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Many hasten to turn their bedrooms into inns via Airbnb

Online bookings bring steady cash, unexpected twists

Jennifer Lawrence straightened a pull-out couch that she rents in the living room of her Somerville home.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Jennifer Lawrence straightened a pull-out couch that she rents in the living room of her Somerville home.

By his own admission, John Terwilliger’s housekeeping standards were . . . relaxed. “If I ever made my bed, it was just to get my mother off my back,” he said. “I’ve always lived just clean enough to get by.”

But that was the Terwilliger of last fall, before he started renting out a studio in Allston/Brighton through Airbnb, the popular, if controversial, online booking service.

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Now the 2013 Boston College graduate fluffs pillows. He defrosts the fridge. He paints. “I’m on a ladder touching up a brownish black stain,” he said when reached by phone on Monday. “If it was my room, I couldn’t care less, but I want it to look nice so people are happy.”

Similar transformations are taking place throughout Boston and beyond, as the promise of relatively easy money is making innkeepers of people who never thought they’d be in the hospitality industry. Airbnb’s website currently lists nearly 3,500 properties for rent in the Boston area — a 63 percent increase since July 2013.

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Some of the lodging arrangements offered cost less than $50 per night and involve little more than a bed, a key, and zero conversation. Others offer entire homes, bed-and-breakfast-intensity chitchat, and prices that can top $800 per night. Aspiring innkeepers are everywhere, from Dorchester to Revere, Boston to Somerville, advertising “treetop views,” “steps to the T,” “cozy penthouses,” even “lovely puppies.”

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In Central Square, Kristina Mastropasqua, 31, a program assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government by day, finds herself taking 30 pounds of dirty sheets and towels to her local laundromat every few weeks, linens for the room she rents out for $99 per night, plus a per-visit $25 cleaning fee.

“I’ve essentially added a full-time job to my job,” she said.

In the process, she and her partner have earned tens of thousands of dollars since they began hosting visitors in 2012. They’ve also learned about human behavior.

“We meet so many great people,” she said. “But your house gets a good beating.”

People flush strange things down the toilet, or try to. They bang luggage into walls. They stain towels with make-up. “Our remote control ended up in Singapore,” Mastropasqua said. (It's still there.)

Jen Lawrence, a city planner who rents the pullout couch in her Somerville living room for $65 per night, spends her off hours shopping for local craft beer, chocolates, and cheese to share with guests, many foreign.

“I feel I’ve become like an ambassador for Boston,” she said.

DISCUSS: Share your experiences with Airbnb

Airbnb was founded in 2008, and from its San Francisco base it now operates in more than 34,000 cities, 190 countries, and claims over 160,000 listings. What started out as a way for tourists to travel cheaply has grown to include a small but growing number of business travelers, too.

Concur, an expense-management company, reports that its clients spent about $1 million staying at Airbnb rentals in the second quarter of 2014.

Considering that virtually anyone with an air mattress can become a host — the company does not routinely screen users — Airbnb is a major player in the “sharing economy.”

But with success has come negative attention from municipalities that want to tax the lodging arrangements as they do hotels, from landlords with leases that prohibiting sublets, and from neighbors who don’t want strangers traipsing through buildings.

In New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman spent months fighting the company for its user data in an attempt to crack down on illegal hotels. (In May, the two sides reached an agreement; Airbnb turned over data, but not user names.)

Barbara Bennison earned $23,000 last year by renting two rooms in her South Boston condo.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Barbara Bennison earned $23,000 last year by renting two rooms in her South Boston condo.

In Portland, Ore., Airbnb recently began collecting hotel tax, and is expected to do the same in San Francisco.

With the site’s popularity growing in Massachusetts, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services recently opined in a memo that lodging of this type is subject to local licensure as a bed and breakfast. For now, the Inspectional Services Department has issued a temporary policy not to issue citations to homeowners while an internal group works on recommendations. A city policy is expected this fall, and as yet, no per-bed fee rate has been set.

Airbnb, which is reportedly valued at $10 billion, takes a 3 percent “host fee,” and charges guests a 6 percent to 12 percent fee for costs associated with running the site. A host renting a room for $100 keeps $97.

In addition to advising prospective users to check local zoning laws and offering suggestions on how to shoot photos of rooms for rent (close the toilet lid), Airbnb provides free insurance that reimburses hosts for up to $1 million of property damage in the “rare case” when something goes wrong.

Most rentals go smoothly, but not all. Earlier this summer, Barbara Bennison, a 66-year-old nurse who rents two bedrooms in her Southie condo — and last year earned so much, $23,000, that she dropped a shift — found herself acting more like a hotel security officer than a medical professional.

RELATED: Experiencing the sharing economy with Airbnb stays

“They were two young couples and they arrived around 5 p.m.,” she recalled. Over the course of a few hours, the guests drank rum, turned boisterous, and played beer pong on Bennison’s dining room table. “I told them they couldn’t stay.”

She called a cab, provided the number of the nearby Westin, and kept one night’s rent. “They got pretty irate,” she said.

But at a time when technology allows people on both sides of a transaction to rate each other (on Uber also, passengers judge the drivers, and drivers judge them back), Airbnb hosts don’t have to suffer quietly. The ratings they give guests are seen by future potential hosts.

Bennison, who has all five-star reviews from guests, has never gone negative before, but she gave the couples a bad review. “That follows them,” she said.

Despite the periodic gleeful Airbnb-gone-bad tabloid newspaper headlines — “Hookers turning Airbnb apartments into brothels,” the New York Post blared in April; “Airbnb renter returns to ‘overweight’ orgy,” it trumpeted in May — the reviews on Airbnb’s site often show humanity at its best.

In Winthrop, the mother of a host picked up a guest who needed a lift to the $112 room. “Thank you, Shirley!” the renter wrote. In Charlestown, a woman who paid $150 for a bedroom during the Marathon raved about her hosts’ willingness to endure “running chat.” They “even came out and cheered during the race.”

In Union Square, Monique Plante, 48, and her husband, Robert Caruso, 58, positively gush about the professors and international travelers they’ve met in the year they’ve been renting out a bedroom in their craftsman-style home ($100 for a queen bed, a twin, and a Jacuzzi).

But as lovely as it has been, it’s still work.

“It’s like having houseguests,” Plante said, “constantly.”

More coverage:

Experiencing the sharing economy with Airbnb

Innovation Economy: Aereo decision won’t stop tech disruptors

Airbnb to hand over data to N.Y.

Airbnb on way to becoming $10b startup

NYC judge rules renting apartments using Airbnb is illegal

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.
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