Fernanda Diaz and Matt Keogh in their beloved midcentury Palm Springs carport. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Diaz

The social media post from Fernanda Diaz caught my eye. We had worked on some projects together in New York City several years earlier, when she was just out of college and serving as the publicist for some books I was publishing. Now here she was, posting about a second home she and her husband had recently purchased in Palm Springs.

Her house looked like just the sort of spot my wife and I were seeking for an experiment: an extended stay in a warm sunny place in the middle of what would otherwise be another New York winter. I reached out. 

Fern and I were soon trading information on her place in the California desert and our weekend place up the Hudson Valley. We agreed that a house swap might be in order. This was last autumn, so my wife and I would go west over the winter; then Fern and her husband, Matt Keogh, could go north to our place this summer or autumn. 

When not letting friends and family use the escape home in the desert, Fern told me, she also listed the “Dreamy Design Home w/Mountain Views & Pool Oasis” on Airbnb. The listing looked great – especially the enthusiastic reviews for Fern as a superhost. 

The Airbnb’s “pool oasis.” Photo courtesy of Fernanda Diaz

The house was indeed a dream for us for all of February. From our bedroom, each day started with clear views of the San Jacinto peaks. The weather was good. The pool was good. The Wi-Fi, streaming services and TV were good. The two different work spaces – I taught some classes via Zoom – were good. The kitchen was better equipped than most Airbnbs.

Early in the stay, however, we encountered a couple of issues that led us to contact Fern. The pool filter was making loud gurgling noises. It wasn’t bothering us, but we thought she would want to know. Within an hour she had scheduled a guy to come take a look. 

One early morning the front doorbell rang and a couple guys in hard hats and yellow vests said they needed to get into the back yard to trim palm fronds that were crossing utility wires. I said no, they had to talk to the owner and get permission. This seemed like a big surprise. They said the utility company could cut the power to the house if we didn’t let them in. 

One of the Airbnb’s two bedrooms. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Diaz

I telephoned and left a message this time. Fern texted right back and said to let them in. An hour later I messaged her a phone video of a guy climbing up their biggest palm with a chainsaw dangling from his belt. It was cool. 

That’s when I started thinking, during our otherwise blissfully uneventful month in Palm Springs, about the challenges of managing a rental from a continent away. Most of the Airbnb owners I know have lots of complaints when their short-term rental is only 30 miles away, or even next door, let alone 3,000 miles away. 

When we got back to New York, tanned and relaxed, I asked Fern about finding and managing her Airbnb from so far away. She described a series of attitudes and approaches that wouldn’t work for many of us. 

First, she explained, is that she herself is an easy traveler, comfortable as both host and guest.  She was born in Mexico City, was a little kid in Spain, spent much of her youth in New York and then went to high school in San Diego before moving back to New York for college and career. 

She and Matt both work for themselves – she has a boutique marketing and branding company, and he is an independent writer and producer. Mostly working at home or wherever they can find Wi-Fi, they aren’t tied to offices and often travel for their work. 

A few years ago, they realized they could afford to travel more and live temporarily anywhere, thanks to Airbnb, provided they rented out their own well-located, well-appointed Manhattan apartment while they were away. In recent years, Fern and Matt have routinely rented out their New York apartment and hit the road themselves. In all, Fern guessed that she’s stayed in 50 Airbnbs for a total of 365 nights. Maybe more.

“Airbnb is one of the best inventions of our time,” she said. 

Some people hate the idea of other people inhabiting their space and using their stuff; Fern and Matt appreciate the idea of other people enjoying what they enjoy. “We really like being hosts,” she said. “A lot of people are squeamish about it, but we really like it.” 

Fern and Matt are DINKs – dual incomes, no kids. “We don’t even have a dog,” she added. When they found themselves in the fortunate position of looking for investments, an escape home made sense, especially if it could also be an income property.  

The owners prefer fewer guests — and have a four-week minimum stay. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Diaz

They sought a place their extended family and many friends would want to visit. They looked at a number of locales, including London, Mexico City, New Orleans and Santa Barbara, but fell for Palm Springs on a business trip. It was relatively affordable and close to Los Angeles, where they often have work. 

They spent a day looking in Palm Springs, saw 11 houses and chose what is now the Dreamy Design Home w/Mountain Views on a corner lot in a quiet neighborhood. The house had obvious drawbacks – few closets and no garage or hot tub – but they loved the midcentury carport, didn’t need many closets and thought advertising a hot tub would send the wrong message. 

Fern and Matt didn’t want a party house, which she said is a key to managing from afar. And they were not focused on maximizing profits. They’d rather have fewer guests and less income – low key, low impact people who will treat someone else’s home as if it were their own. “People like us,” Fern said. 

Their Airbnb guests pay an appealing daily rate but must rent by the month. That four-week minimum, Fern said, attracts mostly retirees or people working at home rather than the young party crowds that are more likely to force a lot of maintenance and repairs. “Monthly renters are super chill,” she said.

One of the three Dreamy bedrooms is kept locked – except when Fern and Matt are in residence and have friends or family visiting. Their décor is eclectic rather than themed; it’s furnished with their stuff, rather than stuff bought to make the place feel like a hotel. They wanted visitors to recognize it as their home. 

“We intentionally matched our product to the people who would like it,” Fern said. “I saw myself as my customer. I didn’t want a flamingo-decorated, margarita-mixer house. It’s easier to manage because we planned it that way.” She also said she trusts Airbnb’s guest ratings to screen out people who might not find her house so Dreamy.

At the same time, she confessed she lives with constant worry when she is home in New York – or anywhere else far from Palm Springs – and people, whether Airbnb or house swappers or family, are staying in the house. She frets about whether the guests are getting what they need and want. 

Her guests seem to be mostly the type who brush off small problems, fix things themselves and help out when it makes sense. “There are always going to be issues that pop up,” she said – like the pool gurgling or the palm trimming crew when we were there, or the Swedish couple who ran out to save the patio umbrellas and then cheerfully hunkered down through a once-in-a-lifetime desert windstorm. 

The owners didn’t want a “party house.” Photo courtesy of Fernanda Diaz

Another key, Fern said, is her cast of reliable helpers – handypeople, cleaners, garden crew, pool maintenance crew – from the previous owners’ references and recommendations gathered on a Facebook page for Airbnb hosts. She stays in touch with her service folks, tries to avoid last-minute calls for help, and pays promptly. Many of them appreciate that Fern is fluent in Spanish. 

Fern said she makes an effort to respond to guests as soon as possible – for us, it was within minutes during our several questions, including several trivial ones before and shortly after we arrived: a couple light bulbs were burned out, we couldn’t figure out how to work the remote for the bedroom window blinds facing the mountains, there was no cookie sheet or roasting pan, and the ice maker in the fridge wasn’t working. 

Each time, within minutes, she responded. She said she had trouble with the remote, too, but helped us figure it out. She offered to order oven pans but we went out and bought a couple. She offered to get a fridge repair person in, but we bought ice trays and told her she could deal with it on her next visit. In response to the way we worked with her – questions and help, rather than complaints and demands – a couple days later Fern sent us a nice bottle of wine and some good tequila. 

“I am here any time!!” she texted.

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