Why you should try an Airbnb sabbatical (Evening Standard)

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If you want a break from feckless flatmates and lazy landlords why not try an Airbnb sabbatical? Victoria Stewart gets out of the rent race and crashes with strangers. (Image: Alex Lentati)

Standing in the kitchen one Monday night I’m picking bits of aubergine off the ceiling, the toaster, the oven, myself and the floor. All of this would be fine were it my kitchen, but having arrived in this flat in Highbury and Islington just 24 hours ago, I am faintly embarrassed about the mess I’ve made.

“Oh, don’t worry,” my hostess Anna laughs, before scraping more gunk off the door handle (moral of the story: pierce an aubergine before roasting it). I am here because Anna is letting me stay with her for four weeks as part of a three-month adventure I’m undertaking staying in different parts of London. To do this I am using Airbnb, the website that allows people around the world to let out their homes or spare rooms.

There were three motives for this. Having lived in south and west London for more than six years I wanted to explore the rest of the city to decide where to live next. Second, as this newspaper’s food editor I’m endlessly tracking down the latest chef or pop-up; sometimes I wish I could stay in a particular place for more than the duration of dinner. Finally, having recently spent a four-month sabbatical eating my way around Australia and South-East Asia, I wanted to incorporate some of that nomadic spirit into my life in London. So when my tenancy ended I knew it was time to travel.

Talking to friends, not one of them has suffered a bad Airbnb experience around the world, proving why the service has become so popular. In the UK there are currently 33,000 listings (including castles, boats and tree houses), 23,000 of which are in London, which is a 73 per cent growth on last year. According to a survey this year, the economic contribution of Airbnb to London’s economy is £357 million and in March this year it celebrated one million UK users.

And so this traveller threw her books, linen and junk into a friend’s garage and, armed with a small suitcase for a temporary filing cabinet, a capsule wardrobe, bathroom necessities and three recipe books, set off to Highbury and Islington.

“I decided to use Airbnb after using it to let the whole flat out as a holiday let so I knew it was a great site,” says Anna, a friendly and fun-loving yoga teacher and interior designer in her thirties who charges £85 a night (£1,300 a month) for a place in her chic north London flat with a garden. “It’s nice to keep meeting new folk but still having the odd week here and there when there’s no one staying — best of both worlds.”

I danced the new routine of living with someone you don’t know — is it OK to turn the radio on each morning? Could I have a shower at night without pissing her off? — and thankfully we spent much of our time at weekends comparing hangovers. I roamed about as I pleased, making use of the beautiful kitchen (even after the aubergine explosion) and watching films on Netflix.

For four days she went on holiday, renting the room out to another Airbnb guest, a tourist from Birmingham whom I barely saw. I lived so close to two of my new favourite local restaurants, Trullo and Le Coq, that each night I could see the last diners leave. I walked everywhere, ambling through smart and rugged parts of Canonbury, Dalston, the Regent’s Canal and Upper Street. But stylish and transport-connected as it was, I found that this part of “High and I” lacked soul. It was time to move on.

But first, the all-important reviews, which can either dent or raise the guest or host’s profile. Thankfully, both Anna’s and mine were equally positive: “She was an absolute pleasure to have as a guest — great to be around, charming, responsible, considerate and light-hearted. I really enjoyed having her to stay,” she wrote. Phew.

Four weeks later I was sad to leave Anna’s happy home but a short taxi ride with all my stuff took me to nearby Finsbury Park, another world altogether. Here was a plain little flat but with a sizeable balcony, a pretty view and chatty neighbours. A four-minute walk took me to the park, and another six got me to the Tube, a straight Victoria line to central London. Around here was an array of Turkish shops from which I could try new ingredients.

My new flatmate, an energetic corporate lawyer called Mel in her mid-twenties, impressed me with her ability to work all hours then pick herself up for circuit training on cold mornings. We shared a love of Sunday night TV but both being busy, we often passed like ships in the night. Before long I wanted to seek out the next place.

To get a feel for rooms I might book, I made advance appointments with hosts. These included an odd man in Whitechapel who wanted the money he could earn from renting his spare room but not the company. I got the impression that he’d rather nobody was there at all and moved on.

Meanwhile Lucia, a friendly host in neighbouring Bethnal Green, was prepared to give up her own room —meaning that the only communal space, the kitchen-cum-dining-room, was to be her bedroom. I politely declined.

The ideal location turned out to be a former council maisonette in Whitechapel — clean, near two good Tubes and new bars — with two guys about my age who were only looking for people to stay for a month at a time. I got on immediately with both Alex, a relaxed, reggae-loving consultant from Birmingham, and Rocco, an Austro-Italian who worked in big data and was training to climb Mont Blanc. Over the six weeks we cooked together, they taught me how to play Super Mario (I’ve learned I can’t), took me drinking on nearby Brick Lane, and looked after me, always checking I had everything I wanted. In fact, we got on so well I didn’t even mind when the cooker stopped working for two days and the toilet suffered technical hitches. One weekend, we gathered friends together and spent a mad afternoon painting canvases to spruce up their blank walls.

The result? “She is a brilliant guest and entertaining flatmate. She has a great sense of humour, takes care of the home and is uncomplicated. We were super-lucky to have her as a guest and cannot recommend her enough. She left the flat very clean as well and everything ran smoothly. Thanks again!” Phew.

Now after three months of being a nomad, I know it’s time to settle. I loved the experience; it was refreshing meeting people out of my usual group and discovering new areas of London, and I hope the Whitechapel pair and me will be friends for a long time to come.

That said, it requires a lot of energy to learn a new commute, not to mention make new friends every few months, and I’m longing for my own bed and a night off. So in January I’ve decided to move (semi-permanently) to Brixton to a three-person flat I found via friends on Facebook. From now on I think I’ll save Airbnb for my holidays abroad.

As for the adventure itself, well, who needs a henna tattoo to prove where they’ve travelled to? I’ve got the scars from a roasted aubergine on my wrist as evidence of mine.

How to Airbn-behave

1. Plan your new commute before you move in to avoid unwelcome surprises on Monday morning — and yet another text to your boss apologising for tardiness.

2. Find out what time your host gets up in the morning and plan accordingly. When you’re staying in their house, this isn’t the place to fall out because they took for ever in the shower and made you late for work.

3. Clean up. They won’t like it if you leave the dishes out, regardless of whether they leave theirs all over the house.

4. Be open-minded and expect to meet all sorts. You might get on with your host, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like their friends. Just suck it up.

Victoria Stewart was given a discount to use this service. All names have been changed

Article appeared in Evening Standard, December 2014