a Guest Mode. Our guests can enter their credentials for their own streaming subscriptions, and then they’re automatically logged out at the end of their stay.
Be your own guest
Testing your short term rental is key before you’re ready to list it and find your first guests. We stayed in our home a few times over the course of the renovations and afterwards, and it helped us find issues that needed fixing, or items that we forgot.
Living in your home for a few days will force you to see what you might need to add or change in order to create a good experience for your guests. Sleep there, eat there, and use all of the features you’re going to advertise like your yard, fire pit, coffee maker, washer and dryer, bathtub etc.
When we stayed in Our Little Lake House, it helped me realize what sort of window coverings would feel comfortable, how many towels and paper products our guests might need each stay, and where our guests might spend most of their time.
List on multiple short term rental websites
Once you have your short term rental renovated, setup, licensed and ready to go (check with your local municipality for licensing requirements), you can list it. I started with listing ours on Vrbo, and then listed it on both AirBnB and Vrbo a couple of months later. There’s a lot of value in listing your rental on more than one site, and you can either sync booking calendars or manual approve each booking to ensure you don’t double book your home.
Websites like Vrbo and AirBnB will do some marketing for you, and many people use these sites anyhow so there will be automatic traffic coming to your listing. Both sites will help walk you through setting up your listing, and offer you tips on how to reach the most potential guests.
I’d also recommend creating your own website and social channels for your short term rental to help you attract even more guests. Invest in attractive photography for your listing that you can use on your channels and to promote your listing. Beautiful photos = more guests!
Reviews are everything when starting a short term rental
Going into managing our vacation rental I knew that reviews were important, but I didn’t quite realize HOW important. We didn’t get a lot of bookings until we received our first handful of 5 star reviews on Vrbo. People will be nervous to book your place if they don’t see any reviews beforehand.
I recommend asking family and friends to stay at your place for a discount, and asking them for their honest feedback and a public review after their stay. Not only will this help get you public reviews on your listing, but it’s also helpful to have different points of view of your home. Your family and friends will probably find things you could improve in your rental that you might not have thought of!
You can never over-communicate
It’s incredibly important to communicate absolutely everything about your vacation home with your guest. It’s also crucial to let your guests know that you (or a trusted partner) are available at any time of day to answer any questions or attend to any issues.
Creating a thorough Guide Book, House Rules and signage will help avoid any unnecessary calls from your guests. I used a template I found on Creative Market to make our Guide Book and signage with Canva.
In your Guide Book (or “Welcome Book”), you can include everything from a welcome letter to emergency contact info to restaurant recommendations. The more info you can give your guests about your home and your community, the better!
For signage, you can create a simple sign near any appliance/electronic that you think might need instructions. You can also create a sign with your WiFi info, your checkout tasks, and any other info you’d like your guests to read during their stay.
It’s also important to use AirBnB’s and/or Vrbo’s messaging system to send your guests messages before, during and after their stay with details on how they can find your home, how they access it, and any other pertinent information. We also created some simple Google Forms for our guests to fill out if they’re bringing a pet, and to tell us what their favourite drink is.
Hosting is very rewarding
I didn’t realize how satisfying and rewarding being a short term rental host would be until now. Yes, having a vacation rental can be a great investment, but you’ll also meet some incredible people (even if only virtually!) and learn so many great skills.
The initial reward I experienced was seeing the satisfying transformation of Our Little Lake House. YES, it was a grueling renovation, but looking back at the BEFORE photos makes the AFTER so much sweeter! It’s amazing to realize that we rescued this little cabin from crumbling into an even worse state.
After hosting hundreds of families over the last couple of years, I’ve experienced the reward of hosting. All of our guests have been lovely to communicate with and very respectful of our home. They have written heart-warming messages in our guest book, and public reviews on our listing full of kindness and encouragement. It’s been hard to find places to escape to over the last couple of years, and we are honoured that our lake houses have provided a retreat for many families over these last years.
Curious to see how we renovated our vacation rentals?
Click on the links below to follow our vacation rental renovation.
Watch my YouTube video for more about our experience after 6 months of hosting:
Watch my YouTube video for more about our experience after 2 years of hosting:
Still thinking of starting a short term rental?
I hope you found the lessons I’ve learned helpful, and that you feel encouraged and inspired to start your own vacation rental. If you have any questions about our experience, feel free to ask them in the comments below!