and how you can do it too




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November 23, 2013
Living Room Sofa

My first foray into the Airbnb world started with a dumpy flophouse in Thousand Oaks, California.

Walking in for the first time, my gut impression was that nobody had cleaned in months, maybe even years!

Furthermore, the paint and carpet had not been replaced in at least a decade. Not surprising – it turned out the rooms in the quirky 1950’s California Ranch house, were rented to a constant recycling of college students.

California Lutheran University is a mere two blocks away, making it a highly desirous choice for Cal Lu’s walking and biking co-eds. Unfortunately, typical of college town rentals, the house was ill cared for; raucous house parties and lack of housekeeping had made a big dent!

However, after a thorough walk-through, I was excited. The house definitely had good architectural bones and with a little design mojo would make a kick-ass Airbnb.

Front yard before

BEFORE: The brick clashed with the white siding and chopped up the house’s architecture. What an eyesore!

Before calling in contractors, I spent a whole day in the house brainstorming a design concept.

What’s a design concept? It’s the first thing you do BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE. Read how to do it here.

In coming up with an appropriate design concept, I consider the architecture, the neighborhood, and general character of the house, and then create a design blueprint from which I base all decorating decisions.  Once I sink my teeth into a feel or vibe, all design decisions are pretty easy.

In this case, I came up with “Gingerbread Mid-Century,” and consequently kept all the original, cutesy details – like the Danish shutters and window planter, brick and original bottle glass front door. After all, a good portion of the neighborhood consisted of these original houses and it gave the street a lot of overall character.

On the other hand, to keep it fresh and contemporary, I knew I needed to tone down those same elements. It was a balancing act.

Front After

AFTER: Painting the brick and wood siding the same color unified the house, making it look larger and more harmonious. I decided on white to make the house appear bigger. The trim color was only slightly darker than the main house color (to keep it looking contemporary). Painting the front door an eye-stopping Chinese red was psychological: it represents happiness and good luck in most cultures.

The remodel also had to address various design challenges, and the biggest one was the low ceilings and dark interior.

Living Room Before

BEFORE: The interior was very dark, even with the curtains open, and the ceilings were low – only eight feet!

It was imperative that the house feel bright and open, so bringing more light into the house was essential if it was going to spark as an Airbnb.

A simple solution- which works 95% of the time – is buckets of white paint. The impact is almost like adding windows.

We painted the inside the whitest white available (Super White from Benjamin Moore), and then, to gain contrast, we put in dark, wide-plank hardwood flooring. People think dark floors make rooms darker, but the opposite is true: their reflective quality brings in more light and makes a room look bigger.

Furthermore, black and white color schemes add instant pizzazz to almost any space and best of all, are easy to maintain: fingerprints can easily be painted over with white paint without leaving brush marks. Likewise, dark floors are forgiving of spills and dents and look all the more charming as they age.

Living Room After

AFTER: The walls and ceiling were painted with Super White matte paint by Benjamin Moore. Matte paint hides any undulations and imperfections in drywall. It also fools the eye into thinking surfaces are farther away than they actually are, and thus the low ceilings feel higher. The curtains are hung at almost ceiling height to make the walls appear higher.

To solve the low ceiling issue, I chose flat matte finish. Matte paint is a lot like clouds, you don’t see where they begin and end. Low ceilings look higher painted matte.  It’s a simple and cheap design solution.

Another tactic is to hang curtains at ceiling level rather than right above a window. The eye is drawn up, rather than down.

Living Room Sofa

AFTER: The sofa is slipcovered – highly recommended in vacation rentals – in a Schumacher fabric found on eBay. Curtains are a transparent Belgian linen by Restoration Hardware. Coffee table is from West Elm. Wall art was purchased on eBay and Etsy. Antique rug is from iGavel.

Furnishings were a combination of new and used. My mantra with vacation rentals is to never spend too much money on anything!

The goal is always – always! – buy high-end items at low-end prices; it doesn’t matter if it’s a cottage or a villa. It solves the paradox we all face in this business: guests demand luxury but can be hard on furnishings. Read this article on how to do this.

My most spectacular bargains: a Donghia ceiling fixture, retailing at $3,000, for $155 on eBay and a brand new $1,200 Perrin and Rowe bathroom faucet for $125 on Craig’s List! I paired the nickel plated faucet with an Ikea vanity and the combination was stunning.

Combining high-end items with cost efficient ones is a winning design formula. I jokingly call it “Marrying Up.”

New Living Room Mantel

AFTER: A simple walnut shelf replaced the ungainly Roccoco-ish white one and the brick was painted in Benjamin Moore’s Grandma’s China, high gloss (to add shimmer) to contrast subtly with the wall color. The effect is simple, clean-lined chic. Hide rug is from Ikea, console from Restoration Hardware, Bone Lamps from West Elm. Flower vase, hearth jugs, cowhide chair are all antiques found at flea markets and eBay.

Old and new was also considered in the furnishings. Mixing antique and vintage with new things causes a dynamic interchange for the eye. If we see everything with the same patina, we get bored; but if there is a mix-up, the senses wake up and feel engaged.

Five-star hotels have always known this, which is why you find antique or seemingly antique furniture mixed in with contemporary ones in their public and private areas. Word of warning, however: this does not apply to anything touching the skin. Newer sheets and upholstery are a must.

Our guests’ tactile senses are especially awake during their vacation time. They seek beauty and comfort.They want to be embraced and it is our job to pamper them. They will appreciate it.

With that in mind, both living areas received plush sofas with especially soft upholstery. I always brush my hand over upholstery to feel if it is pleasing.

In order to keep it practical, I had them both slip-covered, and even made up extras in case one were to receive a permanent stain. It’s always good to be prepared for accidents.

Rugs were placed in gathering areas. You must assume people will want to sit on the floor and you should anticipate this with a soft carpet or rug.

entertainment room before

BEFORE: Original entertainment room had a gigantic pool table (covered with a sheet in this photo). The dark cabinet in the background was dismal to look at.

entertainment space

AFTER: The entertainment room is set up for casual lounging. Moroccan rug is plush and invites guests to sit upon it while playing games or socializing around the Paul McCobb marble topped coffee table. Oak armchairs are upholstered in Designers Guild fabric purchased on eBay. The sofa is Restoration Hardware and quirky wooden pendant lights are from West Elm.

Game Cabinet After

AFTER: A game cabinet was completely reimagined by adding silver backed grasscloth to the back walls and painting the wood Indi Go Go, in an oil finish, by Benjamin Moore. The cabinet is lit from above so guests can see available games. Frosted glass pulls are from Restoration Hardware.

Kitchen Before

BEFORE: Original cabinets were an ugly yellow oak and made the kitchen feel small and ungainly; however, they were solid wood, something uncommon in kitchens today, so we decided to paint them instead of pulling them out, also saving us a lot of money.

In order to keep costs down, we did not change the footprint of the house too much. Other than taking down one pointless pony wall to open up the living and dining room, we kept things as intended.

For example, the kitchen was not torn out, saving us thousands, and the basic bathroom plumbing cutouts stayed put. When you start reconfiguring gas and plumbing lines, it gets really expensive, and it’s probably not necessary for an Airbnb.

Kitchen After Remodel

AFTER: Cabinets were spray painted in Ally’s Earring, a semi-gloss oil by Benjamin Moore. Oil paint is extremely durable and is easier to maintain than water based paint. Nickel-plated pulls by Restoration Hardware were attached to the faces. A light-veined grey granite, much reminiscent of marble, replaced the vinyl countertop and an extra lip was added to make room for bar stools. The upper cabinets between the bar and the sink window were removed to give a roomier and lighter feel to the space. Replacing them with a stainless steel shelf found at Ikea was both useful and chic.

Dining and Kitchen After

AFTER: Dining room curtains are West Elm, hung on curtain wire from Ikea (spray painted in Rust-oleum’s dark bronze). Curtains are hung at ceiling height to make the walls appear higher.

Dining Room Table Closeup

AFTER: A simple linen tablecloth from Matteo Home invites guests to sit down and dine with elegance. White resin candlesticks and pendant lamp from West Elm, wooden platter from Etsy.

Bathroom before renovation

BEFORE: There was nothing worth saving in the original guest bathroom. We tore everything out; however, we kept the plumbing in place to save costs.

Guest bath after

AFTER: Black and white Daltile adds a vintage element to the guest bathroom, appropriate to the architecture. The new shower’s seamless glass makes the room seem larger and less cut up. Marble topped vanity came with both faucet and mirror and was purchased on Overstock. Painting the mirror in high-gloss red paint kept the set from looking staid and generic, an easy trap in which to fall when buying bathroom furniture. The black-framed photo is a Marin County beach. I always hang artwork in Airbnb bathrooms; it adds elegance and makes it look less bathroom-like.

Bath 2 Before

BEFORE: The fiberglass shower was hideous, but we kept it to keep costs down. After all, it was fairly new and worked well. All other elements around it were replaced.

Bathroom 2 After

AFTER: The cheap fiberglass shower remains, but “marries up” paired with the Restoration Hardware Belgian Linen shower curtain and the Heath floor tile, set in a herringbone pattern.

In approaching the bedroom design, comfort was an obsessive concern. There are three absolute musts:

  • A soft surface for the feet.
  • A delightful sleeping experience for the body.
  • Great reading light for the eyes.
master bedroom original

BEFORE: Original master bedroom had a hideous fan looming in the center with glaring downlights. It was the first thing to go!

To save costs, we put in wall to wall carpet.

Why? Despite the general consensus among interior designers that wall to wall carpet is the enemy of good taste, I think it often makes sense in Airbnb’s.

The reason is that guests sometimes like to stretch out on the bedroom floor sometimes, especially after sitting for hours on a plane or in a car. Unlike wood or tile, carpeting allows them to do some yoga or floor relaxation in their bedrooms.

I found some gorgeous commercial-grade carpeting in a warehouse specializing in hotel carpet remnants and installed it in all the bedrooms. As long as you put in a chic wall to wall – stay well away from cheap carpet! – it works beautifully.


AFTER: The fan was replaced by overhead Cloud light by Donghia (bought on eBay for $155, retail would have been $3,000!) Antique Chinese screen found on iGavel is used as a headboard. Lamps are Crate and Barrel. Bedding John Robshaw.

Comfortable mattresses are key to great guest reviews so I splurged and bought a Custom Comfort mattress. Because mattresses impact guest reviews more than any other thing in short-term rentals, I decided to buy the best I could find for our budget.

As for bedding, I have some regreats. I bought expensive Frette sheets because I wanted to make sure guests would love the bedding. Guests did love the bedding, but in retrospect, I could have found a less expensive option that felt just as heavenly.

If I were to buy sheets again, I’d get Standard Textile Centium Satin. They feel like heaven against your skin and don’t cost a bucketload.

vacation rental sheets

My hands-down favorite Airbnb and vacation rental sheets are Centium Satin from Standard Textiles. They feel heavenly against the skin, tempting guests to turn in early and sleep in late. Winning! 1 Chic Retreat Marketplace

I used an antique Chinese folding screen for the headboard and John Robshaw (on sale) bedding for eye candy.

Lastly, I bought some very good dimmable bedside tables for reading, an antique bureau lamp for ambiance, and replaced the ugly ceiling fan with a diffused light ceiling fan. Having both side and overhead lighting is essential. It is much more restful to have a combination of both.

Never hang glaring ceiling lights in a bedroom; it’s been scientifically proven to cause anxiety and discomfort. Bedrooms need good task lighting as well as warm diffuse ambient lighting.

screen used as headboard

AFTER: Screens are both a chic and unique alternative to a headboard.

chest of drawers

AFTER: Antique chest of drawers painted in Annie Sloane milk paint in Graphite with her accompanying soft wax as a top coat. This is the low maintenance road to high elegance. Unlike most paints, Annie Sloane’s will go on most any surface with virtually no surface preparation. The stone knobs are from Anthropologie. Pottery is vintage Jugtown and Catawba Valley (eBay finds). Both the antique lamp and the framed antique Japanese needlepoint were bought on iGavel. The black lampshade is from Restoration Hardware.

Master Bath before remodel

BEFORE: The original master bathroom’s vanity was too long and too low, making the small bathroom seem like a galley.

master bath after remodel

AFTER: The new master bath’s freestanding vanity and cabinet are by Restoration Hardware, the faucet is Perrin and Rowe (Craig’s List). Walls are tiled in porcelain tile made to look like wood. Art deco mirror was bought on eBay. Freestanding bath furniture makes a bath feel less utilitarian, and more like just another pretty place to spend time.

It took four months to finish the remodel and as soon as the finishing touches were added, I listed it on Airbnb, Yelp and on Cal Lutheran’s bulletin board.

We received our first booking three days later from a family looking for a place to stay while touring the college with their twin daughters. Then almost immediately afterward, a lady booked it for visiting her son at the college.

From that point on, we had a continual stream of guests – lots associated with the college – all leaving glowing reviews. Things were going really, really well!

However, several months into the vacation rental scene, we got an offer from a couple from Chicago who wanted to buy the house, along with all the furnishings, after staying for only one weekend. They fell in love with the house and raved about the design.

We almost said no, but the offer was too good, so we accepted.

The question is:  will I buy another and do it all again? Of course! Just as soon as I find another flophouse!

Get the Look

Horn Lamp

Source Kudu Table Lamp from West Elm, $169. The “horns” are actually made of polyresin.

Chalk Paint and Wax

The Annie Sloane paint and wax combo is a guaranteed easy job because there is virtually no prep work. Put it on an old antique or vintage piece and it’s instant chic!

North Carolina Vintage Pottery

North Carolina vintage pottery, such as this swirled Catawba Valley pitcher, can be found on eBay for reasonable bids.

Belgian Sofa from Restoration Hardware

The Belgian Track Arm Slipcovered sofa from Restoration Hardware is extraordinarily comfortable and I recommend sheathing it in a darker, neutral color like Fog so it doesn’t show the dirt. You can take the slipcover off and launder it several times a year. Guests love the velvety texture of the cotton. The 8-foot size goes for $1,995 at the time of this post.

Caspia Pillow by John Robshaw

The Caspia pillow by John Robshaw Textiles is not cheap at $195; however, Robshaw almost always has a sales page with deep discounts and his textiles can also be had on eBay reasonably. Don’t cheap out on pillows in your vacation rentals. People notice good pillows and inserts! It’s better to get good quality things on sale or eBay rather than buy cheapies in characterless big box stores.

Lastly, don’t forget luggage racks!

One thing I didn’t do and wish I had done is supply luggage racks in all the bedrooms. We invested in some beautiful bedding but frequently found it stained because guests would put their suitcases on top!


If we were to do it all again, we’d get some sturdy, chic ones for each bedroom, like this white one…

Airbnb luggage rack

Look for a well-made luggage rack like this one found in our marketplace. It’s American made and will last 20 years. 1 Chic Retreat Marketplace

Do you have an Airbnb or vacation rental beginning you’d like to share?

We’d love to know your story! Tell us how you found your short-term rental, why you bought it, and how you furnished it. What did you do right? What would you do differently if you were to do it all again?

We’d love to know!




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