Room to Spare:

Turning Your Home into a B&B

by Robin Bonner

Bedrooms and Other Shrines
Q: When is your child’s room not your child’s room?
A: When your child is 29 years old and she moved out of the house almost 7 years ago.

Unless you consider the date of her departure for college—then you can make that 11 years ago.

I confess: I’ve been eyeing our daughter Amie’s bedroom, where I dust knickknacks several times a year, and, before she and her husband arrive periodically from California, I also wash the bedding (our cat Oliver’s favorite sunny spot to sleep and shed his fur). Other than that, the room has remained untouched—a shrine, if you will. And, lately, I’ve been contemplating the room’s many other potential uses: Storage space for our own stuff? Guest room? Maybe even with an extreme makeover, B&B listing?

Wow! Once I began thinking about it, the possibilities seemed endless! Ah, but the will is weak . . .

Like all families, we have our share of “stuff.” I routinely move storage boxes filled with old work files, obsolete computers, and the stair-stepper that keeps me entertained, if not fit, between marathon work sessions all into and out of Amie’s bedroom. Younger sister Sarah (who lives on the East Coast and therefore visits more regularly) has adopted Amie’s closet for her own fashion overflow. (You should see things around here at Christmas, when everyone is home and all rooms are occupied! Yikes! I end up with everything in my office, piled floor to ceiling.) So, I’ve started to think, “All this space and Amie’s only home a few times a year? What a waste!”

But then I look at the walls: An “I want to believe” poster, from Amie’s “I love X-Files” days. The needlepoint I crafted with her name and birth date shortly after she was born. A cork board sporting her college acceptance letter, the license plate from her first car, various quotes and words of wisdom scribbled on yellowing scraps of paper, and three key chains: with Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty, and a Rubik’s Cube. Then there’s Amie’s dresser: On it are statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Francis, and St. Lucy, relics from her Catholic school days, plus myriad family photos and treasured tchotchkes. And her bookcase: All those junior-high track, basketball, and cross-country trophies, not to mention countless dolls and books. Touching any of these things, with the intent of packing them away, or, God forbid, disposing of them, is difficult if not impossible. And, who likes to tackle difficult or impossible tasks? Thus, they stay put, everything stays as it is, and the room remains a shrine.

Winter Respite
Isn’t it funny how beneficial and inspiring a change of scenery can be?

Lauren and John’s home.
In January, friend Lauren and her family (husband John and boys Jack, 10, and Will, 9) were kind enough to invite us to their house in Swarthmore, PA, for a “sleepover.” Gary and I looked forward to the visit with relish—it would give us a chance to chat at length with Lauren and John, an opportunity we rarely enjoy, and also to experience their precocious boys in action, which might allow us to get to know them a little better. (You remember how it was when you were a kid and your parents invited “grown-ups” over? If you were like me, after dinner you skedaddled from the table as quickly as you could, to avoid all possibility of adult inquisition.) After all, with our own kids flown from the coop, we were looking forward to interacting with our friends’ kids.

After a frustrating drive through the Philadelphia suburbs on a Friday evening at rush hour, we arrived at our friends’ home, with a bottle of wine and a loaf of homemade cream cheese pound cake in hand, offerings to the “gods of respite” providing their hospitality that night. The tantalizing aroma of homemade pizza wafted our way as we stood in the doorway knocking the snow from our shoes. We were not to be disappointed that evening!

We greeted John and Lauren, Jack and Will, as well as Zane, the collie, and Kato and Erika, the cats, then enjoyed wine and hors d’oeuvres there in the kitchen, where the cooks could join in the merriment. Soon, though, we repaired to the dining room for a feast of pizza—one smothered in salmon, cream cheese, capers, and scallions, the other in prosciutto and several cheeses. A green salad accompanied, and thick and creamy homemade “tea” ice cream (John’s specialty) followed. What a treat! Who cared that it was 20 degrees outside?

Jack and Will (front), and Lauren, Gary, and John, sailing last summer.
After dinner, it was time to play games! We tried our hand at one of the boys’ favorites, “Apples to Apples,” which had nouns, adjectives, and challenges galore. It was fun to play with Jack and Will, wise beyond their years, each of them with a unique sense of humor and strategy for winning. Soon, however, the game was over and it was bedtime, at least for the boys.

The four of us “grown-ups” sat down in the living room to bravely attempt some small talk, but all too quickly our eyelids drooped. We were done in by the energy of those talkative young boys (Will more so than Jack) and all of our own game playing, pizza eating, and wine drinking. On top of that, of course, it was Friday night, and we were feeling the effects of the long work week. So, soon it was time for the rest of us to retire, as well. Tomorrow would be another day!

From Guest Room to B&B
Lauren had warned us earlier: She had decided to rent out their beautiful guest room—the one in which we would spend the night—online. The listing already appeared on a website called “Air BNB.” This was no ordinary guest room: It had its own “back stairway,” directly adjacent to the kitchen door. Well, there’s no need for me to describe it, as the write-up on Air BNB does a great job:

“Cheerful, well-appointed guest room with your own full bath, staircase, and hall. Queen-size bed, Wifi, off-street parking included. Antique desk and dresser for your use. The room has space for one air mattress on the floor, which we can provide for $15 per night.

This is a great location if you’re coming from the Philadelphia Airport (15 minutes) or if you plan to visit Philadelphia. We’re an easy walk to the Media-Elwyn train line, which is a 25-minute ride to Philadelphia. And naturally, we welcome Swarthmore College visitors.

We’d be glad to brew a great pot of coffee or tea for you in the morning! Please note that a well-behaved collie, an old gray tabby, and a young calico also live here. The dog doesn’t go upstairs and we can keep the cats out if you prefer.

We know a lot about Philadelphia and the local area, and will be glad to give you travel advice if you need it.”

So there you have it. Gary and I spent a lovely night reading and sleeping in that guest room, and I posted my own “Comment” about our stay on the Air BNB site the following day. Lauren has a real knack for collecting antiques and a flair for decorating—the room is a beautiful yellow, though, and not the lime green depicted on the website. And, it’s a bargain at $55 per night for a double with plenty of room (although to maintain their family’s privacy, Lauren lists the room only, without breakfast). Even if I didn’t know Lauren and John, if we were coming from out of town and wanted to stay in the Philadelphia area, from the looks of the listing, I’d stay there in a minute.

The next morning, we enjoyed hearty homemade blueberry pancakes and orange juice in the family’s gourmet kitchen (Lauren, a dedicated foodie, writes an entertaining (and usually foodie) blog, Dream Kitchen), then took a brisk walk en masse to “downtown” Swarthmore. The college town is a feel-good place for liberals and intellectuals. We wandered the several streets of eclectic shops and restaurants, and visited the trendy Swarthmore Food Co-Op. The guys hit the vintage hardware store, and when they came back, Lauren and I were still perusing the wares in an eastern European gift shop. Before long, it was time to leave.

Seeds Planted
By noon, we had said our goodbyes and gone our separate ways—Jack to play basketball, John to take Will to a Swarthmore College basketball game, Lauren to recover from having overnight guests, Gary to reassume his usual winter-Saturday activities during “robotics build season,” and I to get home and mull all of this over. I found myself thinking, Wow, we had such a nice time! It was fun to hang out with our friends in such a leisurely fashion, rather than to cram our get-together into several hours of one evening. It was also nice to get away from our house—to have a change of scenery—if only for one night.

And it was thoughts of that guest room that kept coming back to me—staying there was so relaxing! I loved the featherbed-soft mattress, interesting architectural features, and mix of antique furniture. And, I really liked the idea in reverse—taking a little-used room and turning it into an interesting and contributing element in our house, one I could rent out if I so chose.

The first plus in this plan, of course, is the obvious: I could pick up a few extra bucks doing it. If we had guests stay, say, one weekend a month, at $55 per night, that would generate $1320 per year—enough to finance at least part of a larger family vacation, or perhaps just to do some weekend traveling we’ve been putting off. (Lauren and family will be visiting the Grand Canyon over the boys’ spring break this year and staying in an Air BNB rental; they have had three bookings for their guest room since its listing in January.) And, serving breakfast could generate even more revenue. Further, writing off attendant costs as a business expense would probably help offset some of the taxes we might need pay on the income.

Next, I’ll bet by listing on a Website such as Air BNB, we would have the opportunity to meet some interesting people—people we wouldn’t meet otherwise. Because our home is well situated, in proximity to a major city and recreational area (in our case, not only to Philadelphia, but also to the multi-use Perkiomen Trail and the Spring Mountain ski area, zip lines, and mountain bike trails), we would probably be successful in attracting guests. With such amenities nearby, out-of-state visitors and perhaps even foreign tourists may find our home an excellent place to stay. And, if we served breakfast, said guests may be interesting to meet and talk with. Air BNB listers frequently rent to and from each other, so there is a sense of congeniality and comfort knowing that “we’re all in this together.” The theory is that when that is the case, then guests clean up after themselves more often, interact with their hosts more often, and so on.

Finally, it would be good just to have a reason to get the room cleaned out and refurbished!

Not All About the Money
So, after our stay at Lauren and John’s, I haven’t been able to look at Amie’s room in quite the same way. Hmmm, if we get rid of the stuff (hers and ours), give it a fresh coat of paint, and replace the daybed and trundle with something full-sized, we could cheerfully and comfortably sleep two. Amie’s room doesn’t have a private bath and a separate staircase, though, so we might need to charge less. And, having guests frequently would tie us down; that's something we would have to think about, too. All in all, though, it is worth looking into.

Lauren chose to list with Air BNB, which gives quite a nice marketing spiel to both hosts and guests on their Website. The company promises “clean, comfortable, affordable” rooms (and sometimes entire apartments or houses) all over the world. To protect paying guests, reservations are made via PayPal, and the credit card information is not processed until 24 hours after arrival. After a visit, both hosts and guests post comments about their experiences. Even the video ad looks enticing; it made me wonder why Gary and I don’t travel more often. Other sites (e.g., Couchsurfing and Homeaway) also offer similar arrangements.

But it’s not all about the money. Even if we never lure a paying guest, if this fresh look at things means that Amie’s room will be transformed into a new guest room, that in itself might make the effort worthwhile. Even if it’s only for Amie and Todd! Now, I just have to get rid of the stuff; it's on the “To-Do” List for next weekend. Further, Amie will be home in April, and she’s volunteered to help go through (and box or dispose of) her stuff. That process will be fun; I anticipate memorabilia and a bottle of wine fueling many fond memories. Now, I can actually picture myself getting through this, after being stuck in limbo about it for years.

First, though, I’m adding another item to my list: Thank Lauren and John for a lovely time, one that gave me a new outlook on an old problem!

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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