Read This Before Renting Your Beloved Van to Strangers
Vehicle rental sites like Outdoorsy and Turo are insanely popular, but like becoming a host on Airbnb, there is a lot you should consider before leaving your prized adventuremobile with people from the internet. One vanlord shares his wisdom.
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A year and a half ago, I did something I feared might be really stupid. I’ve long been plagued with an irrational mania for VW camper vans—so much so that I’ve owned eight. With a pair of capable rigs sitting in my driveway, I decided to list them on a relatively new website called Outdoorsy. The site had been heralded as a sort of Airbnb or VRBO for campers. Post yours up, and Outdoorsy handles bookings, payouts, and, importantly, insurance (it just launched its own insurance company, Roamly). My 2003 Eurovan Winnebago, a.k.a. Gretta Van Lefturn, was in solid enough shape that I reckoned she could haul renters from my house in Charleston, South Carolina, to Asheville, North Carolina, or Disney World without breaking down. With a little work, a beautiful 1991 Westfalia called Rosie, a van I shared with a friend, was rentable, too.
The first problem I saw was my attachment to these inanimate objects. Gretta has taken my family on some wonderful journeys. As a freelance writer, she also functions as a mobile office, kitchen, and motel. After agonizing a bit with my wife, I commiserated with a good buddy who’s not only a financial planner but also rents his own RV on Airbnb (renters simply stay on his property; they don’t drive it). “Separate your emotions, and consider the van as a financial asset,” he said. “If you can’t, you’ll be miserable.” Well-sorted VW campers don’t grow on trees. If a renter trashed Gretta, or worse, she was totaled, well, I’d be kicking myself. But at the same time, if I could make a hundred bucks a day and renters respected my roving snail shell, that would be nice pocket change I could put toward keeping the rig maintained and would let me earn a little gig-economy income and maybe share some stoke with like-minded adventurers.
After learning about Outdoorsy, I studied up on a couple of the site’s competitors. Turo is a peer-to-peer car-rental website that has been featured twice in Outside. In 2017, my buddy Owen Burke rented a VW Westfalia from a Turo owner and roamed the Northwest. More recently, mustachioed Outside contributor Paddy O’Connell rented Jimmy Chin’s van and filmed a video about the experience. So Turo seemed worth a shot. I also checked out a longer-established website called RVShare. But RVShare wouldn’t insure an older VW.
Over the past few years, Outdoorsy has become a juggernaut. Company spokesman Mac Mills told me that since founders and camping fanatics flipped the switch in 2015, Outdoorsy has seen more than 200,000 renters who have generated a half-billion dollars in transactions on 50,000 listings. The company now rents Airstreams, Roadtreks, Shastas, Westfalias, and Winnebagos in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Ireland. With millenials and Gen Xers making up the majority of renters, the most popular vehicles are Class B vans like the Winnebago Travato and camper vans like Sportsmobiles or my VW. The company also has thousands of wisdom- and warning-sharing owners in its Facebook group for Outdoorsy owners.
I first test-listed our Westfalia camper and the Eurovan on Outdoorsy and Turo. After three weeks, only one two-day rental came in through Turo. The renters, a group of golfers, left the Westy a mess, even ripping out a power socket—arguably my fault because I wasn’t explicit enough with care instructions. But after my experiences and talking to other potential renters, I got the sense that folks use Turo to rent a car, while Outdoorsy is geared more specifically toward camping. With that in mind, I hoped campers would take better care of a camping-specific rental. Within a couple of days on Outdoorsy, I had my first renter for Gretta. Then another. And another. As far as I can tell, nearly two years in, I now have the most popular camper in Charleston.
The verdict: overall, Outdoorsy’s been a positive experience. So much so that I’m posting a painstakingly restored VW Westy named Luna and a reissued Shasta Airflyte trailer that my wife named Moalani. In some ways, I think I’m a quintessential “van lord.” I don’t do much marketing, and like most owners who post on the Outdoorsy Facebook group, I rely on the income more for upkeep rather than as a major source of revenue. Though if the added campers start renting well, who knows what’s down the road? Some renters in very camper-friendly markets like Southern California have scaled way up and are pulling in north of $100,000 per year, according to Outdoorsy.
If you’re thinking of listing a camper, a bit of wisdom: First, honestly consider whether you’re willing to be available at all hours for phone calls when someone has a question. I dig talking to people about campers anyway, so I don’t mind. Once you’ve passed that hurdle, spend some real time creating your listing. Take a lot of good pictures for your ad, and maybe even a video, with its systems deployed in a pretty setting. Add a photo and profile of yourself, too. Renters want to know who you are.
My renters have generally taken care of Gretta, but there have been issues. Once a renter left a slab of fish in the freezer. After a few summer days with the fridge off, the result was horrific. But broken cup holders, accidentally sprayed fire extinguishers, broken awning arms, or the occasional ding are just the price of doing business. That’s what insurance and damage deposits are for. That said, give at least an hourlong pre-rental walk-through to go over systems thoroughly and impress upon the renter that this is your beloved personal property. Create a custom “vanual” that stays in the vehicle to easily answer common questions, list its quirks, and clearly explain checkout expectations. Even consider putting how-to videos on an old iPhone and leaving it in the camper.
As far as gearing up, equip it fully for camping, ready to go with cooking gear and utensils, lighting, rack straps, and cleaning supplies. Exceptions can include linens and sleeping bags, which some renters bring, but have those items in case they don’t. Board games and playing cards are a nice touch, too. If you’re renting to a family with kids, markers and a drawing pad help pass the miles and make for good pickup games of Pictionary.
When you actually get a rental request, ask where your renter is headed. Maybe it’s a posse of bachelors on their way to the Georgia-Florida football game, a.k.a. the world’s largest cocktail party. Are you willing to clean up vomit residue or fix a broken door or clogged toilet? If it’s a crew making for Burning Man, dust, glitter, and drugs will likely be in the mix. (Outdoorsy just published a crazy rundown of over 500 national events that you might find useful.) People expect to leave a rental car dirty, but a camper is a different equation, and cleaning is a pain in the ass I don’t have time for. So with the exception of linens, demand that your camper be returned clean by notifying renters on your listing that you will charge them plenty to do it yourself if the need arises (I advertise $75 an hour but haven’t needed to charge it yet). And if your rental includes toilet facilities or a Porta-Potty, be very explicit about cleaning expectations or expect janitorial delight.
Give a close read to the FAQs Outdoorsy lists on its website and Facebook page. You’ll find answers to questions you never thought to ask about, things like insurance, cancellations, and user reviews.
If you’re worried about a breakdown, renting will be miserable for you and miserable on the side of the road for your renters. You’re accelerating wear and tear by renting and not keeping ahead of that will come back to bite you. For that reason, put a good chunk of revenue aside (at least 25 percent) for a maintenance fund. Also, ensure renters sign up for roadside assistance or have their own. Trip insurance is an Outdoorsy option, too, one that’s wise for your renters’ peace of mind—and yours.