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I bought a $15,000 property to turn into an off-the-grid Airbnb 6 years ago. Now it rents for $1,250 per night — and it's done so well that I just quit my job.

Business Insider logo Business Insider 2/5/2023 insider@insider.com (Jamie Killin)
Hillary Flur and her business partner, Malek Alqadi. Courtesy of Hillary Flur © Courtesy of Hillary Flur Hillary Flur and her business partner, Malek Alqadi. Courtesy of Hillary Flur
  • Hillary Flur, 31, is the owner of an off-the-grid Airbnb in Joshua Tree, California.
  • Flur started as an Airbnb host 10 years ago, when she listed her apartment to afford rent.
  • Now, Flur has an investor, new properties on the way, and quit her job to do Airbnb full-time.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Hillary Flur, 31, an Airbnb owner in Joshua Tree, California. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I didn't see myself becoming an Airbnb owner. But after figuring out how to make extra money using the platform, my business partner and I decided to buy a space of our own to rent out.

I got my start on Airbnb by listing my apartment to afford rent 

When I first moved to California in 2013, I was working at The Honest Company as a customer service agent and couldn't afford to live in LA. Then I heard about Airbnb, and I thought to myself: "I'm going to Airbnb my apartment so I can afford rent."

My friend Malek Alqadi lived above me and decided to do the same with his apartment. Whenever we had Airbnb guests, I would go stay with him or he would come stay with me, and we'd just switch back and forth and split the earnings.

My friend and I wondered how much better would it be if we actually owned a property

We'd seen the convenience of Airbnb, how much potential it had, and how much money we could make. So instead of renting out an apartment to make ends meet, we decided to do a project together. 

Once we made our decision, we spent about a year looking for the right type of property. At first, we thought it had to be near LA, because we didn't know how we could be hosts if we weren't close by. But we couldn't afford anything.

One of my colleagues at the time told me they were buying an affordable property in Joshua Tree

That's when we started looking out there. It took some time to find the perfect piece of property, but we finally landed on two and a half acres out there.

It was a rundown homestead — a remnant from a homestead act, where they were basically giving land away for free as long as you built four walls and a roof. Because of that, there are all these abandoned shacks in the area.

We purchased a property together for $15,000 in 2016

From there, we wanted to create a really unique experience. Malek is an architect and designed the space, including the second structure. With my background in customer experience, I took on creating the customer journey. 

Courtesy of Hillary Flur © Courtesy of Hillary Flur Courtesy of Hillary Flur

My goal was to create a really great experience for customers, from when they booked the Airbnb to stepping onto the property for the first time. I made sure to keep in mind things like: what type of amenities we offer, what kind of activities there are to do, and even what kind of scent we want for the cabin. I really wanted to make it a super cool, unique, and personalized experience.

We designed our Airbnb to be completely off the grid

I've always been passionate about sustainability, so that was important. We also thought about what people wanted to experience when they visited. We found that most people come to Joshua Tree to go camping and have an outdoor experience. That's why we built a stargazing deck on our second building.

To make it happen, we took out a Home Depot loan for $40,000 and a personal loan. We had the help of a contractor, but we were doing a lot of the grunt work. During the summer, we were digging out trenches in 110 degree weather while working full time jobs. 

Malek and I would work from Monday to Friday in our office, and then on the weekends we would drive out to Joshua Tree and start building. The building process took us about a year. I thought it would be a fun passion project, but it was way harder than we expected.

It probably took us a year to feel comfortable running the business

The first year was kind of a test year, and our success snowballed when we were featured in various publications. We also used that first year to survey customers about their stay and how we could make the property better.

Since we started renting the property in late 2016, unique Airbnbs in Joshua Tree have grown in popularity. There's definitely a debate between locals who love Airbnb and hate it, but I think overall, it's helped increase job opportunities and the development of new businesses in the area.

It's also increased property values. For people who're trying to do Airbnb in Joshua Tree now, it can be pretty hard to find something affordable. Currently, our rates are between $725 and $1,250 per night to be profitable. 

With the success of our first cabin, I was able to quit my job recently

We brought on an investor to help with a new property we're working on. We recently purchased 100 acres, and we're moving more east to Wonder Valley, where we'll build eight new cabins.

Despite our success, it's not easy running an Airbnb. It takes a lot of initial work to get a business off the ground, get it up and running, and create the brand behind it. There's more competition now too, so you have to go above and beyond the customer's expectations to make something successful.

Even with great customers, you're still dealing with many different types of people. I think without customer service experience, it would be difficult to navigate what are real issues and what aren't.

I've learned most people just want to be heard — and you have to be able to respond in a way that's thoughtful and not just automatic.

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