Airbnb taking foothold around Concord

  • Arnie Arnesen, 62, of Concord stands in front of her home on Rumford Street, which she calls the “Majority Leader’s House.” Arnesen has been renting out the bottom floor of her home on the online marketplace Airbnb for three years.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • Jennifer Balkus arranges flowers at her farmhouse, ‘Old Story Farm’ in Hooksett.  LEAH WILLINGHAM/Monitor staff

  • Jennifer Balkus stands in front of ‘Old Story Farm.’ LEAH WILLINGHAM/ Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/15/2016 12:21:17 AM

Jennifer Balkus sat patiently in the reading room of her 1790s farmhouse, listening for a knock.

“Oh, that must be her,” she said, hearing it, and walking through the mudroom to open the front door.

Behind it was Lucy, from Vermont, bags in hand. An Airbnb guest, Lucy had arrived to stay in one of Balkus’s five spare rooms at her home in Hooksett for the night.

Balkus is one of a growing number of people in the Concord area listing their homes on the online marketplace Airbnb.

Airbnb is a site that enables users to rent rooms of their homes out to guests from anywhere between a night to weeks at a time. It operates much like a hotel, without extra amenities.

Balkus doesn’t actually live in the farmhouse, but next door in the building that was once the home of the farmhand. She and her husband, John, lived there for 35 years before their neighbors, who owned the farmhouse previously, approached them to say they were planning to move.

“They said, ‘We’re leaving, and we figured we owed it to you to ask if you wanted to take look,’ and we didn’t hesitate,” Balkus said.

The Balkuses decided that the farmhouse would be perfect as a bed and breakfast. They adopted the name, “Old Story Farm,” which was once the name of the dairy farm on the property in the 1930s.

And while some people use Airbnb to simply rent out a room in their home, Balkus takes the concept a step further.

Part of the joy of Airbnb for Balkus is serving a farm to table meal for her guests. In the barn next to her house, Balkus has raised 22 chickens, whose eggs she uses to cook daily breakfast.

Although not a requirement for Airbnb, Balkus has a bed and breakfast license, and every morning, she wakes up at 5:30 to serve her visitors.

This is a huge time commitment for someone who is still working full time. Balkus is a lawyer in Concord where she and her husband have their own practice.

She said what keeps her going is her love of sharing the farmhouse with others.

“You can see from this old place, the floorboards, and the wood work, that it’s been here for 250 years and hardly ever changed,” she said.

The home still holds a lot of pre-1900s features, like a meat smoking closet above the stairway and a case full of Civil War era books.

“It’s so old, you just feel like a temporary custodian of this really cool place,” she said. “It makes sense to share it with others.”

Balkus said she also enjoys the unique relationship between Airbnb hosts and guests – many of whom she says have stories to tell.

“There’s something about Airbnb guests in particular – they are always inviting you to have coffee or breakfast with them and share their stories,” she said.

Former gubernatorial candidate Arnie Arnesen knows this better than anyone.

Arnesen started renting out the bottom floor of her home on Rumford Street three years ago when her husband, Marty, was diagnosed with cancer and she needed the extra income to pay for his medical bills.

She calls it the “Majority Leader’s House,” named after Caroline Gross, the first female Republican majority leader in the New Hampshire House, who lived there for many years.

When Marty died, hosting Airbnb guests became a comfort to Arnesen.

“Just before Marty went to the hospital for the last time, he said to me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t stop doing Airbnb, because in the beginning, you will not go anywhere, and you need the world to come to you’ And he was right.”

Arnesen speaks warmly of her guests from all over the world who have come to stay with her through the years.

One guest, from Singapore, was one of the last to stay with Arnesen and her husband before he died. Arnesen has kept a close relationship with the woman for the last few years, talking on the phone daily and attending her children’s graduation at St. Paul’s School.

“Her kids call me godmother,” Arnesen said. “It’s wonderful.”

Airbnb has been the focus of tax debate in recent years nationwide, as state administrators seek to find a way to ensure that all users are paying rooms and meals tax.

This spring, the state passed a law that required Airbnb users to post their rooms and meals license numbers on their profiles, so they can easily be accessed by government officials if necessary. Arnesen keeps hers posted on her refrigerator where guests can see it.

Arnesen and Balkus have paid the tax since they started using the service, but Arnesen said the law “creates an equal playing field” for all users.

The legislation makes it so Arnesen can enjoy what she does, without having to worry about whether other hosts are using the site fairly.

“I get tired of washing sheets and cleaning toilets, and you have to smack a smile on your face all the time no matter what you’re feeling, and sometimes you’re tired, and somebody shows up at 11:30 at night and you’ve got to be perky,” she said. “But doing this has changed my life. It’s been so worth it.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3305 or or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)

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