One morning not too long ago, Bruce Chwalek of Fort Wayne got up early to find a tiny, elderly Chinese lady padding about his house.
She spoke no English, and he spoke no Chinese. So the two just nodded at one another and smiled. And Chwalek went about getting ready for his day.
While such an experience might unnerve some, for Chwalek it was just part of a day’s work. He’s a host for Airbnb, an Internet service that matches people willing to rent out a room of their house with prospective tenants.
The notion might seem natural during high season at busy beach towns or other destination areas where homeowners use their properties only for part of the year – and where demand for short-term stays is high and hotel and motel rooms command a premium price.
But in Fort Wayne?
Actually, yes. Last week, 20 properties were listed on www.airbnb.com as being available in the Fort Wayne area. Vying for customers were a "private bedroom" in a third-floor apartment for $29 a night; a $61-a-night private room in a "Tudor Revival mansion"; and a "Peaceful Lakefront Cottage," offering the run of the house for $95 a night.
Chwalek, a retired engineer, offers the master bedroom, with an en-suite bath, in the home he shares with his wife, Anne, in northwest Fort Wayne for $65 a night. The couple also rent out a loft area.
After moving to Fort Wayne about three years ago, the Chwaleks decided that enrolling in Airbnb would be a great way to meet people and make a little money on the side during retirement. The elderly Chinese woman was the parent of a graduate student traveling to her new home in Minneapolis from school in New York, says Chwalek, who has also hosted a Brown University student en route to study at Fermilab in Illinois.
He says he likes that the system allows him to be selective in his tenants. Before someone is able to book, he explains, both the host and hosted must be Airbnb members. Although membership is free, members are vetted to a certain extent, and the site sets up an elaborate protocol for communication and matches. Users typically post reviews of locations at which they stay, while hosts can review guests.
But the Airbnb website proclaims "Trust is what makes it work," and Chwalek says it’s incumbent upon hosts to take some tenant screening upon themselves.
"I always look them up on Facebook," Chwalek says of prospective tenants, "to see if they’re who they say they are. And I look to see if they’ve reviewed anyone before – I don’t want to be the guinea pig.
"If you’re not comfortable with someone, you don’t have to accept the booking," he says.
Chwalek, who books only for times he will be at home, says that since he’s been with Airbnb, he’s had only about a half-dozen tenants, and no bad experiences.
"We’re not really in it for the money," he says, adding that he likes playing ambassador for Fort Wayne hospitality by including a pack of sundries, brochures about area attractions and DeBrand chocolates for arrivals.
"We just like to help people," Chwalek says.
For Julie Pickett Hall, a long-time family-owned cottage in the Columbia City area has proved profitable.
"It’s a property we own that we can’t make full use of. If we can get a return during the weeks we’re not there, that makes it more feasible for us (to continue to own and maintain it)," she says.
The lake cottage, she adds, is "kind of rustic" and has no central heat. It’s available generally only three seasons a year. Still, she says, the place is in demand.
"It’s a lovely little lake, very pretty. That’s what makes it special. Ã¢ Â¦ It’s been in the family for years. My (favorite) baby picture is at that cottage. Ã¢ Â¦ It’s a nice quiet place where you can get away and stay and you can (water) ski. And, the income for us has been amazing."
However, she says she considers her Airbnb rentals a part-time job. She says she spends a fair amount of time cleaning before and after tenancy, and there has been some minor damage to the house.
"It’s about half and half," she says of her experience with renters, recalling one cleanup when she was greeted by vomit on the carpet.
"Some leave it in better shape than they found it, and some people, it’s a five-hour cleanup. And in my experience, there’s not a way to tell those people apart ahead of time."
What surprised her more than that was how much time she spends arranging for bookings and helping people navigate through the website and its communication protocols, which include no immediate access to phone numbers or email addresses.
But because people pay Airbnb directly and the company forwards her payments for a fee included in her rental price, she says she hasn’t been stiffed on a rental in her nearly five years on the site. And if the place were to get trashed, Airbnb provides insurance, she says.
Pickett Hall now has about 20 reviews from satisfied customers. When asked who visits, she says the house has been used as "an overflow house" for people visiting friends and relatives who have cottages on the same lake, as well as by people visiting nearby relatives and by fishermen.
Asked what draws people to rent her home in southwest Fort Wayne, Wanda Zee-Chend exclaims, "Weddings! There are a ton of weddings in Fort Wayne! I never knew there were so many until I did this."
Zee-Chend says when people invite a lot of friends and relatives from out of town to a multi-day wedding celebration, they often want something less expensive and more convenient than packing them all into hotel rooms without cooking facilities.
"They all go in together and get a big house like mine," Zee-Chend explains. "I think for family reunions it’s a perfect place."
Zee-Chend, a single mother, has been spending less time at her home in Fort Wayne because her daughter is attending a Chinese language school in Toronto during the summer months. That’s when she does the bulk of her rentals.
Besides wedding parties, she’s also hosted an out-of-state dance team performing at a local competition and a basketball team competing in a tournament.
"Almost right away I got a lot of interest, and I’m still getting tons of interest," she says.
"My family is shocked" at how popular her place has become, says Zee-Chend, who has lived in California and elsewhere. "In Fort Wayne, of all places!"