Our new series "In Conversation With" follows the lives of Hudson Valley creatives, home-owners, makers, and more.
Here, we had the opportunity to chat with fellow upstate realtor Megan Brenn-White about her experiences living, working, and managing two short-term rentals in the Hudson Valley.
Only a few weeks after purchasing their 'weekend home', Megan and her husband Robert decided to embrace all that the beautiful New York countryside has to offer, and move up full-time. Megan and Robert have since undertaken many exciting projects, including managing their two secluded cabins on Airbnb.
Where are you based out of currently? And what brought you there to both live and work?
We mostly live in Eddyville - right outside of Kingston - although we try and spend time every month in at least one of our two other homes here in Kerhonkson and Livingston Manor. We moved from Brooklyn full time just about three years ago, but had been coming to this area for weekends and vacations - staying in different Airbnbs - for at least five years before that.
We eventually started looking for a weekend home since it made so much more sense to do that than keep renting. About three weeks before closing, my husband said he thought we could move up full-time, which I thought would take about 10 years to convince him about! I had my own higher ed marketing business that was super flexible - the clients were almost all international - and had just gotten my real estate license, cause I had been dying to try that for years. We got an opinion about what we could rent our condo in Clinton Hill for and that sealed the deal. Rob was able to get the Pratt Institute to change his teaching schedule to make commuting easier and we were done!
We have been long-time admirers of the two homes you and your partner Robert currently list on Airbnb. With almost 80 five-star reviews between the two of them, it seems we are not the only fans! We would love to know a little bit more about the story behind Cabin 14 Creekside and Cabin 8. How did you find the properties?
Cabin 8 is the house we lived in full time for the first two years up here. A deal fell through for us between Woodstock and Saugerties, which I’m so grateful for because we love the house we ended up finding - obviously. I was actually staying in Stone Ridge at an Airbnb with a friend the weekend we found out the deal fell through and the owner was also an agent and I told her we were looking for a fresh start. She literally put the listing under my door at around 11:30 pm and I sent it to Rob immediately. He was out of the country the following week, but we agreed if I liked it, that we should put in an offer - so I rushed up on Wednesday and he saw it the first time at inspection. We only started renting it out last October after we decided to move to Kingston to be a bit more central for all my real estate work.
For Cabin 14, that’s a different story! The owner invited me to a listing appointment, but I fell in love the moment I drove up to the house - even though it was February, you could see the creek winding around the house and hear the water. I had to tell the owner pretty early on in the conversation that I may be interested myself, so she should consider getting her own representation (which she did). Luckily, Rob loved it as much as I did - and we had a pretty quick shared vision of what it could be. Actually, it was this house that really helped us pull the trigger on the decision to sell our Brooklyn condo and get rid of any escape plan. We saw so much opportunity up here. We actually closed on another house - that we are hoping to start renovating this fall - last summer also.
What kind of work did you and Robert have to do with the properties to prepare them for the short-term rental market? And was the decision to choose Airbnb as the rental platform for the properties an easy one?
The work on Cabin 8 Kerhonkson was all done for us - we left the house for about 6 months (staying at the same Airbnb in Stone Ridge with the agent who I was then working with!) to do a gut renovation of the entire back half of the home. We also did extensive landscaping work with the amazing Earth Designs in Rosendale - and had to put in a new septic system and leach field, which was not so much fun.
Cabin 14 was always going to be a mixture of a rental plus a place we could use - hilariously, we still wanted a weekend home, although we were already living upstate! Or at least a little getaway place since weekends are often busy for me. That house was a complete gut renovation and pretty much only the roof and the foundation are still what they were. Luckily my husband Robert is a designer and has been shifting to doing mostly residential work (he had done more industrial and product design), so he builds models of the homes in 3D software and we can test everything in the virtual models from the way the light will fall in winter to where you might want to put a barn door versus a regular one.
We had decided after going through a couple of renovations in Brooklyn that our basic design philosophy would be to only ever design for us and how we would use a home, even if we thought we may want to rent or sell it someday. I think that really helps us consider comfort and practicality as well as style - and it’s a whole lot more fun.
I’ve been a fan of Airbnb for a long time, although I know that it is a complicated situation where Airbnbs begin to take over a larger number of homes in residential areas - and am really struggling with what I think is fair and right as an Airbnb owner. That said, I also hate the idea of a home being mostly vacant in an area that needs more income. I didn’t really consider any other platforms, although I would list the properties other places if we ever needed more bookings. I mostly really like how all the systems work for Airbnb and have been happy with that.
I can only imagine that in your short-term rental journey you have learned some valuable lessons for future projects. What are some mistakes that you made, either in the design or marketing of the homes, that you think others should know about before making an ‘AirBnB investment’?
Weirdly, our experience with Airbnb has been basically 100% positive and we were booked at both places almost immediately, so I’m less aware of mistakes than in some other areas of my life! I always say that there is a very important caveat that I have a large Instagram following so I can promote them in ways other people can’t, that I literally have been staying in Airbnbs all over the world almost since they were founded (my last business was higher ed marketing and I almost only stayed in Airbnbs and did 2 international trips a month), I’m married to a brilliant designer, and my marketing background makes me more likely to “naturally” do things in a way that works well. I’m actually working at being more mindful about how I/we do these things so that I can offer consulting services to other Airbnbs from the listing to the communications to the client experience.
I think something people underestimate is how much time and thought you should be willing to invest to get the marketing and the overall experience right. We were so lucky that we found an amazing person to care for our homes who just naturally thinks of getting little gifts for people having birthdays or setting up Pack ‘N Plays for families with young children. That has made all the difference - and not knowing who you are going to work with for cleaning and helping care for the clients while they are there feels risky to me. I have referred a good number of clients to Home Sweet Hudson, a newer company up here who manages Airbnbs and can do other things for owners like meet service people or be there for deliveries - and I think they’ve got a serious commitment to hospitality that I really like.
At least in our own experiences of restoring and marketing homes, we’ve found that amidst the mistakes and challenges, there are always a few key diamonds in the rough. What are a few of the surprising positives that you got out of your experience with Cabin 14 Creekside and Cabin 8?
This may not be answering the question exactly, but I love bringing people up to the area and seeing them fall in love with it - being able to help people spend time in nature, spend time with their friends and loved ones, spend time with their writing project...whatever it is! I get so much out of living here that being able to share that with so many different people is truly inspiring!
If you could give 3 pieces of advice to home-owners looking to market their property on Airbnb or embark on a restoration/build project, what would they be?
I’ve never actually done a building project from scratch, but that’s my husband’s dream and I’m sure that’ll happen for us sometime. I think with the restoration side of things, I do think that you should always budget more money and time than you think it’ll take - and, weirdly, I’ve always regretted more the money I haven’t spent during renovation projects than the money I have! We could’ve added another bathroom to our house in Kerhonskon for around $10k and we were so sick of adding to the budget that we decided against it - but we were already moved out and they had massive crews working at our house so it will never be as cheap or as easy as it could’ve been then!
For Airbnb, I think the main thing is to really treat your guests as guests - focusing on why someone would want to come to your home and how they’ll have an amazing time there will help you with every aspect of the process from marketing to any renovation stuff.
You have mentioned that you and your partner are Airbnb aficionados, with 7 years of using the platform under your belt. What have you found you enjoyed most about the Airbnb experience as a guest? Have you brought any of those special touches to your own Airbnb properties?
Yep! So many Airbnbs over so many years. I’ve loved being able to feel like I’m actually living places rather than just visiting them. I really appreciate it when hosts have thought of things like an extra blanket on a cozy chair or some special local product in the bathroom or great tips for places to eat. It’s not really complicated stuff, but I’ve been in some that just feel so impersonal and like no one really cares - and that is the opposite of the experience I want to create. We keep trying to find more ways to show that we do care, but, honestly, I think you actually have to naturally care first!
It’s like being a real estate agent: if I only cared about if I did a transaction with this particular client because I was going to earn $X, I don’t think it would work for me - I’d be uninspired and they’d know that they were being treated like a number. If I can totally lose myself in their story and their dreams and wishes (for either the buyer and selling side) and get super excited to use all of my creativity and knowledge about the market to help them get the result they want - it ends up working. I think the same is true about Airbnbs.
I try to not think about the money but focus on the real people who are coming to our homes and how they will take those memories back with them for a lifetime - and how significant that feels to me and what an honor it is to be able to host them!
And lastly, we love following your experiences discovering the gems of Upstate New York. What are a few of your go-to’s that you would recommend to folks visiting the area?
So much is happening in Ulster and Sullivan County that it’s hard to limit myself to a few recommendations! But I love walking around Lake Minnewaska for a pretty easy hike with a major payoff in terms of the views. I also love going to Kelder’s Farm for pick-your-own produce, although there are so many great farms around here that you could go to any of them!
The Egg’s Nest in High Falls and Hash in Stone Ridge, respectively, are two of my favorite restaurants by far, but I love so many: Westwind Orchard in Accord; Rough Cut in Kerhonkson; Hotel Kinsley, Outdated Cafe, Kovo, Village Coffee and Goods, and Lis Bar in Kingston; Main Course and Huckleberry in New Paltz.... I love Postmark Books in Rosendale and Rough Draft in Kingston (the latter is a bar/cafe/bookstore with amazing bagels and bread from Kingston Bread Lab on Saturdays). Buck Brook Alpacas in Sullivan County is like an explosion of cuteness - and can be easily combined with a trip for a tasting at Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe and some of the Livingston Manor standards like Main Street Farm and The DeBruce.