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Airbnb nomads are ditching their apartments in pandemic-ridden cities and living wherever they want

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Key Points
  • The Covid-19 pandemic and work-from-home policies have resulted in a wave of working professionals who have ditched their apartments for a nomadic lifestyle, bouncing around different Airbnbs.
  • This growing lifestyle trend comes at a perfect time for Airbnb, which went public Thursday.
Tess Pawlisch, right, has been living nomadically in and out of Airbnbs in Tulum, Mexico, since October.
Courtesy of Tess Pawlisch

Tess Pawlisch worked in San Francisco for the last four years.

But this year, Pawlisch has found herself writing work emails, holding team meetings and taking client calls from hotel rooftops, hammocks and beaches in Tulum, Mexico. 

"I decided to do something new and went to Tulum, one of the few places really open right now but still lovely," said Pawlisch, a communications professional. "After a pandemic and being in San Francisco for so long, I just wanted something that was easy and beautiful."

Pawlisch is part of a wave of working professionals who have ditched their apartments for a nomadic lifestyle, taking advantage of their companies' decisions to support remote work throughout Covid-19. Many of these professionals have left their home cities and are now bouncing around from Airbnb to Airbnb. 

"These jobs can be exhausting at times, but at least they can be while looking at blue skies in 80 degree weather," said Pawlisch. 

This growing lifestyle trend comes at a perfect time for Airbnb, which went public Thursday. Airbnb shares quickly jumped to more than twice their $68 initial public offering price. The company's stock closed at $139.25 on Friday, giving Airbnb a market value of $83.2 billion on a nondiluted basis. It's now worth almost as much as online travel stalwart Booking, which has a valuation of $85.6 billion, and more than many hotel chains such as Marriott, which holds a market cap of more than $41.7 billion. 

Although Airbnb's revenue last quarter was down 19% from the year-ago quarter as the coronavirus pandemic crushed the travel industry, the company has bounced back much faster than its peers as urban residents fled their shutdown cities for more rural retreats. The rebound began within two months of the pandemic, Airbnb said in its prospectus.

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'Making life exciting again'

Trey Ditto never imagined leaving his Brooklyn, New York, apartment, but when the pandemic forced everyone to quarantine, he found himself sharing a workspace with his wife, who also had to work from home, and their 2-year-old. Almost immediately, the couple found an Airbnb in upstate New York that would be near the city but provide them with ample space for everyone. 

"We just couldn't possibly both work and raise a child in an apartment in New York and not be able to leave or enjoy outside," said Ditto, who works in communications. "We were fortunate enough to find a home that fit our size requirement and was far away enough from New York where we felt we were away from the madness but close enough to New York where I could drive back in."

When it became clear that the coronavirus was not going away anytime soon, Ditto and his wife moved in September to another Airbnb in Texas to be near family for the rest of 2020. 

"If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I would be hopping around the country living in other people's homes, I would've laughed at you," said Ditto, who had previously lived in New York for 13 years. 

Aishwarya Vardhana decided she wanted to get away from San Francisco after living locked up in a small apartment with relatives for the first three months of quarantine. Vardhana was tired of the monotony, and missed the excitement of seeing friends or going to parties and concerts around the city. She and her friends decided to move to Airbnbs near national parks that they could hike and explore. 

"Being on lockdown in San Francisco was claustrophobic," Vardhana said. Traveling to national parks and staying at Airbnbs "was really about making life exciting again and energizing."

Vardhana was joined on her trip by her friend Anika Raghuvanshi, who said she no longer felt tied to a specific location after her company announced that it would be prioritizing remote work. Vardhana and Raghuvanshi stayed with friends at Airbnbs in Montana, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. 

"It felt really exciting to be able to see and experience more of the world," Raghuvanshi said. "That was the catalyst for me."

Leona Marlene and her boyfriend decided to sell all their belongings and leave their San Francisco apartment in September to live nomadically in Airbnb rentals.
Courtesy of Leona Marlene

Leona Marlene and her partner have been living nomadically after going on a road trip with family in the summer. The couple loved the experience and realized they could actually save money on rent if they left San Francisco and stayed at Airbnbs, some of which offer significant discounts to folks who do monthlong bookings, Marlene said. 

They listed everything they owned on Facebook Marketplace, and within a week, they had sold it all. Since then, Marlene and her boyfriend have been to Airbnbs in Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis.

"After rent, utilities, all of our groceries and stuff, we're spending more than $4,500 a month and we can't even experience the perks of living in the city," said Marlene in regard to her life in San Francisco. She now documents her nomadic life on YouTube. "There's just never been a better time to do something like this."

The biggest problem: Unreliable Wi-Fi

Bouncing between Airbnbs isn't always easy.

Emily Buckley, for example, has used Airbnb in 2020 to stay with her boyfriend in Kansas City, Denver, Austin, New Orleans and Atlanta, among several other cities. She's enjoyed the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle, in particular not knowing where they will go next. 

But the couple ran into some issues along the way. At one location, Buckley and her boyfriend arrived at an Airbnb that was drastically smaller than they anticipated from the photos of the listing. 

"That was kind of a hard month," she said. 

At an Airbnb in Asheville, North Carolina, they were planning to meet up with another couple who are also working professionals. When they arrived, they discovered the internet connectivity wasn't reliable enough to get work done. Ultimately, the four of them had to rent a second Airbnb for a week and commute to it just for the internet. 

"We just chalked it up to the trials and tribulations of living nomadically and out of Airbnbs -- there's an element of surprise," said Buckley, a start-up executive.

In fact, unreliable Wi-Fi was the chief complaint among all the Airbnb nomads CNBC interviewed. Some have complained about dealing with Wi-Fi that vacillates between electrifyingly fast and completely disconnected. Another nomad told CNBC he estimates that about 10% of the units he stays in have bad Wi-Fi. 

This is why James Vaught and Mack Sullivan, longtime nomads, always sift through reviews for information about a unit's Wi-Fi quality before booking a short-term stay. They also make sure to leave detailed reviews about Wi-Fi and internet speeds when they leave. Additionally, Sullivan and Vaught always rent units where they will have the entire place to themselves, meaning they won't need to share the internet with the host family or other guests. They also tend to look for places that advertise having a smart TV or Roku -- signals that it has internet that is at least good enough to stream video. 

Nomads Mack Sullivan and James Vaught at an Airbnb they stayed at in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Courtesy of Mack Sullivan and James Vaught

"Between what they advertise and what's reality, you just have to hope that you have good people who have written accurate reviews," said Sullivan, who blogs about his nomadic experiences with Vaught. 

Vaught and Sullivan have been living as nomads since 2016. Back then, the two worked remotely out of an RV. Later, they tended to sign short leases for apartments living as "slow-mads," as they put it. But since April 2020, the couple has conducted their nomadic lifestyle exclusively through Airbnb. 

They appreciate that when they book through Airbnb, they know the total price they will pay from the moment they book. Unlike staying for a short time at an apartment, they don't have to worry about paying any utilities, deposits or anything else. 

Sullivan and Vaught also like the fact that Airbnb tends to support guests when problems arise. They have previously used competing websites, and in one situation, they ended up at a unit that was not as advertised and received little help from the company. 

As vaccines for Covid-19 start to be distributed, some folks will be returning to their previous lives. 

Ditto and his family, for example, will move into a rental house at the end of the month. Although Airbnb has been good to them in 2020, Ditto said he misses his own furniture and the feeling of being in his home. 

"You lose the feeling of home when you're sleeping in someone else's bed and sitting on someone else's couch," Ditto said. 

Pawlisch, meanwhile, was able to lock down a San Francisco apartment she'd long been eyeing at a great price.

"Tulum doesn't feel real. It's a fairy tale," Pawlisch said. "But I'm ready to have a place that's my own and feel a little more grounded."

Others, however, have fallen in love with the lifestyle, and plan to keep living it for the foreseeable future. 

"Having that freedom is something I've never experienced in my life," Buckley said. "I love that anticipation when we're about to see our next Airbnb."

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