Airbnb sees fastest growth, best reviews for senior hosts

By Eric Newcomer

One of Airbnb's most popular rental property, the Mushroom Dome, is owned by 65 year-old Kitty Mrache. Photo / Airbnb
One of Airbnb's most popular rental property, the Mushroom Dome, is owned by 65 year-old Kitty Mrache. Photo / Airbnb

The Mushroom Dome is a pentagonal cabin with a geodesic dome for a roof, surrounded by a wooded farm filled with hundreds of nectar-obsessed hummingbirds. True to its name, it looks like an oversize mushroom. For about half the cost of a night at the Four Seasons, a family of three can spend the weekend in the charming but cramped quarters by booking through Airbnb Inc.

Kitty Mrache became the caretaker of the Mushroom Dome after a friend built it on her property in Santa Cruz County, California, US, near Silicon Valley, and lived there for a while. After her friend married and moved in with her spouse, Mrache fixed up the place for her four children. By 2009 , her kids were grown up and living in non-mushroom houses, so she listed the oddball cabin on Airbnb, a budding room-rental site that was less than a year old.

Today the Mushroom Dome is the most popular property on Airbnb and has become a full-time job for Mrache, 65.

"I was a stay-at-home mom," she says. "When my kids left home, I started looking around for some kind of work. I studied computers, and I learned the high-tech industry wasn't interested in hiring a woman in her late 50s."

While Mrache was an early adopter of Airbnb, she's become the poster child for the company's fastest-growing and most-beloved demographic.

In the past year or so, the number of hosts ages 60 and older grew by 102 per cent, outpacing the overall US growth rate of 85 per cent. Those hosts also receive the most favorable reviews, with 62 per cent of stays garnering a five-star rating. In almost every age group, women receive higher ratings than men on average, and female hosts 60 and older are the best of the bunch, Airbnb says.

WATCH: A clip of the Mushroom Dome Cabin in Aptos, Santa Cruz:

Mrache was something of an anomaly when Airbnb started.

In the early days, people often rented out couches or air beds. It appealed to college students, whose parents and grandparents were still booking Palm Beach getaways on VRBO or staying in hotels. But Airbnb is growing up, and so is its clientele. Mrache's Mushroom Dome had such an impact on Airbnb that the company modeled a conference room after the property in the startup's headquarters. Coders use it as a nap room.

When my kids left home, I started looking around for some kind of work. I studied computers, and I learned the high-tech industry wasn't interested in hiring a woman in her late 50s.

Vanessa Johnson, 62, lives in South Los Angeles, where she's been hosting her home on Airbnb for almost five years. She lives in the garage, which her mother had converted into a bedroom for her when she was 17. Her Airbnb profile is filled with five-star reviews. One guest said Johnson taught her how to pump gas, and another said he was greeted with an apple pie. Last year, she says her listing brought in about $30,000.

"If I didn't have that, I would be forced to sell my house," Johnson says. "Women of my age don't have the Social Security to retire because they stopped working to be caregivers."

The interior of  Kitty Mrache's Mushroom Dome Airbnb property in Santa Cruz, United States. Photo / Airbnb
The interior of Kitty Mrache's Mushroom Dome Airbnb property in Santa Cruz, United States. Photo / Airbnb

Elle La Forge, a 65-year-old retired professor, lives with her husband in Staten Island. Guests at her home receive a 45-minute orientation to New York City when they check in, during which she explains everything from the right time of day to visit the Empire State Building (at dusk) to the best route through Central Park. Last year, she hosted 72 guests, bringing in $20,000 before expenses, she estimates.

"Having been a teacher, I don't mind explaining things over and over," La Forge says. "You have to be patient with people who are new in a place that they're not familiar with."

Women of my age don't have the Social Security to retire because they stopped working to be caregivers.

Americans are working longer on average. About 15 percent of women 65 and older had jobs in 2014, up from 9.2 per cent in 1994, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Flexibility is a major factor in whether someone will continue working later in life, says Amanda Sonnega, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan.

Mrache's business is expanding-she recently started renting out another space on her property, a more prosaic studio apartment-but she tries to avoid letting the popularity of the Mushroom Dome interfere with her family time. The property was occupied by Airbnb guests on all but six days last year. It runs about $340 a night on a typical weekend, and holidays are in high demand. Mrache says people have already started inquiring about Memorial Day 2017.

She says she usually closes the property to renters when her children visit, but not always: "Sometimes they just say, 'Oh, Mom, go ahead and book it. We'll just sleep in the house.' "

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