Brian and Kathrin Smirke visited Joshua Tree National Park six years ago on a weekend getaway from their home in Los Angeles and left with a souvenir: a $33,000 derelict cabin. “A squatter had lived there for a year, and the cabin had been foreclosed. There were pipes sticking out of the wall. Windows were broken. The drain lines had rotted out. And it wasn’t connected to the septic system,” Brian says.
The couple, who work together building, designing, and developing real estate at their company, We Are In Our Element, wanted to remake the house quickly and creatively for their own use and as a rental property. After 10 months of work, the Smirkes could finally vacation at their finished property in the desert and rent it out via Airbnb for $145–$185 per night while they’re away. Now they host 120 adventure-seeking visitors each year.
Follow along with their journey from ruins to rental extraordinaire, then learn how to decorate and promote your vacation rental for the best possible guest experience.
It makes you happy that all this work you put into saving a house can make other people happy.”
The pair set a budget of $45,000 to cover materials, labor, and furnishings and got to work. Brian gutted the house and, with the help of hours of YouTube and manufacturer videos, took on every remodeling project that came up. He even saved wood from the extensive demo to make shelves, lights, the platform bed, plant stands, and anything else they dreamed up. The living room light fixture is made of scrap wood and a $5 light kit. Brian turned 4x4-inch fence posts and a metal base into a coffee table.
For the decor, Kathrin mapped out a style that merged her preference for eclectic and vintage with Brian’s clean and modern taste. “We balance each other out,” she says. Luckily, their cost-saving sources of Craigslist, Etsy, eBay, thrift stores, budget retailers—even furniture put out on curbs in their Los Angeles neighborhood—suit their style. Brian built most of the home’s decorative elements, including this triangle shelf unit. For the base, Kathrin repurposed legs from a midcentury table she found curbside.
I like designing with limitations. It makes us come up with unique ideas on a budget. It’s more rewarding that way.”
Kathrin found this antique claw-foot tub on Craigslist for $80 and painted it orange. The cozy, private spot is now a popular photo op for guests. Kathrin uses Instagram to curate a real-time travelogue for future visitors. Renters at the Smirkes’ cabin tag photos with #cabincabincabin, and Kathrin reposts using the location’s account, @cabincabincabin.
The bed’s platform doubles as a built-in bench at the end of the bed. Kathrin added yarn pom-poms to a quilt to give it the look of a Moroccan bedspread. Concrete floors were under old linoleum. The pair sanded and sealed them for a modern update. You’ll need people to take care of things like washing bedding, cleaning, and repairs unless you live nearby. Be prepared by finding a pro on Yelp or Angie’s List who you can call with time-sensitive maintenance issues.
In the kitchen, they installed ready-to-assemble cabinets around a refurbished antique stove they found for $200, including delivery. The green vintage fridge (a $75 find) fits with the room’s other retro accessories. Take photos of key rooms—the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and gathering spaces—during the day when natural light is best. List it on sites like Airbnb or HomeAway so renters can find you.
The Smirkes used salvaged wood around the doorway and as wall art to fill the dining room with rustic character. The tumbleweed light fixture adds a quirky note inspired by the landscape. (For safety, they use 3-watt LED bulbs that stay cool.) Before and during their stay, engage with guests and respond to their questions and comments. Help them explore by providing dining and activity ideas. Send out an email guide before their trip or offer suggestions in a booklet on the dining room table.