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133 | How To Get Started Making Money With Airbnb with Zeona McIntyre

Today Jonathan and Brad discuss Airbnb business building with Zeona McIntyre.

Zeona’s Story

Unlike many, Zeona does not allow paralysis by analysis to rule her life. With almost no real estate experience, she dove headfirst into an Airbnb business that has allowed her to build a life with options.

Zeona has built a successful business and shares her best strategies today.

The Beginning

As a young woman, Zeona always enjoyed looking at homes. Although she thought that one day this would turn into the career of a real estate agent, things took a different route. She realized that real estate seemed to be a good way to build wealth based on reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, but did not have anyone to learn from.

So, I think I’ve always had it in the back of my mind, that I was going to try and figure out how people [make money through real estate]…I thought, ‘Ok, real estate sounds like a way to get wealth in your life.’ And so I wanted to learn about that.

When she started the Airbnb business, she had never owned a property in her life. It all started when a roommate in her 2 bedroom apartment moved away. Instead of getting another roommate, she decided to give Airbnb a try.

After confirming that her lease allowed subletting, she went forward with Airbnb hosting. She learned that she absolutely loved hosting travelers in her spare bedroom. It felt similar to the Couch Surfing she had done in her travels, but someone was paying her to be there.

The Best Of Both Worlds

Almost immediately, Zeona was able to cover her old roommate’s portion of the rent without the inconvenience of having a roommate. She did not have to deal with a messy roommate for more than a few days at a time but the rent was still covered. For Zeona, it meant having a fun person stay at her place and go on adventures with her while paying her to be there.

My lease said I could sublet, and I just felt like, ‘cool, let’s just see if I like [Airbnb]. If I don’t like it, I’ll just get a roommate.’ I loved showing people my town and taking them around, so with Airbnb, it was the best of both worlds.

Although she had not run the numbers before giving it a try, she quickly realized that Airbnb was a lucrative way to pay her rent. Even though she started towards the end of the high season, the visitors still covered her rent.

Once she realized that this was working, she thought about how this could potentially replace her retail job. Airbnb started as a side gig, but now it has become her full-time life. And over time, she has been able to expand into a larger Airbnb business.

Finding The FI Community

Growing up, Zeona recognized her parents struggling financially but didn’t understand how that could be a part of being an adult. Then her mom found Suze Orman and they started implementing some of the basics of personal finance. The real changes came about at the same time as she was taking her first steps with Airbnb. And in 2011, she found Mr. Money Mustache.

Once she found that, she latched on to Pete’s message. She adopted his goals of having $600,000 and a paid-off living space as her new goals of Financial Independence. She wasn’t quite sure how she would get there, but she started by following his frugal living tips.

I had that in the back of my mind when was I starting this Airbnb thing… If I can cover all of my housing, that’s my biggest expense. Then the next biggest thing is transportation. If I can bike more, then I’m in a pretty good spot.

The Airbnb business was a way to create a free-living arrangement. When you do not have to pay for rent, life is suddenly very affordable. Fewer expenses equal more freedom to fail, so Zeona was able to start expanding her Airbnb business.

Scaling The Business

Without a lot of money in the bank, Zeona was able to take the next step with a $4,000 loan from her dad. That loan allowed her to put down a security deposit, pay rent, and buy furniture for a new place.

She intended to treat this second apartment as a home, but as it rented out, she shuttled back and forth between the two units based on which was booked for the night. Eventually, she had to start staying with friends because the units were all rented out. Although it was difficult to live out of a suitcase, she was able to quit her retail job so she was willing to put up with the hustle.

Until this point, she was simply subletting apartments that she had rented. Today, this is called “master leasing.” You’ll need to get specific approval from the landlord in order to pursue this option. It is a great route if you do not have the money to buy a property.

Buying Properties

From 2012 to 2014, Zeona was master leasing two apartments–four bedrooms, at any given time. Eventually, she decided to buy a place.

She bought her first property from an older gentleman that had many units in a single apartment building. Although she may have been able to get a conventional loan, she knew that route would be difficult without a W-2 paycheck.

Zeona found a way to pluck up the courage to ask an old landlord for a loan to buy a one-bedroom apartment. She had heard he had given other real estate investors loans, so she used the numbers from her Airbnb and massage income, and her character, to secure the loan. She went into the conversation knowing that if it didn’t work out, she had a plan B.

I was definitely researching all the different things I could do, but it seemed like his was going to be my best bet. So it was my first, Plan A. But it wasn’t my only plan. So, I think, like, that’s a good thing to have in your mind; if this is going to fail, then what’s the next one. Don’t be afraid to do it. All he could say was no.

He said yes to a $144,000 simple interest loan of 5% interest only for three years. It is not a common type of loan for homeowners, but it is a more common type of loan for fixing and flipping. It worked for Zeona.

Related: House Hacking With Airbnb

Growing From One Property To Six

After buying one place, she was still in the mentality of keeping the business small.

I was trying to do it all myself, which is kind of a Mr. Money Mustache tenet of like do everything yourself. Don’t outsource, don’t pay people. It took me a minute, but I realized that if I am actually going to grow this to anything, then I do have to outsource.

After buying her first place in 2014, she visited a friend in St. Louis in 2015 at a wedding. She discovered that people were paying around $300/month for a mortgage, which could be an opportunity for a successful Airbnb.

She met some people at the wedding that were doing Airbnb successfully in the area and decided to buy a house in the area. Within a few months, she bought a house in St. Louis. She used Trulia to research crime maps and GoogleMaps Streetview to explore the area. In the end, she decided to be close to the biggest school in the area near a popular restaurant area.

The property in St Louis was $72,000 for a three-bedroom house which led to a mortgage payment of $333.33 each month. She knew that she could rent it for $800-$1000/month as a long-term rental so in the worst-case scenario she could rent it out that way.

That second property was the beginning of building a successful Airbnb business. She now owns six properties and manages between 20 and 25.

How To Get Into The Airbnb Business

You can start an Airbnb business in three ways.

Buy A Place: This is the most expensive option, but if you have the money on hand it is an option.

Master Lease: This is cheaper than buying a place, but it requires some upfront capital. You rent an apartment to rent it out for short-term visitors.

Manage Airbnbs: If you have no money on hand, then this is a great way to get started. You simply manage the listing for the property owner and take a percentage off the top. The percentage can range from 20% to 50%, without owning any property at all!

Best Practice For An Airbnb Business

Everyone lives somewhere, so you can rent that out as a way to see if you enjoy this type of income. Some people start by renting out a spare bedroom. Some other options would be something like a “mother-in-law suite” or your basement. Zeona has even heard of people renting out tents in their backyards. Find out if you like hosting before you dive all in.

How To Furnish Your Properties

Zeona prefers to furnish her properties on the cheap through Craigslist, garage sales, consignment stores, and more. The house she furnished in St. Louis cost between $4,000 and $5,000 to completely furnish. She enjoys the hunt for furniture and will always want to do it this way.

However, she knows many with large-scale Airbnb operations that develop relationships with wholesale furniture stores. If you scale to hundreds of units, then this may be the way to go. At this level, you would likely need a team to furnish your properties as you buy them.

She advises against using IKEA for all of your furniture needs. The guests can tell that all of the furniture is from IKEA and that may dissuade them from choosing your listing. People enjoy different colors, textures, art, fluffy rugs, and other unique pieces that make them feel that they are in a home.

How To Build Your Team

If you are trying to take your Airbnb business to the next level, then your team will grow over time. However, in the beginning, your team only needs a cleaner and a handyman.

Zeona has chosen to develop the cleaners into the emergency staff as well. If a tenant has a problem, then the cleaner will be getting the phone call. This extra level of responsibility forces Zeona to be careful in her selection of cleaners. In interviews, she asked people why they are doing what they are doing. Many are doing it because they do not have a choice. But some are doing it because they enjoy being caretakers of a place.

She follows the principles of hiring the right attitude. With the right attitude, an employee can be trained for the skills of the job.

How To Make Your Airbnb Listing Stand Out

Furnishings: Make it stand out with color and personality. It’s not beige on beige, all neutrals. People tend to want bright colors, and unique pieces of furniture; something they can try on, even if it’s not their normal style.

Photos: It is critically important to get professional photos of your listing. With better photos, it is likely that you will get more bookings over time.

Plus, the Airbnb search engine rewards listings that have potential buyers clicking around the listing.

How To Set Your Pricing

At first, Zeona would set prices on her own. Now, she uses Beyond Pricing to make things easy. The tool will set up the pricing for her. She can choose to adjust it based on last-minute booking rates but generally leaves it alone.

Investing in pricing software like Beyond Pricing is Zeona’s best tip for beginners. If you sign up for Beyond Pricing through her resources page, then you’ll receive one month free.

Related: How To Become An Airbnb Superhost

Monthly Cash Flow

The goal for each of Zeona’s properties is to make $1,000 per month. Although everything fluctuates, she does regularly hit those numbers. With this business, you need to be aware of the seasonal variations of your market. Usually, the summertime is more lucrative than the winter.

Where You Can Get Started Today

Zeona reminds anyone that wants to dive in that Airbnb can be as simple or complex as you make it. Anyone can make the effort and learn about Airbnb, but at some point, you have to make the jump.

To avoid the analysis of paralysis, just don’t get too heady about it. Do your best with what you have.

If you can do professional photos, then do it. When you are ready, sign up for the pricing software.

The most important thing to do is just to get the listing live. If you can start in the spring or summer, then that is even better. The high of the summer season can help you grind through the slower winter months.

Once you have five to ten properties, then you should consider property management software to help automate things.

Before you jump into any property, make sure to check out the laws of a particular area. You do not want to be running your business in a grey area. It is uncomfortable and it is a better idea to simply find a location that is Airbnb friendly.

How To Connect

The best way to connect with Zeona is through her website,

The Hot Seat

Favorite Blog: Mr. Money Mustache

Favorite Article: The 4% Rule: How Much Do I Really Need for Retirement by Mr. Money Mustache

Favorite Life Hack: I love credit cards for points and miles. (If you really want to maximize your travel rewards check out Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards series!)

Biggest Financial Mistake: Bought a house with a friend and it didn’t go well, in fact, it turned into lawsuits. She would recommend having good contracts in place.

The advice you would give your younger self: I would buy newer homes. Older homes have charm but are more expensive to maintain. Also, I would always buy a home with two bathrooms.

Bonus! What purchase have you made over the last 12 months that has brought the most value to your life? Travel and personal development workshops.

Related Articles

New to FI? Be sure to check out Episode 100: Welcome To The FI Community!

How To Get Started Making Money With Airbnb
Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. American Express is a ChooseFI advertiser. Disclosures.
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