The Stranger in My Backyard: My Life as a Mom and Airbnb Host

My Airbnb tiny home, comfortably nestled in the back corner of my yard

A friend and I are sitting in my backyard, drinking a beer while the kids jump on the trampoline and drive an old Jeep Power Wheels, squealing with joy. A friendly couple walks by, waves, and heads on over to the tiny house nestled in the back corner of the yard.

“Who’s that?” my friend asks.

“They’re from Michigan, they’ve never experienced Texas heat like this,” I reply with a chuckle. “Cute couple. They booked through Airbnb, and they even let my dogs in the house with them.”

This scenario happens frequently over here at Casa Noriega, and it’s become my new normal. At first, my husband was skeptical about having strangers tromping through our backyard. But once the automatic deposits started padding our bank account, he got on board fast.

What started out as a niche market for adventurous couch surfers has evolved into a global network with over four million Airbnb listings worldwide. According to a recent article from Business Insider, “The San Francisco-based startup now offers listings in 191 countries, and its total number of listings is higher than the top five major hotel brands combined. The U.S. remains Airbnb’s biggest market with 660,000 listings, followed by France, Italy, Spain, and the UK.” 

It’s been nearly a year since we started renting out the tiny house, and we’re in good company. Several of my parent friends here in SA also host on Airbnb. The most successful are creative types who thrive on creating a unique experience for visitors. An upstairs loft apartment in King William, a backyard airstream in Lavaca, and an old stone building steps from Yanaguana Gardens are a handful of the properties owned and rented out for short-term stays by my entrepreneurial, adventurous, risk-taking friends.

The first parent Airbnb host I knew was a dear friend whose oldest son was a classmate of my oldest daughter’s. She was vivacious, confident, and gorgeous—a life coach from Sweden who’d lived in New York and married a handsome Jordanian. She’s back in Sweden now, but a few years ago she lived in the Southtown area with her husband, then four-year-old son, and infant twins. Their beautiful home boasted high ceilings, stone walls, and gorgeous natural lighting courtesy of the tall windows that bathed each room in Pottery Barn perfection—including the third bedroom, which she happily rented out on Airbnb.

I’ll admit it, I thought she was a bit crazy at the time. Why would a financially stable entrepreneur with three young children open up her home to complete strangers? This was not a separate guest house we are talking about; it was a bedroom in the actual home that she and her family shared. But that was Jo: fun, spontaneous, and always looking for new adventures. Her eyes lit up when she explained the experience, and it was clear she was driven by passion.

“Apart from a bit of extra cash, it was a great opportunity to meet people from all around the world. It also appealed to my no-waste sentiment—that if you are lucky enough to live large enough that you can rent out a section of your house, you should,” Jo explained via email.

What a concept. How cool, I thought. And so the seed was planted.

Tiny house, Big Dreams

As a self-employed artist and entrepreneur, I can certainly relate to Jo’s craving for unique experiences and connections. I’ve always been an adventure-seeker too, and I’ve dragged my poor husband along for the ride too many times to count. Luckily, he loves me and is willing to entertain my ideas (most of the time, at least). In 2008, I convinced him to quit his stable job and move to Alpine, Texas with me to take over an uninhabitable building and turn it into a thriving small business (that’s a separate future post, I’m sure). One time I even bought a camper for $1,000 and told him about it when I was already towing it back home by myself. I’m really, really bad like that.

As anyone who has read my previous posts knows, I love Craigslist. My idea of a good time is looking for bargains for myself and others. It brings me immense joy. A few years ago, when tiny homes became all the rage, I decided I needed one. It would make the perfect backyard art studio, my own private oasis. A place with a lock on the door where I could temporarily escape from the all-consuming chaos of motherhood and retreat into my art world. After I nabbed the perfect project tiny house for a bargain, it took a couple years to turn the shell into a functional space. But it was worth the wait. Every square inch is oozing with character, from the pallet wood walls to the stained glass windows to the mosaic tile counter.

A few months into using the tiny house as a painting studio, I realized that 140 square feet was a little too cozy for my tastes, especially given how I like to spread out and work on several projects simultaneously. So I hatched a plan: move the art studio into my inside guest room (a mansion at over 250 square feet), and convert the tiny house into a guest house and Airbnb rental. It didn’t take long for me to whip up a description that touted the rental’s proximity to the Pearl complex and the novelty of staying in a tiny house, and I was able to furnish it with items from my main house. No waste indeed!

Show me the Money

To say the tiny house venture has been a success would be an understatement. It’s booked every weekend, and lots of weeknights too. Visitors seem to genuinely appreciate the funky look of my place, and the quirkiness of sharing a yard with two overly-enthusiastic canines and two backyard-loving little girls. It’s gone so well, in fact, that Airbnb has designated me a “superhost,” meaning I get mostly five-star reviews and have rented it out constantly. And that extra cash has come in handy big time, allowing us to cover our property taxes for both our primary home and our rental properties. Between the tiny house, a second small Airbnb, and our long-term rent house, we finally have enough income beyond my husband’s salaried job to give me the freedom to be an artist and work-from-home mom. 

As a mother, I thought long and hard about opening up a shared space to strangers. In the end I decided that it wasn’t risky behavior since Airbnb lets you approve requests before booking. This means I can read people’s reviews and feel confident that they will be good guests, before I say yes. The listing itself holds nothing back, warning potential guests that they shouldn’t bother booking if they don’t like animals or happen to be annoyed by the sound of children’s laughter. Being brutally honest has weeded out any potential neat freaks, extreme introverts, and those who prefer to avoid kids and/or pets.

I’m also an inherently trusting person and believe that the vast majority of people are good and honest. While some might think this is naive, it’s served me well for my 38 years. And in this case, nearly all my backyard guests have gone above and beyond to leave the tiny house in the same shape they found it in, or better. It’s a win-win situation, and I’m never looking back.

Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, a sunny, cultura-rich land where la gente are the majority. As a child I spent my days doodling unicorns and puppies and people and anything that caught my fancy. Drawing was my life, and I dreamed of one day being an artist. After high school, I left town for a bit to attend Yale University but ran back to Texas as soon I’d tossed my graduation cap in the air. I got a “real” job in advertising, where I met my wonderful husband, Victor. In 2005, I got a little brave and decided to step into art full time, for the first time. I spent a year recreating the Mexican Loteria, updating it to reflect the symbols and culture I knew: the “Tex Mex” version. The My Loteria game and corresponding line of kitchenware appeared in H-E-B grocery stores and boutiques around the country, which was pretty cool! Fast forward a couple years, and Vic and I decided it made perfect sense to move to the middle of nowhere and sell ice in the desert (in Alpine, Texas, where we opened the Murphy St. Raspa Co., an homage to Mexican shaved ice, candy, art and culture). A baby later and with one more on the way, we decided to come back home to San Antonio to be closer to family. I landed my dream job as the Marketing Director of The DoSeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids. Life was good. But I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that I needed to give my art another try. And a little more than a year ago, I took that leap and never looked back. So here I am today: a mom to two awesome little girls, a muralist, portrait artist, wife, and social media addict. I built a tiny house art studio in my backyard, dusted off my paintbrush, and began painting again after a two-year dry spell. I recently completed my first large-scale public mural to celebrate the San Antonio missions’ World Heritage designation, and am plotting my next art move as I type. I spend my days painting portraits, planning murals, perusing social media, and being my kids’ scheduler in chief. And you know what? I’m having the time of my life.